She was the fourth wife of Khama “the good” or Khama “the great”. Semane Setlhoko Khama’s husband Boikanyo Khama, also called King Khama III, became the ruler of the BaNgwato and under his rule and with his approval, Bechuanaland (now Botswana) was put under British protection in the 19th century in what was understood to be a military alliance against enemies.
However, the British government started to claim power in the land after some time. Khama III would fight that, with the help of his wife Semane. She was not only the mohumagadi (queen or queen mother) of the BaNgwato of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, now Botswana, but was also a Christian leader and teacher.
Born in 1881, Semane was descended from BaBirwa and BaSeleka from the Tswapong Hills on the edge of the Limpopo valley. She became queen mother after Khama III’s daughter, Bessie Ratshosa, told her father that she thinks Semane is the best person to lead the BaNgwato women due to what she has achieved personally as a teacher, as a committed Christian and temperance advocate, according to a report by SOAS, University of London.
Note that Khama III had grown up getting exposed to Christian teachings by an evangelist in Bechuanaland. He got baptized in 1860, becoming one of the first baptized Christians amongst the BaNgwato. Inspired by his Christian principles, Khama III banned alcohol and polygamy during his reign. He also abolished the payment of bride prices and got rid of an initiation rite in the clan that usually ended with the killing of one of the initiates. Semane helped him promote Christianity among the BaNgwato, becoming a senior deaconess of the church.
As a mother and wife, Semane gave birth to five children, but only two survived to adulthood; her daughter Bonyerile, and son, Tshekedi, who later became Regent of the BaNgwato, from 1925-1950.
Khama III would pass away in 1923. During Tshekedi’s regency, Semane went on to perform her deaconess duties. She saw to it that there were more women in the church and trained them to hold their own classes in Serowe and other BaNgwato villages. As years went on, she started preaching in services held at the central village meeting place, which was before then a place restricted for male politics.
Semane also provided leadership skills to local women teachers who encouraged girls to attend church and school. “By 1930 the church had become predominantly female, and Semane had led women Christians into the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, forming a branch of the worldwide WCTU called the Women’s Regiment of Beer,” SOAS, University of London, writes.
Besides her church activities, Semane also promoted modern midwifery and medicine and helped improve the welfare of children.
Today, the achievements of Semane’s husband Khama III might have overshadowed hers but her legacy remains in Botswana and can be seen in the levels of activism, women’s education and politics, and women’s church groups in the nation.
Semane passed away in 1937 before Botswana gained its independence in 1966, with her husband’s grandson Seretse Khama acting as its first President.