I have been in Botswana for 6 months and I am loving it. I am fascinated by the way Batswana live and think but mostly, what captures my attention on a daily basis is of course the language. The pride Batswana have in their language and heritage is something to behold. Although I am a moTsonga, I am fluent in Setswana and consider it to be my first language because of the upbringing I had in the Bophuthatswana, but I am often gobsmacked at how much there is to learn still. My Setswana vocabulary is expanding and often in non-formal interactions. Language is exciting you guys – I am falling in love with Setswana all over again. Of course being in Botswana and working for the organization I work for also introduced me to French which I am thoroughly enjoying and studying through the University of Botswana. It is amazing how a few months ago I knew no word of French and now I can carry out basic French conversations with so much ease. Don’t worry – I will be learning a new African language soon – probably Swahili. I am fascinated by how the mind works in terms of language learning specifically – heaven. So here are some of the few experiences (I have had a lot more) that rendered me (in a good way) speechless, yes I know, me – speechless.
- Water Utilities call-centre: During the Christmas break I woke up with no water on one of the days and after the landlord had checked and figured that the problem was not in the complex, I called the call-centre. Being the festive season I was concerned that I would not be assisted, but in a matter of a few hours, the issue was resolved on a day before New Years’ eve at 23:00. Anyway, I digress; the post is about language and not service delivery which was great by the way. For the first time in my adult life I conducted a call-centre conversation not in English. I was surprised at myself. I had actually chosen the English option when prompted by the pre-recording but as soon as the lady answered the phone, I switched to Setswana. I thought she was going to tell me it was the English-line but no. She simply continued and we held the rest of the conversation in Setswana. I think from now on whenever prompted I am going to choose this option. We don’t speak our languages enough y’all.
- ATM: Ever chosen to use the ATM in another language other than English? I must say the first time I did it I was so panicked. But I reminded myself that there was a red button to cancel if I was in too deep so I could stop at anytime. Needless to say I was worried over nothing – now I easily choose the Setswana option. Aren’t you proud of me? 🙂
- Optometrist: I am not sure how I am going to fully describe this experience. I visited the optometrist to get a new prescription of contacts. The Optometrist was Indian and he spoke to me in Setswana. Someone said to me he probably memorized basic Setswana phrases because he asks the same questions everyday. Other than I didn’t think that was the case, I don’t actually care whether he is speaking from knowledge or cram-work but when a non-native speaker speaks to you in “your” own language – that is commendable. I found out after the fact that the man is actually from Krugersdorp in Johannesburg. He never learnt any African language when he was in South Africa but when he relocated to Botswana, it was paramount to learn Setswana. How do I describe this phenomena?
- Airport: At the airport the other day I couldn’t help but observe an interesting interaction. The Airport Service Agent who happened to be black was assisting a white couple. The first thing was the greeting which was initiated by the way, by the couple, the woman to be more specific as she was doing most of the talking. “Dumela Rra (Hello sir),” she said which was duly responded to “Dumela Mma (Hello mam).” The rest of the conversation was amazing to me because the agent continued to speak in Setswana and the traveller spoke in English. Just a flowing conversation with no “I don’t understand your language,” or any such utterances. It sounds awkward to hear a non-black saying I am a Motswana and hear them saying it with pride. That was a tender moment for me. I immediately thought of South Africa – oh my beloved country. How I would love to see non-blacks actually speaking or showing an interest in learning at least one African language. I think it would help us in one way to make strides in achieving the rainbow nation we often speak about. Language – the great unifier or divider.
Why in the world did we ever believe that our languages are not powerful? We must fight to keep our languages alive – seriously. Walking or driving around Botswana is another sobering experience. Billboards are actually in both English and Setswana but most are actually only in Setswana – the whole copy. When I visited Germany with my aunt (Mary Kekana) in 2015, I was frustrated at times that everything was only written in German, but I get it now. Let us restore pride to our nations. I now get why our languages are an integral part of who we are and how almost replacing that with another has done a major major disservice to our psyche as Africans, but maybe more close to home – South Africans.