Pitse Ya Naga...not just zebra on wheels

28 Sep 2023

 In the early years after independence, when Botswana’s road network was still rudimentary, it took innovative thinking to reach Botswana’s scattered population.

One such government department that had to think outside the box to take its services throughout the country was the then National Museum and Art Gallery. As a repository of knowledge on many facets on Botswana – ranging from culture, history, the environment to ethnography – the museum was a critical vehicle in the nation-building project, teaching Batswana about each other. But being in the capital meant that the museum was out of reach for many citizens who resided in the countryside.

To get around that, the museum leadership developed a novel concept – Pitse ya Naga Mo Maotwaneng (The Zebra on Wheels). The idea was to have a mobile museum that would travel around the country carrying as many cultural artefacts as the van could load to conduct educational tours in different schools. 

The vans designated for the purpose were painted in the distinctive colours of the zebra – black and white.

Former curator at the National Museum, Mr Letso Mhale, who was part of the many whirlwind expeditions around the country on The Zebra on Wheels, recalls that the Mobile Museum Education Service was started in 1979. 

The idea was to take the museum experience through cultural artefacts to primary schools around the country, including those in the most remote and geographically isolated areas.

“The museum started that as an outreach service, and it literally took the museum to different communities around the country,” he told BOPA. “The service availed many learners the first opportunity to see, touch and feel real objects from different areas that they had only heard about, or seen in textbook pictures.”

He said back in 1990s, a typical outreach trip entailed packing different artefacts and museum objects as well as a film projector in a covered van, barely leaving space for the officers’ personal items. Then it was off for a trip that would often extend beyond a week, making stopovers in various places. At each school, the museum staff would engage with pupils in the entire school on different topics including history, culture, environment, life-skills, crafts, conservation, as well as the geography of different regions in the country.

“We would pack different objects such as baskets, traditional clothes from different ethnic groups, implements such as a mortar and pestle, bows and arrows, animal skin blankets, beads, ostrich eggs, cowhide drums, and clay pots,” recalls Mhale

He remarks that some people would not have known traditional food from other parts of the country, such as phane, if it were not for such excursions, indicating that they also made it a point to educate the young learners about cuisines found in different parts of Botswana. Where they could, they carried dried food items for demonstration.

The various objects would be displayed exhibition-style in a classroom set aside for the purpose, and throughout the day curious learners would file past to learn, touch and see. Many parents came along as well.

Mr Mhale said in the evening, the whole community would gather to watch an educational film. Afterwards, the hosts would entertain their guests through performances that included song and dance. He explained that the evening gatherings greatly enhanced the museum staff’s interaction and working relationship with communities. It was on such relaxed atmosphere that the museum’s ethnologists would learn oral traditions of the local communities.

“We also got to learn and get familiar with different ethnic groups’ traditions,” Mr Mhale explains. “Many would even donate objects and artefacts for the museum’s collection.”

The following day, The Zebra on Wheels would be packed and leave for the next village, where the programme and activities would be repeated.

“Whenever the zebra-painted van entered the village, you would hear people joyfully shouting: ‘Pitse ya naga e gorogile!’. Parents and children alike would rush to the school,” he said.

So, what eventually happened to The Zebra on Wheels?

The Education and Publicity Officer at the National Museum, Ms Cingiwe Seru said Pitse ya Naga Mo Maotwaneng was well and still kicking.

Ms Seru stated that currently, as the museum was closed for renovations, they still engage in outreach programmes around the country.

She however said that nowadays they do not show films to the entire village, but only on a television screens in classes where topics range from climate change, environment and cultural aspects of different ethnic groups in Botswana.

She underscored that the National Museum, Monument and Art Gallery – as it is now known – still aims to teach Batswana about Botswana, bringing  knowledge to people about their culture, history, environment and everything that makes the tapestry of Botswana’s diverse society. ENDS

Source : BOPA

Author : Lesedi Thatayamodimo

Location : GABORONE

Event : Interview

Date : 28 Sep 2023