The Case of Shiyeyi in Botswana

Linked with Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo – Botswana, with The Kamanakao Association, and with Africa and Poverty.

Language Development for Literacy, The Case of Shiyeyi in Botswana, by Lydia Nyati-Ramahobo – Since independence, the government of Botswana has practiced an exclusive language policy in which only English has been used in government circles at the exclusion of all the 26 languages represented in the country, with a limited use of the national language, Setswana. However, in recent years more positive statements have been heard in Parliament, opening up to recognize the use of other languages in education and society. These statements have provided a conducive environment for Non-governmental organizations to develop other languages for use in education and out-of-school literacy. This paper focuses on the work of one such organization. It reports on a project this organization is undertaking to revive the language and culture of the Wayeyi people in North Western, and Central Botswana. It gives findings on attitudes towards Shiyeyi as a language of instruction for literacy and shows how the preference expressed for Shiyeyi has great potential for a literacy program.


The Wayeyi constitute about 40% of the population of the North West District in Botswana. The total population in this area as per 1991 census is 94 000. This means that they are about 37 000 Wayeyi in the district. There are also Wayeyi in the Central District and their number is not estimated. Those in Namibia their number is estimated at more than 20 000. In Botswana, they are the third largest tribe after the Batswana (made up of 8 dialects) and Bakalaka. They are the main makers of the famous Botswana baskets and the mokoro-poll bearers in the Okavango Delta. They were the first to settle the Delta. The Wayeyi are generally known as peace-loving people, a quality that proved detrimental to their social well being.

Around 1750 the Wayeyi were evaded by the Batawana (an off-shoot of the Bangwato) from the Central District who took their land and cattle and subjected them to some form of serfdom. This dominance, needless to say, affected the use of Shiyeyi language in social domains. So that while Wayeyi were and still are the majority, their language became a minority language. Also, due to multilingual nature of the district, and in the context of an exclusive language policy, this process subjected other languages, and not just Shiyeyi, to less use. The third factor was the introduction of education in which Setswana and English are the medium of instruction in schools (Setswana for only four years).

To-date most of the Wayeyi especially the young, do not speak Shiyeyi while others (including adults) do not even know whether or not they are Wayeyi. Shiyeyi is currently described as one of the threatened or endangered languages in the world (Vossen, 1988, Jason and Underson, 1997). The youngest generation with a passive knowledge and comprehension of Shiyeyi are people in their twenties. Their children are less likely to speak it unless serious efforts are taken to revive it. The other problem compounding the use of Shiyeyi is the low prestige attached to it as a slave language. Those who can speak it and understand it, deny it. It is this attitude that will kill the language faster than its actual death. However, there are a few areas in some parts of the Northwest and Central Districts in which Wayeyi still speak and understand Shiyeyi, including the youth. In these areas Shiyeyi is used for daily living together with Setswana. Due to language contact, a few older speakers of other languages in the Districts do speak and/or understand Shiyeyi.

In 1962, Mr. Pitoro Seidisa (a Moyeyi from Gumare) started some work with Professor Westphal of the University of Cape Town to develop the orthography (a writing system), a dictionary and translate some Gospels. Due to conflicts between the Batawana and Wayeyi, Mr. Seidisa was imprisoned on his way from one of his meetings with Prof. Westphal in Cape Town. After collecting data, Mr. Seidisa went to Cape Town to work with Westphal. He then returned to collect more data, and it was during this trip that he was arrested at Seronga by Police Officer Rashiya (a Moyeyi) under the orders of the Sub-Chief Labane. Pitoro was handcuffed and tied to a bed for days, and his family was not allowed to see him. He was later transferred to Maun, and was imprisoned for months until he asked for permission to see the magistrate. The case was heard and Mr. Seidisa was acquitted of the offense. He then launched a case against Labane and Police officer Keetile for ill-treatment and unprecedented arrest. Regent Pulane dismissed the case as Labane and Keetile were her allies. As a result of this resistance against efforts to develop Shiyeyi, some of the projects Seidisa and Westphal started were not completed and whatever was done remained with Professor Westphal who stated in his will that the materials should be burnt after his death. Available correspondence between Seidisa (who died in 1990) indicate that Matthew chapter 8 (1-16) were translated, grammar books and the dictionary might or might not have been completed but work had gone on for sometime. (Read the rest of this very long article on Literacy online).

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