Tswana Religion

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TSWANA RELIGION . Traditional religion among the Tswana of the high veld of southern Africa centered upon the supreme being, Modimo, and ancestor spirits known as badimo. The fact that badimo is the plural form of modimo, an honorific term used to express awe and reverence toward elders as well as toward the supreme being, indicates that the difference between Modimo, the ancestors, and human beings is one of degree rather than kind. While they occupy different positions in a complex hierarchy of spiritual power, all beingswhether spiritual or humanare intimately connected with each other. As the Tswana Christian theologian Gabriel Setiloane indicates, it is a basic premise of Tswana thought that a representative is identical with the person being represented or that a symbol is that which it symbolizes. Hence, the Tswana say, "Motho ke modimo" ("Man is modimo "), something that implies a far greater degree of interaction than the English "There is something of the divine in every man" (Setiloane, 1976, p. 21).

Modimo is believed to be the source and root of all existence. Intangible and all-pervasive, irreparably part of human experience but not directly sensed, he is a source of appeal in times of affliction and the guardian of the moral order. The complexity of the Tswana concept of the supreme being is best indicated by the wide range of praise names that are used to characterize him. Modimo is mme ("mother") and lesedi ("light"), but he is also known as selo ("monster") insofar as he possesses dangerous powers that go far beyond those of normal humanity.

Because a person cannot come into direct contact with Modimo and remain unchanged, the Tswana have recourse to the badimo, ancestors who act as intermediaries between humanity and the supreme being. Closely involved in everyday life, the badimo function to preserve harmony in social relations and to ensure the fertility of humans, animals, and crops. Their attitude toward humans is basically parentallooking to the welfare of the community as a whole, they seek to correct faults and protect their descendants from harm. In return, they expect tirelo ("service"). The essence of tirelo is the sharing of benefits with others. The badimo are said to love company and are especially gladdened by feasts. Whenever food or beer is prepared, a portion is set aside or poured on the ground for the badimo. This is done to maintain their good favor, for without it, life cannot be kept in proper balance and lived to the full. When an individual has neglected to honor the badimo, the Tswana say that he suffers from bolwetse, a term that covers both physical illness and a range of other maladies. Principally, it indicates that an individual is in disharmony with the spiritual forces (including Modimo) that engender and sustain his existence.

The concern for the community as a whole that is a central part of Tswana religion is expressed in the Tswana theory of human personality, or seriti (pl., diriti ). Each person is born with a "heavy" or "light" seriti that can act for evil or for good. If a child is born with a light seriti, it must be strengthened and imbued with good intentions. Healthy seriti brings dignity, respect, and properity; bad seriti causes ill will and discord in the social realm. A father of a household or a chief with good seriti strengthens the diriti of those who live in the house or chiefdom and vice versa. Because a man's seriti pervades much of his world, if he does wrong, his children, crops, or animals may suffer. Also, insofar as seriti originates from the badimo and is upheld by them, it functions as a spiritual force that knits together social and spiritual relations.

In times of suffering, people have access to religious specialists, or "doctors," known as dingaka (sg., ngaka ). Both men and women can become doctors. There are six kinds of doctors in Tswana society, each classified according to the various divinatory and medicinal skills that he or she possesses. The best known, however, are the "horned" and the "hornless" doctors. The horned doctors divine by interpreting the pattern created by the throwing of four tablets, which represent an older and younger male and an older and younger female, or of pairs of astragalus bones, which represent the male and female of every common animal species. The hornless doctors divine by examining the patient. There are few doctors today and their practices, though still common, are officially illegal.

Human suffering is largely caused by incurring the displeasure of the badimo or by the actions of sorcerers. The complex Tswana term boloi, often translated as "sorcery" or as "magic," refers to both of these occurrences. There are two kinds of boloi that are socially constructive: boloi of the heart and of the mouth. Both involve offenses against a senior member of the kin group. If the senior member is slighted in some way, it is believed that he "puts the badimo " on the offender. The senior member need not be conscious of ill will toward the offender. In response to the offense, the badimo withdraw their support from the offender's seriti in order to call attention to his fault, and he is then susceptible to disease and other malign influences. Because of the encompassing nature of his seriti, much of his world is similarly threatened. In order to restore proper relations within the community (which includes the badimo ), the offender provides an animal for slaughter; after it has been killed, the senior member uses a mixture of chyme and aloe to "wash" the offender and strengthen his seriti.

Two other types of boloi exist that are unquestionably evil. Boloi ba bosigo ("night sorcery"), which seems to be a form of witchcraft rather than sorcery, refers to the belief that certain witches (usually elderly women working in covens) cavort at night and cause mischief. Essentially tricksters, such witches gather naked, enter houses through closed doors and windows, upset pots, suck milk from nursing mothers or cows so that their yield is insufficient, exhume new corpses, and use owls as sentinels and hyenas as steeds. Day sorcery (boloi ba motshegare ) is much more serious. It involves the purposeful manipulation of material substances for evil endsusually to inflict disease or death upon a particular individual. Sorcerer and victim are often close relatives, such as husband and wife, parent and child, or brother and brother, who are overcome by feelings of greed, envy, or vengeance. Bongaka, therapy performed by the various dingaka, is essential to the prevention of sorcery.

Contemporary Tswana religion can only be explained in light of the tragic history of the people since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The impact of Western civilization coincided with the beginning of the nineteenth century, and chaos reigned in Tswanaland from 1810 until 1840. The first Christian mission was established in 1816 and four others were set up in the next thirty years; by 1870, missions had spread throughout Tswanaland. The dispersal of Tswana groupsboth by the onslaught of marauding refugees resulting from the Zulu expansion known as the Mfecane and by the Boers, who took Tswana lands and subjected the people to forced laborgreatly weakened orthodox religious practices. The Boers drove the Tswana into reserve pockets of land in the Transvaal, the northern Cape of Good Hope, the Orange Free State, and the territory that became the Botswana state. Here, the remnants of once cohesive groups recombined into artificial units.

The Tswana have therefore been subjected to a great deal of pressure and turmoil inimical and destructive to their own religion. The official religion of most Tswana groups is now Christianity. Although the public rituals of the indigenous religion are seldom encountered, the more private and individualized practices of witchcraft, sorcery, and traditional healing persist strongly, even among Christians. The relationship between old and new beliefs is complex; much more of the former may remain than meets the eye. As Setiloane points out, many zealous and longstanding Christians have never given up the old worldview but have instead fitted Christianity into it. A number of traditional religious skills and rituals, including pha badimo, a thanksgiving ritual that is performed to show gratitude to the badimo, continue to play an important role in Tswana Christianity. The new social, political, and economic order brought about by the colonial system had more impact in christianizing the Tswana than the missionaries' religious teaching, which was too blatantly contradicted by the harsh oppression and racism of southern Africa to carry conviction.

The fundamental belief in the supreme being and the badimo continues to inform convictions about the earth and home as sacred and holy as well as attitudes toward cattle, which still have strong emotional, religious, and practical value, for they form the basis of important transactions between Tswana. Such exchanges continue to provide a binding conception of marriage, paternity, kinship, and family bonds that Christianity cannot replace. Initiation ceremonies, with their acutely emotional and religious accompaniments, also retain central and unassailable roles, as they induct the young into the profound continuities and solidarities of community life, earth, kin, and cattle. These values can still give a fundamental sense of psychological security, personal adequacy, and proper place in the cosmic scheme of things, and they function as an anchor in the stormy upheavals that afflict the Tswana in southern Africa in the early twenty-first century.


Brown, J. T. Among the Bantu Nomads: A Record of Forty Years Spent among the Bechuana. London, 1926.

Mackenzie, John. Ten Years North of the Orange River: A Story of Everyday Life and Work among the South African Tribes from 18591869. Edinburgh, 1871.

Pauw, B. A. Religion in a Tswana Chiefdom. London, 1980.

Schapera, Isaac. The Tswana. London, 1953.

Setiloane, Gabriel M. "How the Traditional World View Persists in the Christianity of the Sotho-Tswana." In Christianity in Independent Africa, edited by Edward Fashole-Luke et al., pp. 402413. Bloomington, Ind., 1978.

Willoughby, W. C. The Soul of the Bantu. London, 1928.

New Sources

Setiloane, Gabriel M. The Image of God among the Sotho-Tswana. Rotterdam, 1976.

Aidan Southall (1987)

Revised Bibliography