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Supa Ngwao Museum: stories on the wall

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Supa Ngwao Museum: stories on the wall
CHECKING IN: Grand Hotel Visitors book

Re-telling Francistown’s humble beginnings and lost opportunities

The story of Francistown has always been a fascinating one for me. Here is a city which was Botswana’s commercial heartbeat in the late 1800s, and was at the centre of the first gold rush in Southern Africa.

How did a city that promised so much, a city that got the first tarred road (Haskins Street) and through which civilisation first came to Botswana, become so depressingly redundant?

These are some of the questions I was pondering over when I went to Supa Ngwao Museum recently. I was also hoping to learn more about the city which has been my home for the last four years, and perhaps even get answers to these troubling queries.

‘Supa Ngwao’ is a Setswana expression that means ‘showcase culture’ – a fitting title as that is exactly what the institution does.

The museum itself has some historical significance. Established in 1986, it should be the starting point for anyone interested in the story of Francistown.

The museum’s walls are plastered with the second city’s history. The vibrancy of Botswana’s northern capital is well captured in vintage photographs when Francistown’s economy was still dependent of the activities of Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA).

‘”When you look at these pictures, you can immediately tell that Francistown was where everything was happening in the late 1800s,” said Saadia Rossenkhan, the Museum Board Secretary.

“This city was never meant to be just another stop over to Kasane,” she stated adamantly, a slight frown hinting that Francistown may have become just that.

Indeed, as much as they show the city’s proud past, the exhibited photos and artefacts at Supa Ngwao equally highlight Francistown’s unfulfilled potential.

There’s a whole section dedicated to Botswana Railways. A section with pictures and memorabilia to take you back to the sweaty days of Cecil Rhodes.

“The history of the rail line is important for Francistown. In fact I believe everything goes back to the rail line; it was at the centre of everything that happened in Francistown and the rest of Southern Africa,” explained Rossenkhan.

A picture on the wall shows a construction train crossing the Shashe River in 1897 and another shows a group of recruits alighting from a WENELA aircraft at the Francistown Airfield in 1960.

“These were men who came here en route to Rhodesia and South Africa to work in the gold mines. 10, 000 men passed through Francistown every year, and 2, 500 of them came from Botswana,” clarified Selinah Nkabiti, who oversees the day-to-day running of the museum.

Both Nkabiti and Rossenkhan are convinced that one cannot be fully familiar with the history of Botswana until they know about the old Francistown.

Supa Ngwao Museum: stories on the wall
NO ESCAPE: The segregated stone prison

Of particular interest is a picture showing dolly holes, a clear sign that contrary to the commonly accepted belief about mining in Francistown, Bakalanga mined gold before the arrival of the European settlers.

“This information changes everything that people may know. A prehistoric open snobe near Monarch mine dates back to between 1200AD to 1800AD,” Rossenkhan pointed out, excitement lighting up her animated features.

A quick Wikipedia search shows that gold prospector Karl Mauch found the Bakalanga mining gold along the Tati River in 1867.

“There’s so much to learn here. For example when people talk about apartheid they immediately think South Africa, but Francistown was one of the many cities experiencing segregation,” she said.

Traces of segregation in the city are well documented and the two landmarks, the stone prison, just a few metres from the police canteen (formerly District Commissioner’s office) and the cemetery are permanent reminders of Francistown’s dark past.

“The cemetery is still there and for anyone interested in the history of this city, Supa Ngwao Museum is your best bet,” added Rossenkhan.

I’m also introduced to the curio shop which sells Kalanga literature, artefacts, traditional attire designed by Nkabiti and of course the tour wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to a section dedicated to The Voice, a newspaper born in the city.

After a one-hour tour of the museum and being fascinated by a pump organ donated by Ernest Haskins and the Shell fuel pump I leave still wondering where Ghetto went wrong after starting off so beautifully.

What would it take for this ticklish Ghetto to shake off its cobwebs and reclaim its past glory?

Alas, it seems I started with a question and am ending with one too!