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Catching up with Timon Mongwa

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Catching up with Timon Mongwa
HAPPILY RETIRED: Mongwa and his wife of 58 years, Elizabeth

Versatile 79-year-old Timon Bumbeka Mongwa is celebrated in many circles as a pioneer educator, businessman and politician. Voice reporter, Dubani-wa-Dubani, profiles an almost forgotten man who, since the days of pre-Independence, has played a meaningful role in the development of our country, bravely fighting his tough political and business battles.

Born on the 3rd of December 1936 in the Antelope Mine Hospital, in what was then known as Rhodesia, where his father, a United Congregational Church of Southern Africa Priest was chaplain, Mongwa spent his formative years shuffling between the country of his birth and the then Bechuanaland, his dad alternating posts in the two states.

Aged nine, Mongwa started his education at Masunga Primary School, completing his early schooling at Dombodema Primary in Zimbabwe.

He then moved to Trinity Boys Institution, Bulawayo for his secondary education.

Trinity was built by the UCCSA to help with the education of the region’s disadvantaged black majority.

“Being the son of a reverend I was in a privileged position and benefited from the sponsorship the school had for children of those employed by the church,” explained Mongwa.

After secondary school he went to train as a teacher at the Dombodema Teacher Training Institute, graduating in 1957, well equipped to teach both primary and secondary school students.

His first job was at Tlhamalakane Primary school in Maun, his salary paid by the Batawana Tribal Authority.

However, the paltry pay he received meant he was forced to think of other ways to supplement his existence and so he decided to take up singing.

Together with others, most notably another teacher at Tlhamalakane, Obed Itani Chilume, who later made his name as MP for Nkange and Assistant Minister of Finance and Development Planning, he formed a performing choir – the Kalangami Boys.

“We composed our own songs and also did a few covers of popular hits. We made quite a bit of money singing in the only hall in the village. We also performed at events such as weddings in Maun and surrounding areas,” he recalled happily, a twinkle evident in his misty eyes as he re-lived those long forgotten days.

After a few years in Maun the ambition bug in him bit again and Mongwa quit his teaching job to train as a postmaster at Dombodema because ‘the job was prestigious and paid more’.

The postmaster dream did not last long however, and he soon found himself an exciting job as a research assistant to American Anthropologist, Richard Webner who was studying the Bakalanga as part of his PHD studies.

After his work with Webner, Mongwa held various roles, including becoming a social worker and an immigration officer responsible for tracing illegal immigrants at the Gaborone Airport.

It was whilst working at the airport that he met a South African businessman who convinced him to help oversee the setting up of the Holiday Inn, now The Gaborone Sun, the first five- star resort in the country.

“I did almost everything. I was chief of security, trained all the staff except for those in the kitchen. In fact I was second in rank from the GM,” remembered Mongwa proudly.

After working for the Holiday Inn for almost seven years, Mongwa, together with a South African partner, set up the Chase Inn in Mahalapye.

The venture went well until he discovered his South African partner had spent the money meant to pay suppliers.

“We had six months of unpaid bills and there was no option but to close down,” Mongwa said, clearly still angry at the betrayal.

After the Chase Inn debacle, Mongwa, driven by the entrepreneurial spirit, came to Francistown where, trading as Mongwa Brothers and Sisters he once again ventured into the hospitality business, establishing a bar and a bottle store.

The establishment of a liquor business brought him into conflict with Tati Company who, in 1978, twelve years after independence, still felt it was their privileged right to control who sold liquor in the central business district.

“I took the matter to the high court and they eventually relented when they realised they would not win the case. Whilst the case was on I was forced to move my business to Kgaphamadi. It was a lone battle and most business people affected by the same prejudice would not get involved, as they thought Tati Company was too big to be taken to task,” Mongwa said.

As his business empire grew, Mongwa decided to try his luck in the murky world of politics, under the banner of the Botswana People’s Party, serving as the Mayor of Francistown and Chair of the North East District Council.

He regards his entry into politics as logical as he is cousin to the late Zimbabwean politician, Joshua Nkomo, who at one point was President Robert Mugabe’s deputy.

“I interacted a lot with Nkomo and other Zimbabwean politicians in pre and post independence Zimbabwe and this influenced my thinking. It was only natural that at some point I would go into politics,” he explained.

Discovering the hard way that politics is an unforgiving vocation, Mongwa was unceremoniously ousted from the Mayorship by a vote of no-confidence, a move he maintains was orchestrated by Francistown MP Patrick Balopi.

“I believe so because he later tried to recruit me into the BDP but I rebuffed his advances,” stated the old man defiantly.

However, Mongwa did eventually defect to the BDP, in protest of the BPP’s attempt at unification with the now defunct Botswana Alliance Movement without consulting the general membership.

“I, like most, felt betrayed,” he said.

Despite his busy workload, Mongwa still found the time to establish a number of night schools in the communities he moved about in.

Mahalapye, Francistown and the North East District all benefited from his ‘education by candlelight’ schools.

Mongwa, who seems to have seen it all in politics and business, says the gains made after independence were because of the dedication of politicians from across the political devide and a dedicated civil service whose sole ambition was to build a country they could be proud of.

“When Botswana gained independence there was virtually nothing. Looking at the infrastructure we have today it is hard to imagine that at independence we did not even have a decent stretch of road. We should be proud of what we have achieved as a nation in areas such as transport, education and health.

“We had a powerful civil service led by hardworking men of integrity. Politicians from the BDP and opposition parties put the country first and would put aside their differences when it became necessary. Politics have deteriorated and seem to have been invaded by self-seekers and the political landscape has degenerated into a circus where any Jack and Jill with a car, a loud voice and a few thousands of pulas in the bank fancy themselves a politician,” blasted Mongwa with a sarcastic grin.

However, he still has faith in President Khama, saying, “A serious leader interacts with his people so he may know and understand their needs and aspirations. Khama is that kind of leader. He has been to almost all corners of the country and this will help him in his work to make life better for all.”

Now enjoying his well-earned retirement, Mongwa spends his time reading and looking after his sizeable cattle herd.

His still draws strength and support from his wife of 58 years, Elizabeth, a retired nurse who has been at Mongwa’s side through thick and thin.