Questions of Cyclical Migration

Questions of Cyclical Migration

Résumé en français

Pourquoi les tribus Tswana, parmi d'autres groupes tribaux d'Afrique australe, migrent-elles de manière cyclique ? Cet article relate l'histoire du clan Barolong Boo Rra Tshidi de l'ethnie Tswana qui s'est installé à Makgobistad. Makgobistad est un grand village situé dans la partie nord de la province du Nord-Ouest, à la périphérie de la frontière du Botswana. Il s'agit d'une enquête sur l'hybridation des établissements ruraux, de la vie communautaire à l'individualisme. L'individualisme est une conséquence du colonialisme et de l'apartheid, mais peut également être attribué à divers facteurs globaux tels que le manque d'éducation, les frontières spatiales irrationnelles et le cloisonnement des systèmes de croyance. Le projet faisait partie de la maîtrise d'architecture paysagère de l'auteur à l'université du Cap.

Why do Tswana tribes, amongst other tribal groups in Southern Africa, cyclically migrate? This article relates the story of the Barolong Boo Rra Tshidi clan of the Tswana ethnic group who have now settled in Makgobistad. Makgobistad is a large village in the northern part of the North West province, on the periphery of the Botswana border. It presents an enquiry into the hybridisation of rural settlements from communal living to individualism. Individualism is a consequence of colonialism and Apartheid but can also be attributed to various global factors such as poor education, irrational spatial boundaries and compartmentalisation of belief systems. The project was part of the author's master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Cape Town.

The Project

Figure 1: Project site location

The modern permanent settlement as we know it today can be considered “new” to the Barolong. The image below indicates that merely seventy years ago [more than a lifetime these days], the Barolong lived in traditional settlements. These traditional settlements were conceptualised by intentional spatial ideations informed by a plural cosmology (Maqsud et al. 1991).

Figure 2: The evolution from a traditional village layout to a more dense settlement pattern and the associated pathway patterns

The enquiry in Makgobistad was to uncover and discover cosmology through mapping, literature and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). These factors were used to understand how the Barolong hybridised themselves into a global context. The study specifically observed cosmology as an extension of technics. How do technics with migratory cosmologies adapt or diminish in a world where cities are automatically permanent? What is the place of temporal settlements and diminishing plural cosmologies in our speculative futures are key questions of the enquiry?

The manifestation of the Barolong cosmology not only concludes with migration but is also revealed in their settlements. The Barolong’s process of selecting ideal settling areas exhibits their awareness of the human’s place within the environment. The markers of these ideal places were a hill and a river. The widely adopted western lens compels society to regard these as merely a safety mechanism, but Mosienyane argues otherwise. Mosienyane (2013) argues that Tswana “spaces” were given spiritual connotations to maintain the Setswana culture’s resilience. The hill and the river were spatial markers engraved in Setswana societies through language as being sacred areas. In Makgobistad, for instance, Thaba ya Pitsane (hill) is regarded as the protector of the settlement where diviners go to speak to Modimo (the one above).

Furthermore, the Molopo river is sacred, where noga ya metsi (water snake/divinity)resides, providing rain for the settlement. The elders tell stories of the water snake to instil fear and ensure sensitivity towards large water bodies. The same applies to the hill where sacred animals reside, which are not to be hunted by the community. Myths, originating from the community, are assigned to sensitive and important wild plants (Mosienyane 2013) as a means to protect them. These mystical annotations, assigned to sensitive environmental areas, can be considered a form of spatial design derived from cultural preservation and storytelling.

Figure 3: The sacred relationship between hill, river and settlement

Arturo Escobar claims that cosmology and technology are ontologically linked and comprise rituals navigated through modes of being and doing (Escobar 2001). Yuk Hui builds on this narrative with the concept cosmotechnics which means “…the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art making. There has not been one or two technics, but many cosmotechnics” (Hui 2017, 7). In this regard, cosmotechnics refers to designing surroundings through technical activities. Therefore, technics [including cities] are not anthropologically universal; they are facilitated and inhibited by specific cosmologies resulting in multiple cosmotechnics.

Figure 4: Traditional homestead layout and materials vs hybrid settlement technologies


Thinking on Cosmotechnics

How does the cosmology of the Barolong translate into cosmotechnics? It is challenging to restitute the constellation of disturbed ontologies. Studies are limited to the writings of colonial missionaries, anthropologists, ethnographers [the white gaze] and a dying population that still values IKS. To a degree, it is a distortion to take IKS, and then translate and morph aspects of it to fit academic purposes. This is why studying these multiple cosmotechnics needs to be coupled with how we learn about them. The afterlife of this study gravitates to the ideas behind ‘critical fabulations’ by Saidiaya Hartman, which proposes a decolonial tool to archive the unarchivable. This approach aims to go beyond the history books by continuing narratives where they might end, proposing, as with cosmotechnics, other ways of seeing and storytelling. Fabulations account for the fiction allowed in Barolong indigenous storytelling – that a story evolves in its lifetime, allowing room for shedding what is no longer necessary, and making room for what will be needed. The Barolong story is about migration and metamorphosis. Their architecture is left behind when they migrate, therefore, their culture is what they leave with, and their technology [techics] lies in the process of remembering and forgetting.

Figure 5: The introduction of the fence as primary threshold and its impact on settlement patterns

The notion of cosmotechnics by Yuk Hui (2017) teaches us that there has always been ‘more’ where we might think there has been ‘one’. The notion of ‘spatial justice’, as understood through the lens of cosmotechnics, advocates for the equal distribution of physical space and resources but also of other technics outside of the colonial canon. Included in spatial justice are philosophy, concepts, and cosmology. In the framework of cosmotechnics, spatial justice becomes spatial ‘justices’, which are embedded in various local cosmologies and frameworks of spatiality and justice. Additionally, this spatial justice promotes the many ways and combinations that people relate to space and architecture. In this scenario, not only do people have the right to the city, but they have the right to speculate what a city is, guided by their cosmologies.

Figure 6: The relationship of villages to each other and ultimately to the greater settlement - pluralism to individualism

 If for the Barolong, a city requires mobility and seasonal migration, then it is pertinent to think about whether spatial justice for them means access to this mobility. There are several ways that people design their spatiality, and as Ann Willis (2006) claims, those ‘diverse designs’ design our way of being. If the spaces we design, design us, then spatial justice is an architecture of our own freedom.


A similar version of this article first appeared in Jus’t Spatial Design ZA, 10 August 2022. It is published with the permission of the author and Jus’t Spatial Design ZA.


Escobar, A. 2018. ‘Designs for the Pluriverse,’ in Designs for the Pluriverse. Durham:Duke University Press.

Hartman, S. 2008. ‘Venus in Two Acts,’ Small Axe, Number 26 (Volume 12, Number 2), June 2008. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hui, Y. 2017.‘ Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics’, e-Flux, 88. Available at:

Maqsud, M. and Rouhani, S. 1991. ‘Relationships between socioeconomic status, locus of control, self-concept, and academic achievement of Batswana adolescents,’ Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 20(1), pp. 107–114.

Mosienyane, L. 2013. ‘Place Making in Tswana Culture.’ Mosienyabe and partners. Available at: Place Making in Tswana Culture (Accessed: 2 September 2018).

Willis, A.-M. 2006. ‘Ontological designing,’ Design philosophy papers, 4(2), pp.69–92.


All figures by the Author