08.17.09

Africa journal part 3: people

Posted in Travel at 7:36 pm by ducky

(See also part 1 and part 2 of my Africa postings.)

It’s sort of cliche to say, “the thing I liked best about county X was the people”.  We said that about the people in Quebec City, for example.  The people in Botswana, however, take it to a whole different level.

There is a concept in southern Africa whose name in Zulu you might be familiar with: ubuntu, or in Setswana botho.  It’s not just an operating system, it’s a philosophy of life, almost a religion.  The word encapsulates generosity, warmth, openness, and acceptance, but also an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all people.

Botho/ubuntu is highly valued in southern Africa; in North America, not so much.  I’m not saying that North Americans think that warmth, generosity, openness, and acceptance are bad things, just that they are not valued as highly as other things — like getting the job done quickly and cheaply.

One concrete manifestation of this is that all transactions start with an inquiry about the other: Hello/hello/how are you/fine, how are you/fine, thank you.  While this happens in North America, too, you by and large don’t say it to strangers.  In North America, when it is your turn to get served, you just say what you want: “One ticket to District 9, please.”  Not so in Botswana: all transactions get the full greeting.

Furthermore, while I can’t prove it, I think the Batswana (people of Botswana) mean it.

Valuing botho leads Batswana to be nice, but also it seems like they feel it is their patriotic duty to make sure that tourists have a good time.  Botswana has three basic sources of foreign currency: diamonds, cattle, and tourism.  That’s pretty much it, and everybody knows that.  Everybody understands that diamonds, cattle, and tourism are what funds their roads, their health system, their universities, etc.  Thus it is important to the health of their country that tourists keep coming back.

Botswana is also a very small country: 1.7 million people in a country roughly the size of Texas (which has 24 million people).  In addition to connections being important (see botho above), everybody knows everybody.  (We stopped at a random fast-food place in Francistown at one point, where our Motswana friend B. had lived for about four years, eight years ago.  Of the ten or so people in the restaurant, B. knew three.  At the hotel we stayed at in Kasane, B. knew one of the desk clerks.)  Even if a Motswana doesn’t work in tourism, somebody they know will work in tourism: their brother / sister-in-law / cousin / cousin’s husband’s nephew, somebody.

Finally, Botswana is a politically stable, relatively prosperous country.  Botho doesn’t get sacrificed to sectarian violence, nor to hunger.  I didn’t see any beggars in Botswana, and the only street hawker we saw had come over from Zimbabwe.  (South Africa and Zimbabwe are not prosperous countries, and we did see street hawkers in both of those countries.)  There was zero reason to fear getting beaten for my political beliefs, and I never worried about getting mugged.

I was profoundly affected by how nice the people in Botswana were.  It was a little bit jarring to come back to the USA, where I wasn’t really supposed to ask gate clerks how they were, and certainly wasn’t supposed to care.  I find myself much more wary in North America, with our high number of beggars.

I think that Canadians value botho a bit more than people in the US.  So oddly, I think that going to Africa made me a little bit more Canadian!

Leave a Comment

Powered by WP Hashcash

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.