A national crisis is looming. Old people are dying and many young people don’t reach old age. Bagolo or adults, are thinning out at an alarming pace while people in their 20s are ballooning (both meanings intended) rapidly. Statistics reveal that the over 60s are fewer than those in their 20s. It is increasingly a privileged state of the few to be referred to as mogolo. Or is it? It is this term mogolo which interests me greatly. MLA Kgasa in his column Motlapele (Mmegi, Vol.6, No. 44. 24-30 Nov, 1989) grapples with what it means to be a mogolo in a Setswana context. Writing under the title A re leseng go fora bana re re ke bagolo, Kgasa concludes that in a Setswana cultural context 21 years of age doesn’t make one an adult. A 21 year old, Kgasa writes: “O sale ngwana yo o laolwang, yo o kgwathisiwang ka lorato.” For Kgasa Setswana recognizes a 28 year old as an adult “yo o ka ikarabelang, a gorosa mosadi”, although he concedes, “le gale mosetsana o ka nna a nyalwa a le masome mabedi le boraro jalo.” He argues further that a 60 or 70 year old is not an old man, “Ke motho yo motona”. To be an old man you must be at least 80. It is clear from Kgasa’s brief discussion that matters of social responsibility and age are cultural and contextual.
The term mogolo throughout our social web is appropriated to serve various social functions. A few years ago when MPs were attacked for absenteeism, the response was swift and crude: “Lesang go tlhapatsa bagolo”. In this context the criticism constituted an insult, while the MP, merely on the basis of being an MP, and not because of age, was a mogolo. Perverse as this may seem, there is a way in which Setswana recognizes the holder of social responsibility as a mogolo. In Setswana when one marries, regardless of age, they immediately become mogolo. Conversely an unmarried man in his 70s, is considered culturally mosimane, a boy. Age has nothing to do with the definition of adulthood in this context.
Recently the young have appropriated the term mogolo and they have sucked all cultural viscera out of the term, leaving it hollow. Everywhere you go, you hear: “Ao, dumelang mogolo”, “Mogolo, o ne o re ke tle leng?”or “Mogolo, kana mme ga o dire sentle”. What does mogolo mean in these contexts? It certainly does not mean someone in their 60s or 70s. It is also not a term of respect; its use actually appears disrespectful. It is definitely not a term for those with social responsibility. It is a linguistic pig’s ear, a nightmare for lexicographers. Perhaps it is the development of a looming national crisis where old people are dying and many young people don’t reach old age. The term mogolo, like youth, is wasted on the young. Perhaps Kgasa was right: “Banana ke dikgomo tse di dinaka. Bagolo ke tse di tšhotšwa.”
The term faces similar tribulations faced by nkgonne (Ke itumetse nkgonne), ntsalaka (Wa reng ntsalaka?) and boss (Ga go na gore re ka reng, boss).
But does the term need preservation? Far from it, language is only a tool of communication. It is in a constant state of flux. Richard Chevenix Trench in a compelling paper delivered to the London Philological Society in that cold November evening of 1857 argues that “the ways into which language has wandered or been disposed to wander may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has travelled: as much as may be learned, or nearly from its failures as from its success, from its follies as from its wisdom.”By the look of things the problem of who bears the label mogolo will continue to annoy us for a while as those imbued with youth wring the life out of the term and those seeking honour and recognition grumble and fight to keep it exclusively for themselves. Perhaps words have no meaning – only concepts do. Perhaps.