I Too Am Tswana: If I can’t refine mabele I’m not less African

Defining our South African identity

The Journalist Publisher Zubeida Jaffer and Editor Sylvia Vollenhoven spent some time working with the students at the University of the Free State, our founding partner. This is one of the stories that came out of these sessions.

Malamogodu, morogo, mabele. I eat that too.
BaKwena, BaRolong, BaKgatlha, BaTlhaping. I belong there too.

Just because I speak English that does not mean I have lost my heritage.

I was born in Mafikeng in 1993, a year before our first democratic elections. I am a true Born Free. Our town was then part of Bophuthatswana meaning, ‘The gathering of the Tswana’. My name Palesa means ‘flower’ and our family name Morei means ‘the namer’. We did not stay in Mafikeng for long before moving to Phokeng, a small village near Rustenbug. But I still call Mafikeng home.

In 1998 when the village became my home I had friends all around the neighbourhood. The kids next door welcomed me. We would play games like mantlwane, skop die bol and ditini you name them. With much laughter we would all run screaming down the street. I was five and life was fun.
My mother had only the best in mind for her ‘flower’. The best meant that when it was time to stop playing in the street I went to Model C schools. This uniquely South African euphemism is for the institutions perched somewhere between the poor state schools and the private establishments.

The Best Choice A Mother Can Make

Fields College in Rustenburg.

Fields College in Rustenburg.

At Fields College in Rustenburg I schooled with children of a different race and it was nothing unusual. My friends were Irini, Jeannie, Raquel, Mahtaab and Remofilwe who came from different backgrounds. This was the best choice my mother could make for me. But slowly my friends within the village began to distance themselves from me. When I went home there were no age mates to welcome me. In my loneliness I found pleasure in reading books. Outside of school my new friends were now in the pages of Baby-Sitters’ Little Sister.

The popular Ann M Martin series

The popular Ann M Martin series

The series of books by Ann M Martin tells of the adventures of a young white girl in America, Karen Brewer. Unlike other 10-year-olds in my village I spent many hours of my weekend in the library. Sometimes I imagined I was Karen whose life was dominated by her mother and no matter what, always ended up doing the right thing. God knows what the other children were up to in Phokeng. When the library doors closed I went home to my favourite TV programmes like YoTV, Tracy Becker and Teletubbies. In my storybook life the characters had lots of friends in their own neighbourhoods, rode bikes and shared tales of what happened at school that day. A reality very far removed from my life.

By the time I got to my high school senior years and plunged from merely Model C to full on private school, I thought: “That’s the end of my social life.” At the Lebone II College of the Royal Bafokeng in Phokeng, near Rustenburg in the North West Province, life was a disciplined dance around forever green playing fields. New friends and new joys.

Alone I Dreamed Big

But having no friends in the Phokeng village became a norm. I allowed myself to dream… to dream big. I would go mind travelling through the world that my books and TV offered. It was ever so easy to disengage with my neighbours. I dreamt of life as a TV star. Sometimes I was a famous public speaker. I dreamt of studying drama and performing on stages around the world. Step one towards realising my dreams… I started to learn how to dance. In my fantasy world I would be famous and come back to help my community, speaking to the different schools and teaching everyone to look beyond their circumstances and to dream big. I would show them that anything is possible. But when my head came out of the clouds I had only my friends at school with whom to share my dreams. They didn’t judge me when I spoke English. At Lebone II I was in a safe haven.


But as I grew older it became harder and harder to come to terms with the kids from the townships. They wanted me to act like them. Be like them in the way they spoke or the way they dressed. I remember a time when the fancy designer shoes Carvelas were the ‘in thing’. Boys would walk around with suede polish on casual days because they were wearing their best shoes. And then there was their hair styling gel that would be washed off by the Grade 7 prefects. A humiliating sight in front of all the other pupils. Hair gel was popular out there but was not allowed at our school. Slowlt my world became one of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The kids from middle class homes and those from poor township areas.

Sometimes on sports fields we all became one for a while but even here there were splits. ‘They’ liked netball while I loved hockey and swimming. Let’s not even begin that discussion of black kids and swimming. The wars of ‘us’ and ‘them’ always raged in the background of my life. At Lebone, everyone loved our plump, smiling Setswana teacher. She was forever happy but she was not my favourite. She made fun of my twang, the slight accent I have when I speak English. And, while the other kids could recite Setswana idioms and metaphors, I could respond best with English equivalents. I did not know too many idioms or metaphors in my home language but could beautifully, without hesitation, say lovely English phrases.

I Am No Less A moTswana

But at home I ate pap, I loved mogodu (tripe), I more especially loved mabele ka morogo (spinach). I loved going to Mabeskraal, a small village 78 km outside Rustenburg, where my maternal family lived. During funeral proceedings I watched how the children, men and women behaved. The men all gathered around the animal, ready to slaughter it and make sure the cows for the funeral were brought to the ceremony. The women made sure that the mourners in the yard were fed and that the pots were simmering on the fire for a whole night of eating. And all the time there were people coming to the funeral house. Sometimes I thought to myself that that these occasions were more about the food that was passed around on trays throughout the yard, than the actual burial of the person.

The head of the cow was never seen nor eaten by children until they were of a certain age and even then only the men could partake. The tongue of a cow, such a delicacy, was offered to you only when you were of a certain age. My sister would always know how to bypass these customs and get it from my mother, the ‘meat lover’ in our family.

But while the customs had me enthralled, there were other aspects of village life I could not take on board so easily. One day at a relative’s funeral they told me there was no water toilet. It was like telling a modern kid that there was no DSTV in the house. I was shocked and the thought of using a ‘long drop’ was terrifying. Sometimes even now I would rather hold it in, wait for my mom to say ‘home time’ and be the first to hop into the car. As we drive along all I can think of is the lights of home and the flushing toilet.

But it does not mean if I cannot do the traditional dance or I do not wear the rich browns of the Batswana makgabe traditional dress, that it makes me less of a moTswana. It doesn’t mean that if I cannot refine mabele (sorghum) that it makes me less of a moTswana. Just because I do not want the tradition of lobola, does not mean I am less of a moTswana. Just because I cannot command praise poetry in my mother tongue should not make me an outcast.

You might disagree but you cannot dispute the fact that I am proud to be Tswana. Ke e phila ka Setswana ka nnete.