June 23, 2010

Strangers With Candy

Learning to integrate into another culture can be such a mental roller coaster.  There are some days when it doesn’t feel different here, and I start to think I’ve totally got it down, and others when it seems that the very fabrics of Setswana and American culture are literally mirror opposites and I’m living in Bizarro World.  And not in a bad way—or a good one, either—just that things here are so different that there are moments when I feel like every instinct I have is wrong, and in order to succeed I should just do the opposite (and yes, that was dripping with Seinfeld references—when you’re feeling removed from her own culture, what can you do but cling to the familiar?).  But really, it can be quite unsettling at times—an, again, not even in a bad way; just in a “I need to entirely relearn each and every social skill that I have developed over the past 27 years if I am to succeed here without going crazy” sort of way.  Take, for example, the following scenario:

You go for a run.  As you leave your house, a complete stranger tells you he likes your shoes and demands that you give them to him.  Then you run into a woman who you met once before (and by “met,” I mean passed on the street and said “Hey, what’s up?”), she asks for your cell phone number, and informs you that she will be coming over for dinner tomorrow night (and, in fact, she will).  Finally, as you run past houses and compounds, every single child that is out playing begins screaming “white girl / foreigner” (lakgoa) and many join and trail behind as you run, demanding candy, money, or toys.

Now in America, each of these three events would not only be uncommon, but be considered pushy or rude, and one might assume that each of these people were either discriminating against a foreigner or trying to take advantage; the children would be severely scolded for leaving their house without their parents’ permission, talking to a stranger, and following her for miles.

In Botswana, however, none of these people were overstepping their bounds; if anything, these actions were attempts to welcome me into the community.  You see, Setswana culture is a collective culture.  People really don’t think of things as his and hers, yours and mine.  Whether it’s food, a computer, a shirt, or a broom—if I have something you need, you are free to ask for it and, in most contexts, it is expected that I will oblige.  What’s mine is yours—literally—even if I have never met you before.

And admittedly, this is the portion of Setswana culture that I have struggled with the most.  As an American, we are so swept up in ownership, that even to an anti-materialistic so-called “hippie” like myself, the ideas that it’s okay for someone to demand to use my things (people here really do not ask—they only demand, which is also initially off-putting when acclimating from American culture), and that I would be the one who would be considered rude if I refused…well they were really hard to grapple with—I was initially unsure whether I was attracting people who were trying to take advantage of me because I am a foreigner.  But on the contrary: in Setswana culture, in part, because employment is difficult to come by, and there is a great disparity between those who have and those who don’t, it is simply expected that people will take care of each other, and that if I have something that someone else needs, I will give it to him/her (and, he/she would do the same for me).  The gentleman asking for my shoes was not only not out of line, but in a way, acknowledging that I was a part of the community, by expressing his feeling that I should share my things with him.

Now, onto the woman asking for my number and inviting herself to dinner at my place.  In America, even asking for someone’s cell number in this context, let alone putting a perfect stranger in the position of hosting a dinner would be far outside the realm of normalcy.  Yet here, this is absolutely routine.  Nearly every person that you have even the smallest interaction with—the person you sit next to on a bus, someone you meet on the street, someone you have a brief conversation with at the grocery store—will take your number or give you theirs, and extend an invitation to their house, or say they will come to “check” you (another piece of Setswanglish—no one comes to “visit” or “hang out,” they “check” you). And unlike in American culture, where a remote acquaintance might say “we should get coffee sometime,” but both parties know that nothing will come of it (and even if it were to happen, it would be at a coffee shop, a neutral meeting place, not at either person’s actual home, and neither person would be responsible for entertaining the other), here, people actually mean it.  It is entirely normal among the Batswana for nearly complete strangers who live in different cities to become friends on the bus, then spend the night at each other’s houses the next time they are in town. 

Now, were I just to read about this and not actually experience it, I would probably get all warm and fuzzy from the thought of how great it would be to just be part of a big family.  And it definitely does have its perks—it is actually a shame, because I have met so very many kind people here, but because of my lack of familiarity with Setswana, and the sheer volume of people who have given me their contact information, I find myself with dozens of Setswana names in my phone, and dozens of memories of people I have met, but absolutely no idea which name corresponds to which person, and if I could remember, I could call on any of them at any time (I just don’t want the embarrassing mistake of calling someone and trying to figure out exactly who they are and how I know them). 

But, again, it is like all aspects of cultural difference: it not better or worse, and the experience is very different from the idea.  For instance, because it is so culturally expected that I will open my home to everyone, whether or not I actually like my new “friend”is kind of irrelevant—unlike in America where I can choose my friends, here even refusing to give my number to someone, or not inviting someone to my house for dinner is considered extremely rude (unless the person is legitimately threatening or otherwise unsound).  My home is not really a private space—anyone is welcome at any time, so (especially since my living space is one room), I don’t ever really have the freedom to be messy, not have clean dishes, or not have food in the fridge.  I can’t really relax or be “off” until nighttime—because someone could come “check” me at any time, and I will be expected to play hostess. 

Of course, the same courtesy will be extended to me, should I ever need it.  When I stayed at my counterpart’s mom’s house on my way up to Maun with her, I was not allowed to lift a finger—dinner was prepared for me, they made my bath, offered me tea, and gave me all the hospitality that an American would offer a dear friend or family member—and they had just met me.  And it’s kind of exciting to take someone else’s number (when you actually remember who the person is).  There is a cashier at the Choppies who has been really nice to me, and I got her number and invited her to dinner; then when I accidentally left an item behind after shopping one day, she immediately texted me and made sure to hold onto it for me until I came back the next day.  Again, not good, not bad, just entirely, entirely different.

Now, onto the kids.  There is absolutely no perceptible concept of “stranger danger” here in Botswana.  Children do not hesitate to speak to strangers, and even the overblown cliché of avoiding “strangers with candy” is unheard of; on the contrary, children frequently follow strangers around asking for candy (which, as an American, raised with that myth, I can’t help but find an eensy bit comical).  Children are not at all scolded for following a complete stranger down the street for miles—they don’t even have to ask permission before leaving their houses.  The upside of this difference: a completely trusting society; children are not trained to fear each other, which creates an environment that allows for such ease in making friends, as discussed earlier.  The downside: a dozen children trailing me every time I run.  Well, it’s not entirely a downside—it’s nice to have company, and certainly makes me feel safer…but runners will understand; it’s much harder to “zone out,” which, for many like myself, is among the primary purposes of running in the first place.  As with the other instances—privacy and independence are sacrificed for a communal social structure.

Finally, as an American, when I was first faced with being identified as lakgoa by nearly everyone—and not discreetly or subtly, but openly shouted at me, even by children—I couldn’t help but assume that it was an insult, that I was being lauded for my different appearance.  Indeed, in America, were you to publicly announce or identify someone by their race or ethnicity, it would almost certainly be an insult or threat.  And admittedly, even in Setswana culture, it draws slightly more attention than calling someone tall.  But, really.  I’m a white American…in a village where over 90% of the population is African.  Of course this draws attention—but it’s not the word that does that.  Despite the fact that I am a distinct minority, there is no hostility intended by identifying me as lakgoa.  There is no difference between identifying someone as fat, thin, tall, short, black, foreigner—these are just identifiers, and they do not carry additional weight.  The Batswana I have met do sometimes identify certain traits as being lakgoa traits, based on other Americans and Westerners they have met, but there is no stigma intended.  Botswana actually has a remarkable history of interracial relations, particularly relative to this region.  The first president of Botswana, Tautona Sechele Khama, married a white woman from England—the very country from which Botswana gained its independence in 1966.  Even in America in 1966 interracial marriages were extremely controversial—so you can imagine what a huge statement this made.  Further, Botswana is a country composed of many different tribes, with many different cultural backgrounds, but tremendous efforts have been made both by the government and the people of Botswana to create a national identity that trumps local tribal identity—not entirely different from the “melting pot” approach to Americanism.  As a result, the identification as a foreigner, or acknowledgement of differences is not considered insulting, simply a statement of the facts.

Now I have to be honest, it has taken me a long time to adapt to all of these differences.  There have a lot of days full of annoyance and frustration, and it is something that I will inevitably continue to struggle with for the next two years—even though I am acclimating, I am still, after all, an American.  I actually avoided writing about this topic, because I was so concerned that addressing these differences would be considered offensive to the Batswana people, for whom I have the utmost respect.  But after having spoken to many Batswana, I realized that the only reason I felt uncomfortable talking about the cultural differences was because on some level I still had not accepted them, and was projecting my own views, without realizing that the Batswana are very proud of their collectivist culture.  When I tell the Batswana the way the scenario about going for a run would play out in America (ie: Go outside for a run.  Maybe say hello or wave to people you pass, or maybe pass without saying anything.  Go home.), they react with the same bewilderment and mixed emotions that any American/Westernerns probably did when you read the first scenario.

So as you read this, I find myself fully immersed in the very challenge that attracted me to Peace Corps service: learning to live in another culture, and integrate into a world so very different from my own, but in a way that still honors my own values and culture—to try to see the positive aspects of both sides; identify the similarities, and embrace and explore the differences.  And, as fate would have it, take candy from strangers…it’s not easy, but someone has to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Chels. From reading about it, I will say that those differences sound kind of appealing in a grand way. Granted I'm witnessing them from your observations and not having to deal with playing host and giving away possessions, but I know for a fact that having kids trailing behind me on my runs would be an absolute blast.
    Appropriately so, I can't help but hear the Rocky theme playing...


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