Tribes of Botswana

There are several ethnic groups in Botswana, the largest of which by far is the Tswana people, making up almost 80% of the total population. Other groups are the Basarwa, Basubiya, Bayei and Hambukushu. Collectively all these ethnic groups are called ‘Batswana’ – people of Botswana.

Botswana is named after the Tswana people and means simply ‘land of the Tswana people’. The Tswana typically live in large villages built around the chief’s hut and those of his extended family. Issues that concern the tribe are brought before a kgotla, or traditional court, where individuals are encouraged to speak openly. The equality inherent in the kgotla is certainly a contributing factor in Botswana’s democratic traditions and general stability compared to many other countries in the region. Cattle are of great importance in the Tswana culture, with the size of the herd defining wealth, and a man giving cattle to the parents of his future wife as part of a dowry.

Botswana’s vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is the traditional home of the Basarwa, one of mankind’s most ancient ethnic groups with a history stretching back 35,000 years. As Southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the Basarwa are the most direct descendants of the late Stone Age. Much of their rock art paintings, including those in the Tsodilo Hills in northwest Botswana, can still be seen today. In the past 2000 years the Basarwa have been subject to pressure from other people forcing them into the arid Kalahari. Traditionally Basarwa live in family-based groups consisting of anything between 15 and 80 members, with decisions being made communally by all members including women. Basarwa beliefs centre round the concept that everything is part of the same great web of nature and all have an equal right to existence. Humans, as mere parts of the cosmos, have no special claims over the animals and the birds.

There are three main groups in the north of the country – the Basubiya, the Bayei and the Hambukushu. These all live in the region south of the Chobe River. There are many cultural similarities between them, and their fortunes have been intertwined throughout the years. The Basubiya cultivated the fertile floodplains, growing millet and raising cattle, sheep and goats. They were eventually crushed by the Balozi, a tribe based in Zambia, and were incorporated into the Lozi empire until its collapse in 1865. The Bayei, defeated in a battle with the Basubiya, moved to the Linyanti River area and were also targeted by the Balozi, forcing them to move deep into the Okavango Delta. Here, in the late 18th century, they came across a tribe called the Banoka, also called River Bushmen. These two tribes co-existed peacefully, sharing skills – the Banoka had only ever fished with woven baskets until the Bayei showed them how to make nets, and in return the Banoka demonstrated how to build traps on game trails.

The Bayei became famed for their hippo hunts, which they carried out with harpoons from mekoro. Today many Bayei work as mokoro polers, taking tourists through the waterways of the Okavango Delta. The Hambukushu originally came from the Zambezi River area, but were driven out by the Balozi, fleeing to an area between the Chobe and Linyanti rivers already inhabited by the Bayei.

The Hambukushu eventually moved again, this time to the far north of the Okavango Delta. As fishermen they preferred the deeper waters of the northern channels, and like the Bayei they used mekoro for fishing, though they prefer to paddle while sitting down rather than standing. The Hambukushu are particularly known for their basket-weaving skill using mokolwane palms and incorporating decorations of animals or geometric shapes.