Culture and Water

The early settlers of the Limpopo basin were drawn to its water and natural resources. As a means of survival, settlements were established and abandoned as climatic conditions changed. Warm and wet years were generally periods of prosperity, and dry years often marked times of hardship.

The Zimbabwe Culture

The Zimbabwe culture established the first African state in southern Africa in the Limpopo basin at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers. The culture extended over the basin in South Africa and into Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe culture was divided into two distinct classes: the commoners and the nobles. The nobles had control over the resources, and the leader was legitimised through the concept of “sacred leadership”. Sacred leadership meant access, through a hierarchy of ancestors, to God (Huffman 2000). God made it rain and a leader’s legitimacy and power was therefore dependent on their ability to intervene with God through the ancestors to ensure fertility of the land. Years of drought could lead to a change in leadership. The association between the leader and the land is so strong that there is a seventeenth century reference to ritual suicide of a Zimbabwean leader who becomes infirm or disfigured (Theal 1891-1903: 194). According to oral traditions the Rain Queen of the Lovedu tribe is descended from the Zimbabwe culture.

The Zimbabwe culture association between the chief and rainmaking is different from that of other Bantu-speaking groups. The Nguni have herbalists who manipulate rain medicines and rituals as part of their rainmaking tradition.

The Rain Queen

The Rain Queen or Modjadji is the leader of Balobedu, the people of the Limpopo Province in South Africa. Her royal succession is passed from mother to eldest daughter and has been a part of tribal tradition since the 16th century. South African leaders have historically paid homage to Queen Modjadji of the Lovedu tribe. Over the last 400 years, leaders from King Shaka of the Zulu to Nelson Mandela have traveled to the Queen to pay respects in the hope that she will bless them with rain (The Water Wheel 2006). The last Queen, Makobo Modjadji, died in 2005 and is yet to be replaced.

The arid environment of the Limpopo River basin has engrained water as a focal point of culture basin. Source: DWAF South Africa 2005


Water and Culture in Botswana

The Batswana people understood the world in terms of the heat and dust and the cooling rains. For the southeastern Batswana, much of their belief system revolved around turning the heat and dust into something that would nourish life. Rains were controlled by the ancestors therefore keeping the ancestors happy was a key role of the Chief to ensure that they brought soft, extended, and even rains. With so much dependence on rainfall to maintain life, in the 1920s it was first observed that the seasonal transition from dry to wet had a marked effect on many people mentally. In October, the desert comes alive and the flora blooms with the first rains. The verb for bloom in Setswana (go thunya) is the same as that used when something explodes and equates to the noun (sethunya) that can be used equally for a flower. It was around this time of the year people were observed talking to themselves and undressing in public, demonstrating the powerful effect of the rain on not only the landscape but also the mind (Livingston 2005).

Traditional music and dancing that accompanies rainmaking prayers could be used in protest if a chief failed to make rain by neglecting their ancestors (Denbow and Thebe 1946). Although Christianity is now a major religion throughout Botswana the rain-making rites (gofethla pula) remain an important part of this desert culture. This was demonstrated in the story about ‘El Negro’. In October 2000, the remains of a Motswana man who was on display as the taxidermy specimen of ‘El Negro’ in Europe for 160 years were returned to Botswana. After a state funeral in Gaborone in 2001 the rains started to fall and it did not take long for the rumours to spread that the rains were related to the home coming of ‘El Negro’ (Gewald 2001).

Water and Culture in Botswana

Culture is the means by which one understands self and how the experiences, achievements, hopes, desires, fears of individuals can be transmitted from family to nation and onto the world. It is through culture that we build respect and identity. With culture we can communicate ideas, feelings, insights, our very selves, to others so as to build mutual understanding. Water is one means to bring together individuals and nations across the globe. There are quite a number of practices that we do in Botswana that relate water to our culture and these clearly show where we are coming from as a nation. It is through culture that we learn and develop as people. Its place in us is so fundamental that it is impossible to imagine a person, or a human society, in the absence of culture.

Like most African countries, in Botswana culture is one aspect that drives most developmental activities. Water is the backbone of the country’s economic and developmental activities; without water, life seizes to exist. The society in Botswana has great value in rain which ultimately gives us water. There are many ways that rain or water are celebrated in Botswana. The Setswana word for rain which gives us water is ‘Pula.’ The currency unit is also called ‘Pula’. This goes a long way in asserting the value and place of rain and water in the country. The caption at the bottom of Botswana’s Coat of Arms is ‘Pula’. This is perhaps the highest honoured and revered instrument of state. The names of children born during rainy seasons are called ‘Mmapula’ (for girl child) or ‘Rapula’ (for boy child). This clearly shows that even human resources are valuable, hence the association of surnames to rain. It is also not uncommon to see young children dance and jump in the rain whenever there is a downpour chanting ‘Pula nkgodisa’, the myth associated with the practice that ‘encourages vitality and healthy growth of the young ones’!

In Botswana culturally, water is used in different rites and ceremonies. When there are prominent national celebrations or key national gatherings to be addressed by the highest officials in the land, including the President, the chanting slogan is often ‘Pula!!’ In fact when the said officials of high standing conclude their speeches, they end with chants of ‘Pula!!’ – at least three times. The crowd enthusiastically responds similarly. This is done in wishing and anticipation for more rain, which gives us abundant supplies of water. When a prominent visitor is received, the guest is accorded a special welcome, again with reference to rain. The expression in Setswana goes thus: ‘Goroga ka Pula!’. Yet another usage of the word rain in the Tswana culture is when droughts persist for too long, or when rains delay beyond the usually expected season, communities hold prayers. At these sessions, the congregation members incessantly chant and cry ‘Pula! Pula! Pula!’, while gazing to the heavens – perhaps in expectation of mystical cloud formation! The above circumstances reflect the manner in which the country and her people bestow in rain and ultimately the precious water as something that brings life to Batswana.

However, water comes in different forms and colours. It is for this reason that, realising the severe scarcity of water in this country, during the review of the National Water Master Plan -2006 (BNWMP) the country updated and strengthened the available strategies for the development of water resources taking into account the social, environmental and economic implications. The plan defined and assessed the potential of integrated water resources management and efficient water use strategies taking cognizance of other alternative water supplies such as treated wastewater effluent, grey-water recycling, rainwater harvesting etc. in conjunction with surface and groundwater sources where possible. Nevertheless, culturally there are negative perceptions in this country about the use of treated sewage effluent. This is a challenge to the government and to address this, extensive education and awareness coupled with appropriate and smart technologies are being implemented. All this done to ultimately build a water- wise and water efficient Botswana.

Source: Bogadi Mathangwane and Jackson Aliwa

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken