When the traditional leopard skin, the sign of authority, was draped around her shoulders at the weekend, Kgosi Mosadi Seboko not only became the paramount chief of Botswana's Bagamalete people, but also a powerful symbol of change for women.
A woman has never assumed the position of a paramount chief. Traditionally women were not even allowed to attend the village kgotla (Setswana word meaning village meeting) unless they were invited to give evidence during the settlement of disputes. The ascension of Kgosi (chief) Mosadi to head a Kgotla has therefore broken new ground.
"The institution of chieftainship and the installation of Botswana's first woman paramount chief cannot be seen in isolation from the tremendous socioeconomic changes that have taken place in our country and the world," women's rights activist and high court judge, Justice Athaliah Molokomme, said.
"Bagamalete have shown us that culture and tradition are dynamic and not static, and that they can be adapted to suit socioeconomic change for the benefit of that same culture," she added. "We must also pay tribute to, and thank Kgosi Mosadi herself, for being prepared to claim her birthright, and making herself available to serve the Bagamalete and Botswana. It is well and good to have a right to something, or a perceived right, but sometimes it will not come to you unless you claim it."
The coronation of Kgosi Mosadi, chairwoman of Botswana's House of Chiefs and a single mother of four, marks the end of a period in which she acted as regent for the Bagamalete following the death of her brother, Kgosi Seboko II, in 2000. The House of Chiefs acts as advisors to both the government and parliament on issues relating to custom and tradition.
In the villages, where the bulk of the Batswana reside, chiefs play important roles as counsellors, mediators and judges in customary courts. Official estimates suggest that about 80 percent of all civil and criminal cases are handled in customary courts.
Caroline Lubwika, information officer for the Media Institute for Southern Africa in Botswana, welcomed Kgosi Mosadi's coronation. "The [traditional] role of women - in the kitchen all the time, and the taking care of children - has taken a 360 degree turn. Increasingly, women are having to assume the role of the breadwinner, cultivating the fields to feed their children, while men go into urban areas to look for jobs," she told IRIN.
The resilience of women in Botswana is usually only recognised indirectly through language and proverbs, such as the Setswana saying, "mosadi ke thari ya Sechaba", which means that a woman is the bearer of the nation.
It was not only women who applauded Kgosi Mosadi's installation in Ramotswa, a small rural town about 30 km south of the capital, Gaborone. "We are happy that we have a woman chief. Maybe in the near future we will have a woman president," said one of the male ushers at the coronation ceremony.
Local Government Minister Michael Tshipinare welcomed the Bagamalete's new paramount chief. "In a short time she has addressed issues of national concern such as land in this tribal territory, the uncontrolled sale and consumption of alcoholic brews such as Chibuku in some households - which practice has the potential to undermine successful schooling of our children. She has addressed many other matters of our well-being as a nation," he said.
The Bagamalete, who migrated from South Africa into modern-day Botswana in the 1850s, number around 30,000 and are one of the country's smaller ethnic groups.
At her inauguration, Kgosi Mosadi thanked her community for their support. "You were able to transcend the gender imbalance that many are still grappling with, and installed me not because I am a woman, but rather on the basis of birthright equity."
She listed the increasing number of disintegrating families, communities terrorised by crime, domestic abuse and violence, unemployment and HIV/AIDS as some of the biggest challenges she wanted to tackle.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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