Patayamatebele — The settlement of Patayamatebele in the North East district, may be small, but it has a rich history.

It is famous for its natural landscapes and rich cultural characteristics of numerous ethnic groups with tens of old gold mine shafts, holy places and an annual attraction for thousands of Catholic pilgrims.

The settlement’s name literally translates to ‘the passage of the Ndebele’ after a group of the Ndebele people who used it as a corridor to cross into nearby Zimbabwe after their defeat by the Batswana and Boer in 1837.

Patayamatebele also hosts the ruins of the first known mining town and the first Catholic Church in Botswana.

The Old Tati graveyard also hosts the tombs of two pioneer Catholic missionary priests, making the place a holy site and the headquarters of the Catholic pilgrims in Botswana.

Every year, around October, on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, thousands of pilgrims flock to the locality to enjoy prayer moments, stations of the cross, rosary walks and to go on spring tours.

Father Monnamongwe Letsatle of the Holy Family Church in Letlhakane seems to understand the story better as he was one of the committee members, led by Father Gabriel Gaie, the administrator of the Diocese of Francistown, to investigate the story.

He explained that Patayamatebele used to be the A1 road connecting Botswana to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Father Letsatle recounted that on April 15 1879, a group of 11 Jesuits pioneer missionaries left St Aidan’s College in Grahamstown, South Africa, enroute to the interior of Africa, arriving in Shoshong, Botswana in July 1879.

The adventure would see the Catholic Church taking root among the Batswana. He explains that many people believe missionaries came with the Bible and guns, stressing however that the 11 missionaries, from different countries, surely did not come to colonise but to evangelize.

Father Letsatle said the Zambezi missionaries, as they were called, were assigned by the Vatican’s ministry for the propagation of faith in 1877, to evangelize Southern Africa, with a Belgian Jesuit, Father Henri Depelchin, who had served the last 18 years in Britain and India, appointed as the Superior of the Zambezi mission.

He explained that on July 23, 1879 they reached Shoshong, the then capital of Bangwato, with a population of about 10 000 people, where they met with Kgosi Khama the Great (Khama Boikanyo or Khama 111) and the brother to Kgamane, sons of Kgosi Sekgoma, the then 36-year-old Christian Chief of Bangwato, the dominant branch of the Batswana.

He said Kgosi Khama, the gentleman of Africa, as he was affectionately called, was to become the only regional chief to give a warm welcome to the missionaries, while many went on to be killed or starved to death by other chiefs.

“Khama was very cool in his reception, certainly due to the influence of the London Missionary Society, and in particular the resident missionary Father James Hepburn, and a certain visiting Father Sykes who were based much further north in Matabeleland,” said Father Letsatle

He said Kgosi Khama stated he had no need for additional teachers (meaning the Catholics) as the Jesuits urged and argued that if they were both Christians, why did they have two parties undertaking the same work.

“He also appreciated that the Protestants and Catholics were very antagonistic towards each other, and that the presence of both may bring conflict among his tribe,” he added.

Father Letsatle said Kgosi Khama was surprised by the second group of missionaries because he believed that God has to be served by one not many and he refused them land to stay and gave them permission to pass through.

“What surprises me is that Kgosi Khama prophesized long time ago that there should only be one church in the country, not many otherwise they would cause divisions among the tribe,” he added.

Father Letsatle said after being disappointed, the 11 missionaries left Shoshong in July the same year and finally arrived at Patayamatebele, which was the former Old Tati, a small gold mine.

He explained that Tati was the last frontier of European settlement to any real extent and it was an important centre, where the roads from the south converged and those northwards diverged.

“As a result it had become an important trading centre from which supplies from the south could be more easily obtained. At the time there were only 19 European and twenty non-white settlers occupying six houses, which were all that remained of the settlement,” said Father Letsatle.

He explained that the missionaries then started a mission, which they dedicated to the Immaculate heart of Mary.

These missions served white settlers and a few blacks, who were working on the gold mine and they later started a school which they named “Our Lady of Good Hope” which ran up to 1885, before the mission closed.

He explained that unfortunately, Father Fuchs was the first to die of unknown ailment nine months after leaving for Grahamstown, South Africa for medical attention. Little did the missionaries know that the place (Patayamatebele) was a fever trap because of the Tati river.

Father Letsatle said other missionaries then crossed into Zimbabwe to found other mission stations, whilst others went to Zambia to establish similar missions.

He said Father Anthony de Wet then took over the leadership of the mission in Old Tati, but he died in 1882. In March 1883, he said Father Prestage, the priest in charge of Old Tati mission, recorded in his diary that he had 13 native and two white children, together with three native adults in the mission school.

However, the whole enterprise was deemed not a success and the remaining miners crossed into nearby South Africa to work at the gold mines, which made it difficult to sustain the mission and it was eventually closed in September 1884.

Father Letsatle said Patayamatebele is where the first Motswana from the Catholic church was baptized, according to archeologist, a certain Mr Burret, who also investigated the area.

“This is one of the reasons why each and every year, Catholics gather at the grave to celebrate holy mass and make pilgrimage to the tombs of our ancestor priests, a spiritual journey accompanied by many promises from God associated with those who believe,” he added.

Father Letsatle explained that on July 4, 1999, a commemorative plaque was erected at the head of the two priests’ graves on behalf of the Jesuit Province of Zimbabwe.

The pilgrimage has strengthened and united the Diocese of Francistown despite its vast geographical reality.

He said there were reports of healings and miracles because this was a Godly place and that Catholics of the Diocese of Francistown consider the place a miraculous place.

“For the past three years that we have been here, we have experienced miracles and healings, be it spiritually, physically or mentally,” he added.