One of the first things I asked colleagues about when I learned that we’d be coming back to Botswana was where I could learn Setswana. We’d picked up a few phrases when we were here in 2015, but not enough to make us comfortable for a year. And, as a fairly high-context culture, greetings and pleasantries go a long way here. My colleague Boemo graciously told me that he would take it upon himself to find us a tutor and, true to his word, he connected us with a graduate student in the Department of African Languages and Literatures. Evah is smart, wonderful and has proven herself to be a patient teacher to students with two very different language-learning styles.
Setswana is a southern African language with about 5 million speakers, almost 3 million of them in Botswana. My students have assured me that it is an “easy” language to learn, but watching Steve blanch at the fifteen noun classes on the sheet that Evah gave us made me think that it is a bit more complicated than they’re letting on.
Evah says that, as languages go, it is actually “vocabulary poor” and that many words are borrowed or adapted from other languages. The code shifting here is extraordinary – people move so fluidly between English and Setswana that it is breathtaking. I wish it is something I could do, in any language.
We began lessons in October, but Evah and I had met in September to hash out the details (private instruction three times a week in my office for an extremely reasonable price). She tasked me with coming up with a Setswana name and a Botswana village. Steve had to do the same. I decided to place the burden on my students and asked them to write their favorite names. Here are a few photos of some of the ones I liked best:
I think a few students coordinated mini-campaigns to try to get their own names chosen but, in the end, we chose these:
Naledi, which means star and which I’ve loved since we got here.
Masedi, which means lights, and seemed perfect for a blond haired, blue-eyed man.
We’re both from Maun, which is a town in the northwest, in the Okavango Delta.
Our first lesson went well, despite the head-spinning complexity of it, and we learned a few useful phrases of introduction. I was ready to enter the classroom that afternoon and reveal my new name to my students. Classrooms at UB are old school lecture halls, with fixed seats at long tables for students and a podium at the front for the lecturer. I find it a bit intimidating in normal circumstances, never mind when I’m about to try out a very complicated new language to a room full of fluent, bi-, tri-, and occasionally multi-lingual students. The classroom I was in that day has an actual stage, which added to my suddenly acute anxiety. Like students everywhere, mine are a little chatty when I start class but they could tell immediately that something was different and a true, heavy hush fell over the room.
I took a deep breath and said, “Dumelang, baithuti bame” (hello, my students). I was met with huge smiles and applause. Then I said “Leina la me ke Naledi” (my name is Naledi) and the room erupted with clapping and cheering and ululating. It was fantastic. They cheered me on and I’ve been practicing a sentence for them every day.
Steve’s after-class experience was out in the real world. He’s naturally good at languages, but Setswana pronunciation has proven difficult for him. He decided to try practicing at the local village supermarket.
Approaching a man at a vegetable stall outside, he said “Dumela, rra. O kai? Ke kopa ke reka vegetables.” (Hello sir, how are you? I would like to buy some vegetables please).
The veg seller fixed a level gaze at Steve, pulled himself to his full height, looked down his nose, and said in perfect, crisp, British-accented English, “Do you think that just because I sell vegetables I can’t speak English?”
And then he doubled over laughing.
Steve, admirably not flinching, carried on earnestly, “Ke thuta Setswana.” (I am learning Setswana).
This made the man laugh harder. His wife, long-suffering no doubt, locked eyes with Steve and shook her head. But she was laughing too.
Steve finally gave up, joined in on the joke at his expense, and they all had a chuckle about the lekgoa (white person) speaking Setswana. Handing over the vegetables, the man sent Steve off with this – “Tomorrow, come back. I’ll teach you the word for these. But not today.” Enough was enough, for everyone.