This mother’s day, I will ask my mother , “Mama, a le batla go nwa tee?” This sentence translates to, “Mother, would you like some tea”. The translation misses and fails to convey the most important underpinning of Tswana culture and the immense cultural subtext that has shaped the lives of Batswana. It lacks the philosophy botho which governs every aspect of life in Botswana.
Botho is defined as a deep recognition of another’s humanity and the interconnectedness of all our lives. It is encapsulated in the phrase, “motho ke motho ka batho”, loosely translated to, you are who you are because of the people around you. At its heart, botho strives for social harmony, mutual respect for those around you and a collective understanding of striving for the best version of oneself and society.
Traditional life in Botswana revolves around tea, it is served to guest to express hospitality, shared among family members during family gatherings when discussing important matters while sitting around an open fire. It is safe to assume that when there are two or more Batswana, regardless the occasion, tea will be served.
Back to offering my mother tea, the original in Setswana uses the plural is to show respect and reverence for her position as mother but more importantly to reassure her that I have broughtupsy, that I will carry with me into the society. Botswana paradoxically also tend to a status driven society, if one does not show the right amount of botho, that is seen a direct reflection of the parents failure to raise the child well and the family will generally be looked down by society. It isn’t uncommon for parents to restrict who their children interact with.
British colonization from the mid 1800’s to 1966 ought to explain why I’m offering my mother tea as well as Batswana’s tendency to be more formal in social settings and very status conscious. It is common to wear suits to work, be referred to by full titles such as Prof., Dr, and Mr. in a bid to signal status. They will be warm and friendly to strangers but conversation is often sprinkled with what some may consider to be humble brags. An example would be, “my father is a chief in so and so village”. Generally, no offense is intended, it is merely subtle ways of stating ones social standing and pedigree in order to navigate the complex social structure.
Botswana has a population of just over 2 million in the area size of France. It is safe to say that everyone is somehow related. What others may consider to be a brag is in fact an attempt to place oneself in the complex social structure and suss out how the other person relates, to find some common thread. One usually responds with, I am familiar with your people or clan, my aunt is married to your cousin. We are one big extended family that seeks to get along.
At the heart of the society is the family. A collection of families make a Kgotlana, a ward which is usually headed by a Kgosana. A collection of wards then makes a Kgotla headed by a Kgosi (Chief). A Kgosi Kgolo (Paramount Chief) heads the entire tribe.
Botho is applied in traditional governance structures through consultations which usually start from the ward and make their way up to the highest decision making body of the tribe headed by the Kgosi Kgolo through representatives. This ensures that everyone is given a voice and representation but more importantly, botho calls for social harmony. These forums also act as traditional courts where grievances are addressed and resolved.
The constitution of Botswana has provisions creating a House of Chiefs to serve as advisers to member of parliament on traditional issues. The drafters also made provision for traditional governance by legitimizing the authority and power of the Kgosi’s by recognizing the Kgotla’s role in conflict resolution provided it operates within the framework of the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.
Botho is so prevalent in everyday society it is was part of the national pillars. The national development vision, Vision 2016 was drawn up in 1996 after nationwide consultations led by a Presidential Task Group. The vision was created to attain ‘Prosperity for All’, as well as how it adjusts to the rapidly changing global economy and social order. The concept of Botho can be seen with pillars 3 , 6, 7 calling for a ‘A Compassionate, Just and Caring Nation’ , ‘A Moral and Tolerant Nation’, and ‘A United and Proud Nation’ respectively.
Botho is the reason Botswana has not gone the path of most African countries and fallen into the resource curse. Nationalizing diamonds, our biggest source of income and investing heavily into the society through building public schools, hospitals, roads and good governance was brought by valuing and respecting the common humanity among all Batswana. Luck also played a role, Botswana is semi arid, 40% desert and naturally was not a particularly appealing colonial acquisition. The British didn’t want to invest too much into her governance choosing a system of indirect rule under via South Africa. This fortunately meant that Botswana had some semblance of self determination and a continues cultural heritage undiluted by British rule. The civil unrest in neighboring countries served as a caution further reinforcing the role botho in ensuring social harmony and peace.
With the rise of globalization and more western influence in Botswana, it will be interesting to see how the society evolves and reconciles botho, an inherently collectivist outlook towards life with more individualist western ideals. Hard to imagine the country ever losing botho all together but possibly a botho 2.0 will emerge. My generation having come to maturity on the back drop of an economic recession will perhaps be more willing to take risks and be more individualistic perhaps pioneering new industries that will not only enhance their lives but also steer the country away from her dependence on diamonds.
Or a gloomier future will be my son saying to me, “Hey Dad, i am getting some tea, help yourself if there is any left.”
To read more, I recommend Culture and Customs of Botswana