Thursday, June 14, 2012

Epilogue -- What I Saw in Africa

            In 1922 G.K. Chesterton wrote the book What I saw in America, which was based on his recent experiences in traveling to America. Now anyone who has thought in any seriousness about human relations will know that it is next to impossible to truly convey an idea or feeling to another individual. The feeling that my experience of the world is more real or authentic than another’s is a major barrier in trying to get to know or understand another individual. In writing, this difficulty in trying to convey an experience or feeling or idea to an audience becomes magnified in the interpretations of the readers and failures of the authors. It is this very impossibility, however, that allows for the greatest writing to be born and perhaps more intimately for that rare occurrence of true Love.
            In this post I plan to attempt an explanation about one thing that I saw in Botswana. Do not expect from me, however, an accomplishment as worthy as that of Chesterton’s. It is not possible for me to do any kind of justice in my writing to what I experienced this past semester in Botswana. The overall experience was something so unique that even those who joined me cannot truly understand my own experience. Still, it is possible for me to convey to you some of what I learned. In talking with my fellow students, there was one idea about the culture of Botswana that seemed evident everywhere and led to so many other cultural nuances that we observed. This was the idea of ‘Botho.’ The word ‘botho’ translates roughly to English simply as ‘respect.’ The idea of Botho is summed up in Setswana by the words ‘motho ke motho ka batho’ or ‘I am because you are.’
 It does not take a long time of living in the country before one realizes the vivid veracity of this proverb in Batswana society. The idea that individuals in a community are not as important as the community itself, or that the community defines individuals themselves is permeated throughout the society. Because of this, one finds that most people are extremely friendly and willing to help a stranger in a heartbeat. Even more interestingly, I found that there has been a shift in how this virtue is lived out when comparing the younger generation to that of their parents. Especially in the city, society is becoming more industrialized and more business oriented. As this happens, one sees a shift away from the community importance and more toward the individualism more commonly seen in countries like the U.S. While this shift cannot be ignored, the history and current presence of Botho has not been completely driven out of the city, however. If you are lost on the street and ask a local for directions there is a good chance that she will walk you to your destination herself without the slightest want of repayment. This shows the respect that can be seen for all people as part of the community. 
              In the villages however, this becomes even more apparent and an even more integral part of everyday life. During my village homestay in Serowe, our family would usually have someone drop by in the evenings. It is expected when this happens that the visitor joins the family for dinner. My host-sister told me that this is commonplace in the village. If she does not have food one day, she will simply walk to her neighbors and it will be provided without question. In addition, everyone is recognized in the village. There is no anonymity that comes so inherently with being in the city. As visitors, my friends and I would sometimes be a spectacle on our walk home, as children would commonly show off their homemade toy cars (made completely from scratch) and ask to take pictures with us. The smiles were unceasing. In the Spirit of Botho, when it was time for our group to leave Serowe, my family selflessly slaughtered a cow for the farewell celebrations. In Botswana, cattle are a main source of livelihood for some families, and always a symbol of status. For my family to do this for the group shows the respect they had for us. Everyone was thankful that our lives were connected in the unique ways in which they were. The smiles were unceasing.
            Since coming back to the U.S., people often ask me if I saw a lot of poverty during my time in Africa. It is true, especially through our healthcare experiences, we saw people in distress, in fact we saw people in devastation. We saw people who didn’t understand how to lead a healthy lifestyle. We saw people with struggling businesses unsure of their future livelihood. And we saw people who could hardly afford to keep their children healthy. Sure, we saw poverty—but I can find poverty even in the U.S. In Botswana, however, we also saw Botho, we saw a culture that has been founded on the idea of respect for all people as members of their society. So when people in Botswana would tell me that they want to come to America, as often as I could I tried to tell them: “Yes, great things can be had in America; but don’t forget about what you have, don’t forget about Botho.”

1 comment:

  1. we need to make that a reality here ---in our own small lives...
    Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Botswana!