June 8, 2010


As I have frequently mentioned, one of the perplexing aspects of Peace Corps service is the way it plays with your sense of time and progress.  I think that for me, at least, this is in part because in order to reach a level of comfort that will allow me to function properly and be effective as a volunteer, I have had to shed many aspects of my America life and identity (not my love of friends and family—you are everything to me!), and reinvent myself here.  So in a strange way, it feels as though I’ve always been here, or at least have been here for a very, very long time, because it is easy (and necessary) to forget what life is like at home.  Yet at the same time it seems as though the time has passed very quickly, and is easy to forget just how far I’ve come—since my baseline for comparison is so skewed.  Because of that, most PCV’s  (or PCT’s, in my case; until Thursday, at least [AHH!!!]) occasionally experience rather jarring moments in which we are suddenly reminded of the progress we’ve made relative to things like cultural acclimation, community integration, work progress, or as with my most recent “Wow, I really AM in Peace Corps Botswana…” moment, language skills.

Botswana is unique (or at least I think it’s unique—I obviously have yet to do a great deal of travel outside of the United States) in that the official language here is English, the national language is Setswana, and there are many other tribal languages spoken throughout the country.  I read this before coming, but couldn’t exactly make sense of it, so let me break it down for you: what this means is that all Batswana are raised speaking their tribal language (which in many cases is Setswana, but especially in the more rural areas, it is often something else—including click languages, for those of you who are curious), then taught in Setswana in early education, with English taught as a second language.  By  about the 4th grade, however, students are expected to be fluent enough in English that all classes are taught entirely in English, and Setswana is offered only as a second language, all the way up to and including at University.  (Off topic, but I can’t help myself, as it's hard to mention this without pointing out the difficulties that this poses for many students, particularly those in more rural areas, where Setswana is their second language—imagine speaking English almost exclusively, then being taught in Spanish until 4th grade, using that Spanish to learn Russian, then being taught solely in Russian from 4th grade on…as you can imagine, this creates some very large hurdles for many students…I have a hunch I’ll be talking about this a lot more in the future, and it’s not relevant here, but it’s difficult to even discuss the topic of language without at least touching on it).  All government workers are to communicate in English, and most signs, advertisements, and food labels/brand names are in English.  Television is primarily in Setswana, except for television shows from the United States, or from South Africa, which are often in Afrikaans.

The result of this, from the perspective of an English-speaking American, is that it is fairly easy to get around using primarily English (though it is always the policy of Peace Corps to communicate as much as possible in the local language, in order to demonstrate respect for the local culture, as well as to facilitate integration into the community, and I would love to become fluent in Setswana while serving).  However, as with each English-speaking country in the world, there is a very different way of speaking English in Botswana, which includes an extremely different accent, very different phrasing and expressions, and is peppered with bits of Setswana. 

Setswana is a very beautiful language, which sounds sort of like an extremely deep, throaty version of Italian ( for istance, o robala jang? [sounds like: oh ro-ball-uh jahng, with a rolled “r”]).  It is spoken very melodically, and native speakers rely heavily on expressive sounds and tones to convey emotions: eish! to express frustration or disapproval; a high-pitched, breathy a-a! (ah-ah!), to express surprise or disbelief; even “yes” aa (a long, drawn-out “ay”—think Fonze from Happy Days—it sounds just like that) or aa-he (a quick “ay-hey,” sort of like “uh-huh,” a casual or enthusiastic “yes”) and “no” nnyaa (n-yah) sound more like expressive tones than structured words when spoken. 

Setswana is also almost entirely a spoken language—it has only been transcribed since the European missionaries have been here.  As such, although there are many grammatical rules, they are often quite difficult to explain to non-native speakers, and also possibly for the same reason, there are a strikingly large number of words have multiple meanings.  Initially, I postulated that words which had more than one meaning primarily because of some similarity between the words’ meaning, or some shared history of their use, but now, after having had two months of intensive lessons and seeing just how many of the words we have already learned have two or more entirely unrelated meanings, I’m beginning to think that it has more to do with pragmatism or something along those lines, than deep symbolism. 

There are some other aspects of Setswana that are hard to grasp for many American-English speakers: for instance there are almost no words for color in Setswana.  There are words for black, white, yellow, green/blue, and red.  That’s it.  No purple, orange, pink, brown, tan…now, obviously in English we may be a little heavy on our color-words (how many colors are in the biggest Crayola box again?), but it is really interesting to think that a culture has gotten around with words for only the primary colors and black and white for thousands of years.  There are also surprisingly few words to express emotion—there is no distinction between like and love, sad and depressed, excited and happy.  Again, as Americans, we are rather touchy-feely, so we may be on the high end of emo-words, but there are hardly any in Setswana.  

Which brings me back to my original point.  These sorts of differences, which do wind up translating into different usage of English, and the very strong difference in accents, even learning to understand and communicate fluently in English with a Motswana is surprisingly challenging.  Re-learning words like “sharp sharp” (pronounced like “shop shop” with a British accent, and used as an alternative for “yes,” or “ok,” or to indicate that something was understood), and using “very nice” or “just ok” to describe everything, “bath” instead of “bathe,” trying to structure sentences as they would be structured in Setswana, all the while trying to speak with a Setswana accent, and mixing in as many Setswana words and expressive sounds possible, is a struggle in and of itself.  I’m sure it sounds silly, but when I first arrived, I felt I couldn’t even really communicate in English—the prospect of ever achieving successful communication was among the many things that, in all honesty, terrified me to my core. 

However, when at site, for the first time surrounded almost exclusively by Batswana, and after having had 8 weeks of Setswana, I found myself nearly fluent in Setswanglish.  After returning to Moleps, the trainees were joking amongst ourselves that this Setswanglish has become so second-nature to us, that we even catch ourselves speaking it with each other; and joke that we will have to re-learn American English when we return home.  I don’t know when or how this shift happened—I have been making considerable efforts to learn Setswana, but didn’t even realize I was modifying my own English.  But somehow, all of a sudden, I find myself more integrated, that much farther, that much more acclimated than I realized, even after only two months.  And it feels good.

I am writing this on Sunday night.  Tuesday is our final PST LPI (language test), Wednesday we go to Gabs to buy supplies for our houses, Thursday we are sworn as official Peace Corps Volunteers, and Friday morning we say goodbye to training (and to each other…for a while, anyway…) and go with our counterparts to our sites, where we will begin our real service as PCV’s.  Needless to say this is among the most exciting, terrifying, sad, thrilling, and overwhelming (I have plenty of descriptive emo-words to choose from; I clearly haven’t lost all of my American English speaking ways) weeks of my life…but ga ke na mathata—no worries; it will be fine... (Yes, Disney people, people here say ga ke na mathata - pronnounced ha kay na ma-ta-ta.  And you're welcome for getting Lion King stuck in your heads...).  As always, I am so, so, so appreciative of all of your support, and for always listening to me and helping me through the good and the bad times.  Missing you all so much!  Wish me luck!

Oh, and I WILL write something about Shakawa ASAP—I just have so very much I want to say about it, I am still collecting my thoughts!


  1. Respectful comments only? I don't appreciate the personal attack. I love your blogs and I miss you!

  2. We want to visit!!! :) You are represented on a map and we plan to come one day but not in 2010.... :) Let me know if I can send you ANYTHING!!!! Food??? Vitamins??? More kickin' cool skirts from Patagonia?

  3. I bet I would love to hear Setswana being spoken. I love hearing the Italians speak. And I can't believe you've been there for 2 months! After 2 months in Europe, America felt like a distant memory... I can't imagine the shift you must be feeling being all the way in Botswana. Good for you! You're awesome.

  4. @Amanda: Actually, I DID have you in mind when I wrote that...haha j/k...I wrote it because as a PCV I have to be pretty careful, b/c even though my opinions do NOT represent the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way, there is still a possibility that people will think that opinions on here do, and this blog could be read by people other than my friends and family, including Batswana, and since I'm not always able to get to the internet regularly to monitor my comments, I want to be sure nothing offensive is posted, because I don't want to hurt my community, my project, the Peace Corps, or my ability to continue serving as a PCV (PCV's can get kicked out for inappropriate blogs and such).

    @Anonymous: who wrote this?! Katherine or Milan, I'm assuming? Or someone else? PLEASE come visit!! EVERYONE should come visit me, it's amazing! And as to stuff I want...I was thinking about posting a care package wishlist, but that seems a little selfish...don't you think? Or maybe it's not...thoughts?

    @Stephanie: Once things settle down, I think I'm going to take some videos and send them to someone in the States to upload, so you might just get to hear some Setswana! I miss you guys and our adventures so much!! I can't wait to hear about all the things you've seen and done...and then make more adventures of our own...I was attacked by a swarm of bees the other day and you guys were the first people I thought of! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!


Thanks for reading my blog. Let me know what you thought! Respectful comments only, please. :o)