Alright, here is the next installment of my info for new volunteers blog posts! (if you missed the last installment you can read it here.) I stabbed my thumb with a skewer stick when I was cooking tonight, so this is a painfully typed post, but I’m determined to get it out no later than a week after my last blog post! I’m going to start this one off by giving you the same disclaimer: these are my experiences and perspectives and don’t represent the views of the U.S. Peace Corps, U.S. government, or the bots government. They also may be different from many other volunteers viewpoints and could be very different from what you may experience here. I am in no way an expert on Botswana, this is just how I have experienced my 9 months here so far.
I guess I should also kind of explain what I mean by culture. In this post, I’m looking at culture as how identity is perceived and reacted to. The societal norms that affect the way a person lives. Many aspects of my identity are not the norm here or very accepted. I’m using my identity as a reference point, so this post does get more personal. I honestly believe that I live a better life by being open about my identity. I’m not willing to oppress myself by hiding who I am to make someone else more comfortable. That being said, my intent in this post is to be informative of Botswana culture, not make you uncomfortable.
So, what should we tackle first?
Religion here is very prominent. Most people are Christian and every meeting and assembly starts with a prayer. I am not a religious person. If anything, I consider myself pagan, but I don’t typically share that with a lot of people. I do have a tattoo on my back that says pagan, and people have read that here and not known what it meant. I am constantly asked by my students and other batswana (people of Botswana) whether I’m a religious person. That pretty much means, ‘are you a Christian?’ here. I say that religion is a more private and personal thing in the States and I don’t like to talk about it much, but I’m not a religious person. This usually leads to exclamations or more questions that I basically just brush off. I also get a lot of questions about my tattoos. There have been people who have said that tattoos are linked to satanism and witch craft here. Since my tattoos are pretty mellow, I am less connected with witch craft than some, but I have been asked if I believe in it.
Youth here is defined as people between the ages of 19 and 35. What does that tell you? You’re not an adult until you’re 35. So, as a 22 year old, I receive far less respect here than I did as a 20 year old grad student in the States. I was proud of my age and would boast about it in the US, but here, I can count the number of people I’ve told my age to on one hand. I do often get asked how old I am, and just simply reply that it’s rude to ask someone how old they are in the States. That’s what my grandma always taught me! “Never ask a woman how old she is.” As the feminist that I am, I take that to mean never ask anyone how old they are. I do tell my students that I began college when I was 16 when I talk about what my high school experience was like in the States. So there is a lot of gossip going around the school about how old I must be, but I just let the gossip run free without confirming theories.
The national language here is English and most jobs require that you speak English. Students and teachers in senior secondary schools are supposed to use only English (except for their Setswana courses) and primary and junior secondary are also supposed to be taught only in English besides the Setswana courses. All exams are given in English, which is part of why pass rates here are quite low. The amount of English spoken can also depend on how big the village is. In my old village, very few people spoke English and I attribute a lot of that to the level of education in the village. Not many people who stay in the smaller villages are extremely educated. So, now that I am in a large bustling village, there is a lot more English spoken. One of the reasons we are in schools is to help with pass rates and a huge part of that is helping with English. In my school, there are teachers from other countries working here as well, so Setswana is not supposed to be widely used. Of course, since it is the mother tongue of so many, that really doesn’t stop it’s use. We have an English only rule in my classes, but the students still constantly whisper in Setswana. I’ll be sitting in my office and my counterparts will be talking across me in Setswana and then not understand why I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t have anything against the language and I do see how being fluent could help me, but Setswana is not an easy language to learn. To top that off, I’m a visual learner and there are no workbooks or tools for me to use. Their dictionaries don’t even work for conversational Setswana. So for me to learn Setswana as well as I would need to to understand what I currently don’t would be quite an endeavor and I probably wouldn’t even see the fruits of my labor until I was nearly done with my service. Don’t get me wrong, I can greet people, start a conversation, and even understand quite a bit, I just don’t see a lot of reason to learn more. I’m here to help people with English and it will benefit my students more to hear me speak English than to fumble with Setswana.
I feel almost as if I went back in time to the 50’s when I moved here. Women are expected to keep house, do all the chores, raise the children, wear dresses and skirts to work, respect men, and be submissive. People are extremely surprised that I don’t have children already and that I am not married (although, that’s less shocking than the lack of procreation on my part). Bride price is still the custom here, so children often come before marriage since many people cannot afford the bride price. My experience as a woman here is relatively different than most local women because I am white. I get a lot more street harassment than my site mate who has a darker skin tone than me. It seems that being curvier also warrants me more harassment here. When I first arrived, I was more often called fat than anything else, but since losing 65 pounds, I’ve acquired a lot more sexual harassment. I’m still not at a weight that would likely lead to catcalling in the States, but I definitely get it here. I also get a lot of shock from people when they find out that I live alone, that I came here alone, that I drink any hard alcohol, that I am not looking to get married, that I don’t think I want kids, etc… Women have a very small box here that they are supposed to fit into. It brings me a lot of happiness to break some of those norms though.
Race and socioeconomic status:
I wouldn’t normally tie these together, but here it’s expected that I’m rich because I’m white. As a white person, people constantly ask me to set them up with white people, ask me for money, and ask me to take them back to the States with me. I even have students who will ask me for money as I am walking by them on the way to a class. I’ve had people follow me asking me for money for blocks. There is also a stereotype here that white people are inherently smarter than black people. Apparently this started because the white people came to colonize Africa and those white people were educated and started to educate the Africans. So therefore white people must just naturally be smarter. It gives me a lot of joy to work on breaking that stereotype as well.
There are many different socioeconomic statuses here. Botswana is considered a middle income country. I don’t have a lot of information on this though because money and socioeconomic status is not as apparent here as it is in the States. I pretty much have just seen people asking me for money and people not, but that also doesn’t say much because I have seen people who are more well off than most ask me for money because it’s just assumed that I have more than everyone else.
Heterosexuality is really the only thing legal here. Even then any sex that is not penile vaginal sex is illegal. It is just assumed that people are heterosexual and if you aren’t, you don’t publicize that. I consider myself pansexual because I think that love is love and sex is sex. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a woman, man, female, male, transgendered. If I love you and you love me or we mutually find each other sexually attractive, that’s all that matters. Would I share that with host country nationals? Absolutely not. If you were to ask me in the States, I would be completely open about it, but people here are almost hostile toward it. My students are bullied relentlessly by peers and even some teachers if they give off the smallest hint that they’re gay. Homosexuality and Bisexuality have been brought up in my classes and at least half the class acts disgusted by the idea that it is more accepted in the States. It kills me when a student comes to me to talk about being bullied for seeming gay. I hate that people have to fight for who they love.
This next bit of info veers from sexual orientation to more general info about sexual practices. Multiple concurrent partnerships are very common here. The government has a system of transferring people from one village to another quite often and with both partners working, that often means that families are separated, sometimes as far as a 20 hour travel from each other. Of course the women are caring for the children generally and quite busy, but they will sometimes still find time for affairs on the side and it is extremely common for men to have what are called little houses or side dishes. In other words, many men have mistresses. There are still some people who follow polygamist customs as well.
Diversity isn’t really widely respected here. Part of the reason the transferring system began was to mix up the different tribes to have the country united as one. Part of that was that they wanted conformity. I don’t think that you can ever truly have conformity in a large population of people, but they have managed to make their norms quite widely received. When issues of gender based violence, women’s rights, and even rape come up, it has been very commonly excused by culture. “Oh, it’s our culture and that isn’t going to change, so we just need to accept it.”
To conclude, there are many differing societal and cultural practices that can be challenging to adjust to. I have found that I have to be a little more private with my identity here. There are some things that I can’t hide and set me apart from people here, but there are some things that I don’t need to share. It’s OK to keep some things for myself because I just don’t need to add to the list of things I get far too much attention for. Of course, I’m looking at norms, so I’m making many generalizations and what I’ve said cannot be said to apply to every human living in Botswana. We have to recognize that there are outliers and people who believe differently. I am just trying to illustrate what I typically face as culture clashes and differences here. I know this was a long one, so as always, thanks for reading!