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The Mophane Tree

This week we shift our focus to Botswana’s natural history by looking at the Mophane (Mopane) tree (colophosernum mopane), which has long been an important local food source for both animals and people. It can grow either as a shrub or a tall tree up to 30 metres, depending on soil conditions and water availability.

Wild animals, particularly elephants, enjoy the protein-rich leaves and pods. Elephant pressure has contributed to the stunted appearance of some areas of Mophane scrub. While domestic animals generally find the pungent leaves unpalatable at first, they will feed on them once used to the taste. Mophane leaves are divided in two so that the leaflets resemble butterfly wings. There is a tiny point at the join of the two leaflets which is the remnant of a third, terminal leaflet.

In summer the leaves are fed on by swarms of caterpillars or mopane worms of a specie of emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina). The caterpillars, which are rich in protein and are eaten as a local delicacy, either roasted or dried. The sale of dried mopane worms is thus an important income source for many people, creating a local economy. Mophane trees also support the Gonometa or Wild African Silk Moth (Gonometa postica), whose cocoons are harvested in some areas.

Other traditional uses of the Mophane tree include the making of houses and kraal fences. The bark is used to make twine and for tanning, and the leaves used for healing wounds. The hard, reddish heartwood timber was used to make railway sleepers and as props for mining activities. While the wood is difficult to work because of its hardness it is termite resistant, therefore a popular choice for fence posts and flooring. Mopane are deciduous with autumn and spring colours. Sprays of small, green flowers appear in December and January. These are followed by pods which ripen between April and June and are flat and somewhat kidney-shaped.

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Builders of Botswana

Constable Chere

9th November 2020
Constable Chere

In 1949 Bechuanaland’s former Resident Commissioner Jules “Ramaeba” Ellenberger recalled that: “When it became clear that war between the Boer Republics and Great Britain was inevitable, the Chiefs of the Bechuanaland Protectorate were warned, on instructions from Sir Alfred Milner (later Lord Milner), that if hostilities did break out the conflict would be one between white races only, one in which they must take no part, but that should the enemy invade their Reserves, it would be their duty, as loyal subjects of Queen Victoria, to assist in repelling the attack.”

The fighting began on October 12, 1899. On the same day Boer Commandos launched incursions into Gammangwato and Gammalete, cutting the telegraph line in the vicinity of Mahalapye and Otse. Having mobilised their mephato to repel the invaders the merafe of Botswana, along with the paramilitary Protectorate Native Police (PNP), were thus engaged in the fighting from the very beginning of the conflict.

The war’s first fatality within Botswana was a Mosotho PNP Constable named Chere. On October 22, 1899 he and another mounted policeman went out on patrol from Fort Gaberones. After climbing atop Kgale hill to scan the country below they caught sight of a number of horse-men travelling towards their Fort. Not sure as to whether they had spotted friendly Balete or enemy Boers they decided to go in for better look.

In the thick bush they soon found themselves face to face with what was indeed a large party of Boers. While fleeing for their lives, Chere was wounded and captured before being finally killed. The following day his horse reportedly turned up at the Fort with “blood on its saddle and flanks”. It was later further reported that, after killing Chere “the Boers had robbed him of his boots and placed his body across the railway line.” Today Chere’s grave is located next to the railway a few kilometres south of Old Naledi.

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Builders of Botswana

The Mahikeng-Bulwayo Railway

3rd November 2020
Laying track north of Palapye

This past week, 123 years ago, the first train reached Bulwayo from Mahikeng, marking the end of an eight-month push to complete the railway. Although work to extend the rail line north of Mahikeng had begun at the end of 1895, by March 1, 1897 construction had only reached Mochudi.

Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa Company had commissioned the building of the railway, then ordered the contractor, a certain George Pauling, to ensure that that the track reached Bulawayo before the end of the year. Thereafter the pace of construction picked up considerably. On July 1, 1897 the line to Palapye was commissioned, followed by the line to Francistown on September 1, 1897, culminating in the railway’s completion just seven weeks later.

The rapid progress on what was a limited budget had resulted in some quality compromises. An engineer working for Pauling observed that:

“In the absence of any other means of transport for materials ahead, they were wholly dependent on their own ability to bring materials up from the base, as the rails were pushed forward. All bridges and openings were of a temporary nature, to be replaced by more permanent constructions at a later date. It was essential to make the maximum progress at the lowest capital cost, with refinements to follow when justified by sufficient revenue. ”

Thousands of Batswana took part in the laying of track, at a time when repeated drought and the devastation of the 1896 rinderpest epidemic drove able bodied males to seek wage labour in mass. With the completion of the line, however, the construction jobs disappeared leaving most with little option but to become migrant labourers in the mines at Kimberly and Gauteng.

The construction of the railroad had an immediate adverse effect on those Batswana who had for generations worked as transport riders along the route. Another negative consequence was heavy deforestation along the line of rail.

Photo: Laying track north of Palapye, 1897.

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Builders of Botswana

When Britain moved against Batswana commercial hunting

19th October 2020

This week marks the anniversary of the British colonial regime’s imposition of “Proclamation of October 4th, 1892”, which regulated “the granting of permits for the purchase or receipt by natives of ammunition, and providing for the payment or certain fees for the granting of such permit.”

The legislation further provided for the registration of all guns as a requirement for the purchase cartridges, gunpowder, or lead. “Natives”, i.e. indigenous gun owners, were further limited to 100 rounds per annum. Within months of its passage the new law had the dramatic effect of collapsing what had up until then been the still lucrative export of wild ostrich feathers (then in high demand as a luxury good for ladies hats etc.), among other game products, from the Bechuanaland Protectorate. The Bechuanaland Annual Report for 1892-93 thus observed: “The decrease in the native trade in the Protectorate is attributed to restrictions recently placed on the sale of arms and ammunition to natives and consequent loss of two-thirds of the trade in wild ostrich feathers.”

The report further tied the restriction to a decline in imports as well as exports to the territory, noting: “It is observed that the supplies for the natives in the Northern Protectorate have decreased considerably; and there is reason to believe that the restrictions placed upon the sale of arms and ammunition have re-acted prejudicially upon general business. It is reported that many of Khama’s men entertain prejudices against the registration of their guns, without which they are not permitted to purchase cartridges, gunpowder, or lead.

As so few are willing to comply with the requirements of the law, and they are limited to 100 rounds per annum each, the quantity of ammunition procurable by them is insufficient to warrant their starting upon their usual lengthy hunting trips, because, whilst absent from their kraals, (often for several months at a time) they have to depend upon their guns for food. The consequence is that many hunters remain at home now; and, although wild ostriches are very plentiful in the old hunting grounds, only about one-third of the former quantity of feathers is brought to the traders to be exchanged for imported goods.”

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