In 1963, a young Irish Catholic priest arrived in Botswana which by then was called Bechuanaland, with no visible physical developments in the country and was sent to different parts of the country notably Francistown and Serowe before being assigned to Thamaga.
Getting an interview with this man of God, Father Julian Black who has been in Botswana for more than 50 years was not difficult as we had thought. We found him at Forest Hill meditation centre, a stone throw away from Commerce Park.
He was lying on his bed. He welcomed us into his thatched simple room decorated with some art works some of which he drew himself. The 78 year old priest reveals that he uses a wheel chair to go around the place.
He also informed us that he conducts meditation classes and a lot of people around Gaborone attend them.
Asked how it was when he arrived in Botswana in 1963, Julian states that the country was still under-developed with no tarred road and Gaborone was just a camp.
First he was taken to the old Forest Hill School and farm which were being relocated from the Gaborone Dam area to Kgale Farm.
His next destination was the capital of Bakgatla ba ga Mmanaana in Thamaga where he was going to be stationed. Upon arriving in the village, Father Julian was met with adverse poverty. The inhabitants relied on farming for the sustenance.
A student of social leadership, the Irish priest realised that he cannot preach to hungry people and like Jesus Christ he has to feed them. His type of feeding was empowerment.
“I then realised that I have to do something to help the villagers to find something that they can do to sustain themselves apart from farming which was not sustainable due to the unreliability of rain in the country,” said the bedridden priest.
Craft shop was the first project that came to his mind and sold the idea to the community who were reluctant to be involved.
He said that while he was still trying to convince the community of Thamaga that it is a viable project, he was diagnosed with hepatitis and hospitalised in Gaborone and informed that he cannot work for atleast three months.
“I went to stay in South Africa at one of our missions and it was while there that I learnt pottery and told myself that this is the project that am going to start in Thamaga,” he said.
When he came back to Thamaga, Father Julian said that he developed cold feet on the project as he didn’t have confidence on himself. As fate would have it, an American priest visited him and he told him about his desire to start a pottery project in Thamaga but didn’t have the knowledge.
Few months down the line, the cleric was shocked to find a truck loaded with pottery machines at his gate and the driver told him that it was from the Peace Corps from Canada who heard that he wanted to start a pottery project.
“They also sent a Canadian lady who came to teach the Thamaga ladies pottery and that is how the project started,” he said with a smile.
Thamaga Pottery is one of the most successful community projects in Botswana. It has been 40 years of good work and the catholic priest added that it was not a smooth ride.
“We started as a cooperative society but things didn’t go according to plan and we changed to company limited by guarantee and had to contribute five Pulas and credit the late Bakgatla ba ga Mmanaana chief, Kgosi Letlole Gobuamang for ensuring that the project succeeds,” he said.
To ensure that the project becomes a success it was not limited to Catholics only but all the residents of Thamaga regardless of religious affiliation.
Thamaga Pottery sold their pottery kitchenware locally and internationally and was regarded as of high quality and Fr Julian added that this was due to the fact that they made them from stoneware.
He did not limit his work to pottery workshop but also introduced dress making, leather craft and a shop where residents sold their products.
Smiling he told us that, Thamaga Pottery Workshop is one of the project that makes him happy as it is still operating though he parted ways with it 30 years ago.
After Thamaga, Father Julian was assigned to Hukuntsi where Basarwa named him Father Axumte which means someone who spends time alone.
This was because he spends most his time meditating to become closer to God, he said.