Botswana is a beautiful country. A visitor is immediately impressed by its flat landscape and the imposing Kalahari Desert covering two thirds of the country’s surface. This landlocked southern African nation is also home to diverse areas of wildlife habitat. Botswana is very sparsely populated: a medium-sized country with just over two million people. Her people (the Batswana) are generally welcoming.
Like the country’s population, the Catholic Church in Botswana has a small population, too. In the vicariate of Francistown the Catholics are around 19,000 and in the diocese of Gaborone around 70,000. This adds up to about 4-5% of the country’s total population. Despite this, the Catholic Church in Botswana is alive and growing quite rapidly.
Until 1998 the whole of Botswana was one diocese (Gaborone). It was constituted as such in August 1966, the same year the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. The first bishop was Urban Murphy, a Passionist missionary from Ireland who died on 27 February 1981 and was succeeded by Bishop Boniface Tshoa Setlalekgosi. Bishop Setlalekgosi retired on 25 April 2009 and was replaced by the current bishop, Valentine Tsamma Seane. The vicariate of Francistown was established in 1998. Since then the vicariate has had as its head bishop Frank Nubuasah, a Divine Word Missionary (SVD) from Ghana.
The vicariate of Francistown is vast and rural while the diocese of Gaborone is urban and cosmopolitan. In spite of these differences, they have common priorities. They both want to become self-supporting churches. Evidently, the Church in Botswana is a receiving church. Resources from abroad subsidised the building of most of the structures. However, both bishops are working to change this trend and they have made great progress. Local people are becoming more involved in raising funds for running the Church. Evangelisation is another common priority. Efforts are being made to ensure that lay people are solidly instructed in gospel values and Catholic faith. In the vicariate of Francistown there are programmes that evangelise for mission work. Lay people are trained through faith formation meetings, prayer gatherings, and workshops to embrace the Christian faith and became evangelisers themselves. The diocese of Gaborone organised revival retreats inviting Vincentian priests from India to conduct them for the past two years. In order to guarantee a proper place for the formation of the laity, Bishop Valentine is currently building a huge pastoral centre in his diocese.
Education is also a priority for the Catholic Church in Botswana. This dates back to pre-independence days. The Church has been actively involved in the country’s education sector, in fact most of the first generation of political leaders attended Catholic schools. The vicariate of Francistown hosts Mater Spei College while the diocese of Gaborone hosts St Joseph’s College. These are now among the best schools in Botswana and today are run in partnership with the government.
According to bishop Valentine, the Church has also pioneered education for the Basarwa (bushmen) in the Kalahari Desert. The Church opened tailor-made schools for this particular ethnic group taking into account their nomadic life-style. It is schooling that involves the whole family, not only children. The government is now participating: wherever the Church has opened a school, the government has opened one too or upgraded the existing ones.
Addressing the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is another issue that the Catholic Church considers a priority. Botswana has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Statistics are quite alarming. Even though cases of new infections have been greatly reduced, the impact of HIV/AIDS is still being felt. Orphans are in their tens of thousands. It is a stark reality that the government alone is unable to address adequately.
Behavioural change programmes are run especially for the youth. The message of the Church according to bishop Frank has always been abstinence and faithfulness to one partner. The government has incorporated this message in its own campaign against the spread of HIV/AIDS, initially emphasising condoms. This combined effort effectively brought down the rate of new infections.
In the vicariate of Francistown, the Orphaned and Vulnerable Children Project (OVC) assists victims of HIV/AIDS. “We assess vulnerable children in the community and then provide them with food parcels. We also assist them with education”, explained Gape Moshabi, the assistant project officer in Francistown. Currently, they are catering for 272 children. “The government provides anti-retroviral drugs for those who are on treatment. We help them take the treatment and train both parents and kids to avoid getting infected”, added Gape. “The results are encouraging, the community is responding well.” Similarly, in Gaborone diocese, home-based care programmes are in full swing. Trained volunteers and health personnel reach out to HIV/AIDS patients in their homes where they assist them on re-treatment and nutrition issues. What is important for the church is that these volunteers have been trained to offer human love and respect for HIV/AIDS patients. Furthermore, three years ago, the diocese of Gaborone opened a hospice, another sign of the Church’s commitment towards helping the sick. The hospice is run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
The challenges that the Church faces in Botswana are many, mainly a shortage of local vocations, the formation of the laity, and issues of self-reliance. The shortage of local vocations particularly to the priesthood is indeed worrying – in the vicariate of Francistown there are seventeen priests of whom only five are local. Currently they have only three seminarians. The situation is the same in Gaborone diocese where most of the priests are outsiders who have come as missionaries.
Helping the laity to deepen their understanding of faith is also a challenge. Traditional beliefs and ways of life are still dominant in people’s lives. The Christian faith according to the bishops has yet to take deep roots. But great efforts are in place to help the laity assimilate the Christian faith and acquire a better understanding of themselves as a church and disciples of Christ. The church in Botswana is also grappling with the challenge of self-reliance. Having been a receiving church for a long time, it is trying hard to stand on its own feet. Lay people are being trained to see that they have to contribute to the running of the Church. Dependence on outside aid is being discouraged. In fact, sourcing local means is high on the bishops’ agenda with positive results already being achieved.
In the future, Bishop Boniface Setlalekgosi would like to see more initiatives for the youth. This he says would bring them together in the church and therefore create a better pool from where vocations might be born. The future of the church in Botswana lies in the hands of the youth. Similarly, no one would disagree with Bishop Frank when he says, “you cannot build the church without the involvement of the local people [youth included]”.
The Botswana government has been quite honest in its efforts to improve the lives of the people in the country. Money from the sale of diamonds has been invested to benefit ordinary people. In comparison with other African states, most people in Botswana can be said to be well-off. According to Transparency International, Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa. This is an encouraging fact.
The church is evidently a good partner of the Botswana government. Worthy of note in this regard is its partnership in the education and health sectors where the challenge for the Church is how to keep itself free enough to maintain and carry out its prophetic role when the need arises.
The catholic church in Botswana is home to many Catholics from other sub-Saharan African countries like people from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, RD Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria. Most are professionals with sound catholic backgrounds. People coming from outside are also actively involved in the church. This is especially evident at the cathedral in Gaborone where the first Mass on Sunday is filled with people from the diaspora. They have integrated quite well, giving the cathedral parish cosmopolitan traits. Sustaining this integration will definitely be positive for the church in Botswana.
Finally, like most young churches in Africa, the catholic church in Botswana is full of potential. Its vibrancy can be seen in the many initiatives taken by its bishops to make the church more present in the lives of the faithful and in the country.