Seperu Folk Dance and Associated Practices is Botswana’s latest intangible cultural element to be inscribed for urgent safeguarding by UNESCO. National Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Expert Bathusi Losolobe told this publication that Botswana now boasts three elements that have been inscribed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for need of urgent safeguarding.
The first element to be inscribed was the Kgatleng Earthernware Pottery Making Skills in 2012 followed by Mmino wa Dikopelo in 2016 and now Seperu in December 2019.Speaking in an interview at his house in Boseja ward in Mochudi, Losolobe, who also doubles as an IT expert accredited to World Intellectual Property Organisation, WIPO, explained that these elements can only be inscribed by member states to the 2003 Convention on ICH. Botswana acceded to this Convention in May 2010. Intangible heritage includes elements and practices that are in the human mind which cannot be taught at schools but are learnt through observation and apprenticeship, for example, dance forms and certain skills such as making eathernware pottery. Botswana first nominated Seperu Folk Dance and Associated Practices of the Basubiya tribe in the Chobe District for safeguarding in 2014 but was sent back to improve its proposal.
Losolobe was the lead consultant in the project at the time working with various stakeholders, such as the Ingongis (Master Practitioners) in district as well as the Chobe District ICH Committee. The Disctrict ICH Committee is made up of all the 10 Chiefs of Chobe, the Council and a representative of the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture (MYSC). Another stakeholder which worked in the process of nomination was the National ICH Committee, which comprises academicians, practitioners and government officials. Losolobe is also a member of this committee by virtue of his position as National ICH Expert, a status he attained since his training by UNESCO in Lesotho in 2010. “We worked with these stakeholders to prepapre a request to UNESCO first in 2014 and were sent back in 2015 after which we filed again in 2017,” he said with a grin of satisfaction now that the element was inscribed last year December.
Explaining submission of request to UNESCO Losolobe said is open to member states that have interest every year March 31st. The submision entails preparing a Form that has the Text about the Element, Photographs that tell the story in the text and then a 10-minute Video that tells the story of the Element. After 31st March UNESCO Secretariat in Paris, France assesses the Request for compliance. If it is not satisfied they send the Form back to the National ICH Committee for improvement. But if satisfied, the Secretariat forwards the Form to the Evaluation Body, which is chosen by members of the 2003 Convention. Losolobe explained that this Body does the technical selection to ensure that the Element has been properly defined and has a Safeguarding Plan.
After the Evaluation Body has assessed the request it may send it back if not satisfied that it complied with an aspect of the criteria, for example, if consent form was not signed by interviewees, or if they feel the Element does not qualify for safeguarding.
Or they may say out of the five criterions the Element has not passed one, in which case the country applying for nomination would have to lobby members of the Intergovernmental Committee, which truly represents the body of ICH. The Intergovernmental Committee is made up of 24 countries in their specific regions – for example Southern Africa is currently represented by Zambia – and meets every year November and December. At that meeting the 24 countries decide whether the Element should pass for inscription or not. Once the nomination process has been duly satisfied, UNESCO inscribes the Element.
For example last year UNESCO recommended that Botswana Element be the only one that gets inscribed. The other countries were sent back. For Inscription, UNESCO has three lists. The first is the list of ICH in Dire Need of Urgent Safeguarding; the second is Representative list of ICH of Humanity and the last is Best Practices. All of Botswana’s three elements – Earthenware pottery making skills, Mmino wa Dikopelo and Seperu - are inscribed under the list of ICH in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.Losolobe said Botswana has not applied for listing under Representative List or Best Pracices not because it does not have any Elements that qualify but because it is relatively easy to get funding from ICH Fund, which is responsible for exclusively financing ICH programmes unlike with other lists.
Representative List is about a culture that a people or country is proud of and wants to be recognised by; for example Seswaa (Pounded Meat) in Botswana transcends all Batswana tribes. Batswana can list this if they want. Another example is the Kobo and Mokorotlo (Blanket and Hat) found in Lesotho. The hat is woven using reed exclusively found in Lesotho and it takes a special skill to weave it hence the hat is not under threat of extinction. Basotho may list it if they like. As for Best Practices Losolobe said it relates to policies and programmes whether they be of government, individuals or independent organisations which are good practices of intangible heritage. He gave the example of Dithubaruba in Botswana. It is a Bakwena culture but is shared with the world at large. During the festival there is research; documenting and sharing of information which consitutes elements of safeguarding an Element.
Documentation forms one of the 12 measures of Safeguarding Measures. Losolobe explained that every member of the 2003 ICH Convention is obliged to make an annual monetary contribution to the ICH Fund. There is also the Voluntary Funds, which can be tapped into. This Fund once had a major outcry when America pulled out of UNESCO in protest over Palestine’s admission as member of UNESCO and then decided to withdraw all its annual contributions. Over and above the Voluntary Funds there is also Funds in Trust. Botswana first benefitted from ICH in 2010 through the Flanders (a State in Belgium) Funds in Trust. Under Funds in Trust developed economies that have managed to safeguard their cultures contribute monies to UNESCO.
Flanders had decided to help SADC countries at the time. In SADC South Africa is the only country that has not acceded to the 2003 ICH Convention but it has acceeded to the 2005 Convention on Cultural Diversity. Losolobe reiterated the point that the reason Botswana has listed under the list for urgent need of safeguarding is because there is readily available money which can be accessed without asking for any assistance from government. “That is how we were funded $68, 000 for the project of promoting eathernware and pottery making skills in Kgatleng,” he explained. Asked about the significance and benefits of safeguarding elements for both country and practitioners, Losolobe said the first was recognition and means for communities to earn a living from their culture.
He gave the example of the men who played ‘Kukwane’ and ‘Segaba’ in Kgatleng and were only unearthed by the Constituency Arts Competitions.
Further as for Chobe District which is renowned for its rich tourism that promotes the region’s flora and fauna, the inclusion of cultural tourism through ‘Seperu cultural performances’ will help brand the District and elevate the profile of the country in the long run.
Losolobe explained that what now remains for Botswana is to apply for funding from ICH Funds of UNESCO to implement the safeguarding measures that they have proposed for Seperu Dance Form and its Associated Practices. The proposed Safeguarding Plan does not consider only the dance and singing aspects of the culture but also extends to its associated practices. Seperu culture transcends the life of a Musubiya–from birth; rite of passage or initiation; marriage; death to the coronation of paramount king.
One of the aspects of the culture that was found to be under threat of extinction is the Mushishi (the cultural dress) because it is worn for wrong ocassions.
“We are now training master weavers and will start children’s clubs in schools so that they can weave it and safeguard the dress,” Losolobe said. The funding proposal will be done by the Chobe Disctrict ICH Committee with the help of the National ICH Committee. They will work closely with the UNESCO office in Botswana. The proposal for funding will then be taken to the Nominations and Reports Subcommittee of National ICH Committee, which Losolobe forms part of. Its other members include Professor Nhlekisane (UB) and Tshepiso Gabonthone of the National Museum. The sub-committee will assess the funding proposal just in the same way that it assessed the request for nomination of the Element. Then it will go to the Nominations Committee which in concert with the District Committee will make its recommendations to the National ICH Committee that the funding proposal be submitted to UNESCO.
“We are permitted to ask for over $100, 000 or below $100, 000. The latter is much easier because the proposal does not have to go through the IGC meeting it only goes to Evaluation Body. “But anything above $100, 000 goes to Evaluation Body which will refer to the IGC for funding. “This is the process that we are going to follow this year,” Losolobe explained. Losolobe expressed hope that they will submit a request for funding to implement the safeguarding plan for Mmino wa Dikopelo on the 31st of March this year.