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March 10, 2012 Culture Clash – by Carol

Posted by on March 10, 2012

Training:  I have not written for a long time – I have been in training and more training – there seems to be no end to the training here.  I have been training 3.5 of my 6 months here.  Training is an art form in Botswana.  Ironically –the massive amount of training has resulted in a workforce that is highly unproductive and often has no idea how to get anything done.    

Culture Clash – Cultural difference gets harder to embrace and accept the deeper one get into a new culture.  Lately, I have been a part or a witness to many cultural clashes between PCV and Batswana people.  I hope this is happening because we are succeeding in our attempt to culturally immerse. 

It is easy to learn to say “hello”, and we all want to learn the language to be able to converse.  It is painless to dress like local people, and it is doable to slow down ones pace and walk at the same stride.  But after the first month, when we all feel good about how open we are – things start to get tough. 

I have always known the importance of words, but I never realized that our cultural behaviors will mirror the structure of our language.  It seems language is a construction of the way we want to show respect.  The Setswana language is about being instead of doing.  It has way fewer words than the English language.  Batswana are comfortable with silence.  There are no gender pronouns, just a person reference.  Tenses are not used often and you must depend on the context of the conversation to determine future, past or present.  Very few questions are asked, since questions seem to be confrontations or ways of making people have to speak or answer – be an individual.  Instead suggestions or directions are provided which makes it easy to know what to do. 

In Setswana there are many ways to greet people and greetings for multiple places and times of the day – and it is important to use the greetings correctly.  The language is built around addressing community rituals and acknowledging people wholly and completely with all due respect to one’s place in the tribe.  Many English speakers call this a command language – and I think the analogy is slightly off.  It may seem like a command language because, there are few “pleases” and “thank you’s” and there are many directions– but I think it is the way they show honor to their culture and their way of respecting elders and putting the community significantly before any individual.  Young people are not allowed to decide if they should do as an elder asks – they must do it.  So why ask a question and allow them to think there is a choice? 

This county made English its second official language when it got its independence (1966). All government and educational institutions communicate in English.  If a Motswana wants a good job he/she will learn to speak English fluently – but he/she will not speak it like Europeans or Americans – and I don’t mean the sounds or cadence.  I mean they will not speak English with the same culture we do – and it causes a lot of hard feelings.

It just seems so rude to say, “Get me a pencil” instead of “Can you please bring me a pencil”, or “Do you know where the pencils are? – OK.  Thank you”. They will say “Move to that chair” instead of, “I really wanted to sit next to my counterpart – would you mind moving down one?  Thank you”.  And there is never ever a please or a thank you. 

I know Batswana think Americans are very rude when we don’t’ use the proper greeting and especially if we start talking without the ritual three sentences or so that are supposed to go with the greeting to make sure each person in his/her family is really fine.  They also think we are very belligerent when we ask questions in meetings/public places – especially if the person does not know the answer (which is often). They can’t believe we persist in trying to get information in these public settings! 

When any two people start off thinking someone is “just rude” it is much harder to get to a good cultural exchange.  And the language problem is just the start.

American’s become upset when Batswana don’t embraced diversity as we do – we seem to only be willing to engage if they will meet us halfway – even though it is their county!  We are outraged that they don’t express thanks and gratitude as we do.  It is maddening and makes us behave very badly that they don’t strive for the efficiently of time as we do.  We demand that each person be treated as an individual – even though this population thrives on community and not individuality.  And it is extremely difficult to believe any culture would or should be content to be poor and for their children to be poor. 

I see Americans feel sorry for young teens and tweens that are caring for younger brothers and sisters when I also know the teen loves the responsibility and enjoys being given an important family role. 

American’s are very angry that there is little respect for the young, and a great deal of respect for the elders.  We constantly call them ageist (which they think is bizarre). I think many cultures work this way and America is rather unique in its worship of youth. 

I see my fellow Americans get angry that this county is 30 – 50 years behind America in providing equity to all people (women, children, minority tribes, homosexuals) and this frustration is often  taken out on the Batswana trying to effect the changes that took 200 years plus for America to achieve (and not entirely by a long shot). 

I am struggling with a culture that always takes in family but then disregards that person.  The women next door is supporting two brothers, three children, and one nephew, ages 16 to 2.  However, she is never home, because she is at church – every night and all weekend.  I often take care of these children’s needs.  Nobody here seems to think she should be home taking care of the kids. Instead they place the value on her giving them a home since it is expected the people in the village will help raise the children.  I keep wishing there was a DCFS to call.

One of the things I really like about this place is that every single human being is treated with the respect of being a human being.  It is almost a classless society.  Homelessness does not really exist – family will take you in, no matter what.  There are no “good” neighborhoods or “bad” neighborhoods.  Rich and poor live side by side.  Everyone is given courtesy and respect. 

I have seen the most ragged, poor, unbathed person approach someone perfectly groomed in a suit – and the suit will listen, talk and respond to the person in a respectful and equitable way, especially if the person is older. 

Old and poor people are allowed to enter and sit with honor at any and all formal events.  There is no list at the door to say who is worthy of entry.  Elders get the good seats and young fill in the middle and back.

The only people I have seen turned away are those that are publicly drunk – and even then there is usually respectful interaction.  Mentally ill people are also allowed to take part in public events until they become completely disruptive and then they are kindly and gently distracted to the sidelines. 

Every single person in Botswana has free health care.  While many African counties are dealing with massive health system failures and early death due to AIDS – Botswana is providing free ARV’s for all persons who need ARV’s after they become infected with HIV. 

This county also provides 10 years of free education to children.  If the child has high enough test scores he/she is entitled to a free education through the completion of a university degree. 

Land is available for the asking (although not always in the place desired). 

All that seems so good – but………..

Unemployment is very high (50%).  The education system is not very good (40% is a passing grade).  The government is floundering and filled with inane pointless bureaucracy.  This is a socialistic society where people don’t have to work, and they are content enough with very little.  Competition is considered rude and ambition is exhausting.  There is little commerce.  Everyone is too “tired” to work.  There is little direction and individuals do not think about what the future holds for them – they seem content to live in their village and have the same life their family has had for decades.  There still are many poor people who are subsistence living with help from the government. 

In my younger days I would have rejoiced in finding this Botswana “human” approach to life.  However, I also see what the lack of money, direction, hope, or desire can do to a society.  I can’t help but feel it is bad. 

I see crass competition for money and goods has led to many good things in America.  We have businesses that run, government that is accessible and understandable (believe me – it is compared to this), education systems that provide meaningful information to succeed, a relatively low unemployment rate, and people with energy and drive.  We believe we must take care of ourselves first, before we can help other people.  To me, it seems to work so well.  We have so many nice things and so many accomplishments.  Despite our hard work, or more appropriately because of our hard work, our lives are so much easier!  I can hardly believe everyone would not want this.  In fact – many many many people tell me they want to come to America and live in America.

Despite their stated wish to live in America,  Batswana could not abide by the cold and calculated decision to allow fellow human beings who cannot or will not work to suffer.  They would not allow a brother or a cousin to be homeless.  They would not tolerate people dying from lack of health care.  They do not like confrontation – and will not communicate with you if you require accountability.  They don’t think we should be burdened with “hard work”. They believe in community and in sharing – in a socialist communal living arrangement. 

People in Botswana talk of “being free”.  It is not the political sort of freedom we may imagine when we discuss how our freedom/democracy allows us to succeed.  “Being free” here means you have no burdens, no worries, and no commitments – because the village will take care of it – as long as you have a drink of water and a cup of rice everything is fine for the day. 

I want so badly to be able to understand the benefits of this culture – but I can’t help but think they should see the benefits of mine and they should want what I want (education, money, flexibility, efficacy, hope, ambition and control of time) – a different kind of freedom – a freedom which gives me a choice and allows me to choose how I want to live my life.

My inability to succeed in my wish to see the benefits of this culture is uncomfortable for now – hopefully I will get better and better at the cultural immersion and me and them will both find something good to carry the rest of lives from the others culture.

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