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Botswana's cultural highlights

by Martha Hales

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The collective name for everyone who lives in Botswana is Batswana, which translates as ‘people of Botswana,’ and gives a sense of the cultural unity felt throughout the nation despite the complex patchwork of tribal identities found here. The terminology is an apt reflection of the pride that the population takes in Botswana’s beauty and stability, and while each person feels ‘Batswana’ to the core they also identify with their ethnic group, which often has distinct language and culture all of its own. This fascinating cultural diversity ensures that there is always something new to discover as you travel through the country - a unique dance, a local style of music or a traditional ceremony particular to one tribal group. Our local experts have helped us compile this overview of Botswana’s cultural highlights.

A San Bushman walking across the Savannah in Botswana

Botswana's tribal identity

Of the many ethnic groups in Botswana, the Tswana is the largest and most important, constituting around 80% of the population. The Tswana are divided into eight subgroups, though today the differences between them are less pronounced. Botswana is named after the Tswana people, though there are several other tribal groups present as well, notably the Babirwa, Baherero, Bakgalagadi, Basarwa, Basubia, Batswapong, Bayei, Hambukushu and Kalanga. As expert boatmen and fishermen, you are most likely to encounter the Bayei if you undertake a boat safari in the Okavango Delta where they have diversified into tourism.

The Bayei tribe live around the Okavango Delta
One of the best known groups are the San Bushmen, long standing inhabitants of Botswana’s central Kalahari with an ancient tradition of living in harmony with nature, following a hunter-gatherer existence. It is widely believed that the ancestors of the San people were the first people to live in southern Africa, and there is evidence that their foraging skills, societal norms and general lifestyle has changed little for many thousands of years. In fact, various tools  discovered in 2012 which have been dated to around 40,000 BC are near enough identical to the tools used by the San today, demonstrating that their heritage is a truly ancient one.

San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana

Dance in Botswana

Dance is an integral part of many traditions and celebrations in Botswana, and there is a huge variety of dances performed for different occasions and for storytelling purposes. Botswana’s dance culture is one of the most extensive in Africa, both in expressive and artistic terms. The San dances are well known as a showcase of Botswana’s rich cultural heritage, sometimes performed in a trance-like state for religious ceremonies, for healing or for offering thanks for a successful hunt. Rain dances are also practised by the San people, and all these different San or Basarwa dances are celebrated at the Kuru Dance Festival which takes place every other year - the next one will fall in August 2020.

Dancers' feet at the Kuru Dance Festival in Botswana

Botswana's music

Indigenous music passed down the generations is a simple art making great use of the voice along with clapping for rhythm, and though this form of music is still celebrated, you are more likely to hear a modern version as you travel around Botswana - faster beats created by a synthesiser are more likely. However, the Batswana people are in touch with their roots, and folk music is very popular, incorporating stringed instruments and traditional lyrics to create a fantastic musical experience for visitors. Owing some of its heritage and energy to the Kwaito music originating in the townships of Johannesburg, Botswana’s homegrown version mixes Botswana’s Kwasa Kwasa music with Kwaito to create the hybrid Kwaito - Kwasa, modern pop music with its roots firmly in African soil.

San musicians in Botswana

Festivals in Botswana

Maitisong Festival

This month-long festival takes place from late March or early April every year in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. The festival is a celebration of performing arts, featuring music, dance, poetry and theatre shows performed by artists from Botswana and beyond. As well as acting as a platform for intercultural exchange, the festival promotes and supports young performers at the start of their careers, and aims to raise the profile of the arts in Botswana and throughout the world. 

Tjilenje Cultural Festival

The Tjilenje Cultural Festival takes place every year in May. The host town, Nlapkhwane, is the hub of the region where the Bakalanga people are in the majority, and the festival was set up with the aim of preserving and promoting their traditional culture. For this reason the festival is an amazing immersion into traditional local culture, with displays of dance, music, games and a selection of local food.

Botswana Day

Every 30th September, Botswana marks the anniversary of its independence from the UK with a national holiday. A festival of patriotic events, speeches, parades and parties takes place across the country, while on a family level the celebrations often involve spending the day outdoors enjoying a picnic or barbecue with friends and relatives. Outfits and decor will often mimic  Botswana’s flag, featuring blue, white and black, and celebrations in the capital are rounded off with an impressive firework display.

School students celebrating Botswana Independence Day

The National Museum in Botswana

Gaborone is home to the most important museum in Botswana, The National Museum and Art Gallery which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017. It displays an eclectic mix of exhibits detailing the history, nature, people and art of the nation. 

There is a good natural history section reflecting Botswana’s rich wildlife; various displays of local arts and crafts from the past as well as contemporary; archaeological artifacts; historic examples of local transport; and a cultural section dedicated to displays about ethnology and ethnography. It is also the venue for a variety of temporary exhibitions throughout the year.

A traditional house display at the National Museum in Botswana

Make it happen

Our handpicked local experts are the best people to help you plan your dream Botswana holiday. Whether you are looking for a trip with a strong cultural focus or you would just like to add some cultural experiences to your safari itinerary, they can oblige. Send them a few details by filling in a short enquiry form, and they will create a bespoke itinerary based on your priorities and requirements. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898. 

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