Words of Batswana presents a selection of letters that were written by Batswana, writing in their home language, to Mahoko a Becwana (News/Words of Batswana), a Setswana-language newspaper published by missionaries of the London Missionary Society at Kuruman between 1883 and 1896. The majority of the writers were members of congregations in what are today South Africa’s Northern Cape Province and North West Province. Many also wrote from as far away as the Transvaal, Orange Free State and the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Most of the writings were letters to the editor, but their intended audience was primarily other Batswana readers of the newspaper.

Masthead of Mahoko a Becwana, showing the Moffat Institution at Kuruman
Tswana and other African groups, mid-19th Century
Location of Mahoko a Becwana correspondents

They wrote on a wide range of topics of concern to literate, mission-educated Batswana at that time, including mission work, theology, standardization of written Setswana, cultural change and European colonization. Their letters were also often written in response to other letters or missionary articles, producing lively debates on a number of controversial issues. These writings offer a rare and revealing glimpse of conversations that took place among literate Africans during a crucial period in the formation of modern South Africa and Botswana. They are reproduced here both in their original Setswana form and as translated into English.

The power of the written word: the head of a Motswana household reading the Bible to his family clothed in their Sunday best, c. 1899
        (from W.C. Willoughby, Native Life on the Transvaal Border, London, 1900)

The letters provide a lively treasure-house of insights into what Batswana thought of the escalating changes – religious, social, cultural, intellectual, political and economic – that were overtaking their society in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a critically formative period in the history of southern Africa.


Montshiwa Tawana – 73 (February 1891), 11

Mafikeñ, Dec. 15, 1890

Go Morulaganyi

Motho oecho, tsenya mahoko ke aō mo koranteñ ea Becwana. Bogadi ga se molato, bo chwanetswe go ntshiwa. Mo Secwaneñ shotlhe ke yōnè go rurehatsa nyalō, le go e tlhōmamisa. Bo ntshiwa ke motho ea o nyalañ mosadi, sa ntlha e le tebogō ea batsadi ba ñwana, ka ba mo godisite, ba mo otla, ba mo naea kobō, ba mo cwesa yalo yalo. Ha bogadi e le go rèka ñwana, baecho, go kabo esere go èñwa mo phuthegoñ, Moruti a re go ntshiwè madi a nyalō, me he, madi aō ōnè a cwèlañ, a ga se go shupa ha nyalō e chwanetse go bōnatshiwa ka chupō, e, le batho ba e bōnañ? Gapè ke chupō ea merahe eotlhe ea rona e mencho, ha nyalō e chwanetse go tlhōmamisiwa ka señwe se se tonna ha gare ga bōnè. Me ra re ka kgomo e le eōnè tonna, ba dira chupō ka eōnè, e se thèkō e le chupō ea nyalō, tirō e kgolo ha gare ga merahe. Ka mokgwa oa Makhoa, ha monona a sa èma le mosadi oa gagwè mo Kantoroñ, kgotsa mo Kerekeñ, go twe ga se mosadi oa gagwè. Bana le bōnè ga ba na chupō epè mo go rrabo, le ènè ga a na chupō epè mo baneñ, me he, bagaecho, le bogadi ke chupō e e ntseñ yalo hèla ha gare ga rona boncho. Bogadi ga bo kake yoa lesiwa; ga se thèkō ea bana. Bogadi tlhōma-misho ea nyalō.

Kgosi Montshiwa

Montshiwa Tawana – 73 (February 1891), 110

Mafikeng, 15 December, 1890

To the Editor,

My fellow man, put these words in the newspaper of the Batswana. Bogadi [bridewealth] is not wrong; it should be paid. Of all Tswana things, it is the one that establishes and confirms marriage. Bogadi is paid by the person who is marrying the woman, out of gratitude to the child’s parents who raised her, fed her, gave her a blanket, clothed her and so on. If bogadi is paying for a child, my people, it would not compare to being stood [in a wedding ceremony] in a congregation, where a minister takes money for the wedding. So, what is that money paid for? Does it not show that a marriage should be demonstrated by such proof and by the people witnessing it? Also, it is evidence to all our black merafe [tribes] that marriage should be confirmed by some important thing among them. We say that a cow is such an important thing, and we use it as proof. It is not buying; it is proof of the marriage. It is an important event among merafe. In the custom of Europeans, if a man did not stand with his wife in the magistrate’s office, or in church, it is said that she is not his wife. The children have no proof at all of their father, and he has no proof at all of the children. So, my people, bogadi acts as such proof among us blacks. Bogadi should not be abandoned. Bogadi is the confirmation of marriage.


Translated and edited by Part T. Mgadla and Stephen C. Volz

Part Themba Mgadla is an Associate Professor and Head of the History Department at the University of Botswana. He trained as a teacher at Francistown Teachers’ Training College and later studied at the University of Botswana and Swaziland for a B.A. degree in history. He studied further at the University of Boston where he obtained Masters and Doctoral degrees in history.

Stephen C. Volz is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Kenyon College in Ohio. He first became interested in Tswana history and culture as a secondary school teacher in Thamaga, Botswana in the mid-1980s. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whilst doing research for his dissertation on Batswana evangelists, he came across Mahoko a Becwana and initiated this book.