Rural Life of the Tswana People

© Dr Peter Magubane

Traditional Settlements

Tswana settlements are quite unusual in Southern Africa for their large but compact size, a result, at least in part, of their arid environment. Indeed in the early mid 19th century, some Tswana settlements, which had concentrated further for defensive reasons, were more populous than Cape Town, the largest southern African colonial city of that time. Previously it was not uncommon for all members of a tribe to be concentrated in a settlement around the chief. Some chiefs came to rule nearby settlements, through conquest of territory as well as construction of settlements for large numbers of people brought under their rule.

The household, which has both ritual and domestic significance, is the smallest social unit, usually a man, his wife and single children, but often including married sons, and even daughters, their spouses and children. Homesteads traditionally had one or more houses and granaries in a courtyard surrounded by a reed or wooden fence, or earthen wall. A married couple often shared a house with younger children. Adolescent children of both sexes shared a house, and unmarried adults were separated by sex.

The houses were used principally for sleeping and storage, cooking and social activities taking place in the open courtyard. In earlier years, members of a household built their own homestead and produced most of their food. Land, livestock, and all property were administered by the household head who allocated them to his dependants. As head of the domestic group, he expected obedience, service, and respect from his wives and children, and handled all legal dealings with outsiders. Prayer and sacrifice, performed on behalf of the household to the ancestors, were also his responsibility, though he in turn sought assistance from senior kin and clansmen in other households.