An icon Botswana criminally threw away

SHARE   |   Monday, 27 June 2016   |   By Bashi Letsididi
PIONEER; Batho Molema PIONEER; Batho Molema

Against tremendous odds, Batho Molema built what remains Botswana’s largest and most comprehensive traditional music collection, writes BASHI LETSIDIDI
While there may be quibbling with the factual accuracy of Sandy Grant’s description of the man as “One of the country’s truly major figures who this country criminally threw away”, one fully understands the depth of feeling that provokes such words.

Here is a man who poured his heart and soul into a project to build what remains Botswana’s largest and most comprehensive traditional music collection, who discovered folk music legend Ratsie Sethako and who popularised the Dipina le Maboko programme on Radio Botswana (RB). When the powers-that-be would not support his cultural pursuits, he left the civil service a dejected man. Donaldson Leina Batho Molema had joined the service in 1963 in what was then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate at its head office in the Imperial Reserve in Mafikeng. Two years later, he enrolled at the Kwanongoma College of African Music in Bulawayo for a two-year diploma programme in speech and music teacher training course. Home for the holidays in his final year, he went for a job interview at RB and left with a job offer that he holstered until after he had completed his studies. And so it was that in the beginning 1967, he started work as an announcer-cum-reporter-cum-producer at what was then Botswana’s only radio station. “We were all-rounders in those days. You would go out, gather news, edit the report and later broadcast it,” Molema recalls.

With Douglas Moeketsi as his immediate supervisor, Molema worked alongside fellow all-rounders Lucas Kgang, Nonnie Pilane and Esther Molemoeng. It is hard to think of it in 2016 but there actually was a time when radio did not broadcast around the clock. During the downtime, all you would hear when you switched a radio set on was static. The RB that Molema joined broadcast from five in the morning until nine at night. Beyond expressing gratitude to Moeketsi for being an able mentor, Molema is happy that the latter helped him choose appropriate brand name for an African. On Moeketsi’s encouragement, Molema used Batho and in retrospect considers this to have been an excellent idea. “Can you imagine listeners knowing me as Donaldson?” he poses rhetorically. “To this day, I am very grateful that Moeketsi urged me to use an African name.”

At the time that Molema joined RB, the Director of Broadcasting was Dingaan Mokaila, father to Kitso Mokaila, the Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources. Molema did not serve for too long under Mokaila because the latter was transferred to the Office of the President where he became President Seretse Khama’s private secretary. His replacement was Bryan Edgner, “a very versatile guy” who – like most British civil servants of this time, was a holdover from the colonial administration. Edgner’s stewardship came at a time that SABC was planning to expand its “Bantu” music collection by recording traditional music in Botswana. At least according to what Molema surmises, Edgner elected for RB to undertake such project itself and share the recordings with the South Africans. The project entailed recording such music throughout the country. “That is how I got the opportunity to be immersed in traditional music,” Molema says 48 years after the fact.

He hastens to add that “my fortune was fortified by somebody else’s misfortune.” That somebody else was a white man called Bob Sinclair who worked at RB as an engineer. His skin colour is relevant for what Molema believes qualified him to be chosen as leader of the team that was to execute this assignment. He is not even sure he was a qualified engineer but remembers Bob was referred to as such because he pressed and turned buttons on a console. Prior to the start of the assignment, RB announced that a team from the station would be travelling around the country to record music in villages. Residents were encouraged to ready themselves to contribute to the project. In a newly independent Botswana where there were no tarred roads, two J1 Bedford trucks (“that was before the J5”) set off from Gaborone on D-day and headed north.

The first stop was Gweta and what Molema remembers most about this recording session is that there was a huge turnout by residents. He also remembers that it was a fatefully hot, clear-sky day. “Fatefully” because a high-spirited Sinclair decided to take his shirt off and prance around bare-chested as he led his team through the session. He would realise later what a mistake that had been. Apparently his skin absorbed too much heat and that night he could not get sleep a wink, groaning in pain until the morning. “He must have been cooked right up to the bone,” Molema says. This medical emergency forced one J1 to take Sinclair to the nearest hospital and by quirk of such fate, Molema became the team leader. “If he had stayed the leader of the team, the record would say that a white man called Bob Sinclair recorded Botswana songs,” Molema says. This collection became part of what is now called Dipina le Maboko (songs and poems), an RB programme which has its own back story.

In its early days, the station had a letter request programme through which listeners would send greetings to family and friends and dedicate either a song or poem. As he recalls, one of the most popular songs of the time was called Batho Ditshephe re di Bone. Of the dedicatees’ list, he remembers with some amusement, some really dedicated listeners would list the names of an entire tribal clan or village. The programme, which RB retains in a slightly altered format, became very popular and came to be known as Dipina le Maboko. The nationwide recording project had its hiccups. Molema says that at the instigation of some “wise guys”, his team could not record music in some villages. In those villages, residents wanted to know “what’s in it for us?” and the RB team would be told that those who could sing were away at farming hamlets. It will be another decade before Molema undertook a similar project and in the interim, songs and poems recorded at national events were added to the collection. With regard to the latter, he remembers that Raboijane Lenkopane rendered a beautiful poem of President Khama that was added to the collection.

In the sense that Americans use the word, Molema “discovered” Ratsie Sethako, the towering folk music legend after whom a primary school in Palapye is named. The central district town is where Sethako met his tragic end. This discovery happened outside both recording projects and at the time it did, no one knew that Sethako would posthumously blow up in the manner he did. Around this time, Molema was Head of Productions and thus properly positioned in the driving seat to take productions where he deemed fit. He knew the old man, having met him before (“Mahalapye or Palapye I can’t remember where”) and when, “by God’s providence”, Molema heard that Sethako was in Gaborone, he “tracked” him down to Naledi and took him to the RB studios. “In those days there was no pressure of time on studios and you could spend the whole day in the studio with a musician,” Molema says.

That session helped immortalise a good portion of Sethako’s work. So far so good – then something bad happened. Some 15 years after joining RB, Molema had been elevated to the position of Head of Programmes. However, he still did what he describes as cumbersome broadcasting work. He harboured deep need to research and record more traditional music and duly conveyed such wish to the director, a German national seconded to the Department of Broadcasting. “I told him of my interest in Setswana traditional music and asked that I be allowed to go out and record it. This would not have been for my own benefit but that of the nation because I would have shared such recordings with the nation.”

The request fell on deaf ears. Deeply convinced of the reasonableness of his request, Molema took the issue up with a higher authority and managed to get a face-to-face meeting. In giving him audience and in the mistaken assumption that he could redirect Molema’s interest elsewhere, the higher authority revealed that some directorships that he qualified for were about to open up. One mentioned was Director of Sports and Culture but this was certainly not what Molema was looking forward to. He remembers telling the senior officer on the other side of the desk: “I don’t want to be mixed up with anything related to sports.” In today’s Botswana, the sporting fraternity generates enough controversy to fill up acres upon acres of editorial space in all national newspapers. Molema says that what is happening today is nothing compared to the morass of the period in question and was the reason the government had to bring sports administration into its fold.

Even without the advantages of today’s social media, the grapevine of 1982 appears to have been as effective because news of Molema’s displeasure at RB reached the management of Sefalana Wholesalers. The result of RB’s management unwillingness to consider Molema’s request and of his own unwillingness to get mixed up with sports was the dissolution of a 15-year relationship. Soon thereafter, Molema joined Sefalana and what would have been the second national project to record Botswana traditional music never saw the light of day. “I wasn’t leaving Radio Botswana for greener pastures in the conventional sense of the saying. What would have been greener pastures for me – indeed for the rest of the nation, would have been recording Botswana music,” says Molema and after a pause adds in a low voice: “I think this is the first time I have publicly disclosed why I resigned from Radio Botswana.”

A friend of his in Oodi will have choice words to describe this last part but when one takes it all in, “criminally” is not a strong enough word. Grant is a historian with a deep well of historical knowledge that he draws on every week and waters a Mmegi column. More than the average person, he fully understands what loss of or failure to develop cultural knowledge means to human civilisation. For what it is worth, the University of Botswana has conferred an honorary doctorate of music on Molema in recognition of the immense contributions he has made to the preservation and popularisation of Botswana traditional music.

In 1980, Molema and his wife, Monica, organised Botswana’s very first stage production of Setswana traditional music at the Gaborone town hall – Civic Centre as it is now known. Titled Molodi wa Pina (Modenye), the production featured all age groups and starred Speech Madimabe, Mosolo Moepepe, Andries Bok, Matsoni Teemane and Mmannyana Tsiane the as lead singer of the Ditshephe group. Funds permitting, Molema says that he wants to organise another production in the honour of this constellation of stars and donate the money to their descendants.