How to Practice Respectful Travel in Botswana
Before beginning my first semester abroad, I was nervous about whether I would be welcomed as a foreigner in Botswana. Americans are notorious for disregarding local customs and may have a bad reputation in some places as a result. I wanted to make friends with locals and have an authentic cultural experience during my travel in Botswana, but I didn’t know much about the culture, lifestyle, or etiquette yet. Luckily, I was warmly received by the locals of Botswana (called Batswana), even when I made mistakes–which I did often. I found that showing a little effort to participate in the local culture goes a long way. Here are some tips on how to respectfully partake in Tswana culture.
Embrace the fashion and the lifestyle
Batswana love when visitors wear traditional clothing. Because there has been relatively little foreign involvement in Botswana’s history, there is no sensitivity around racial differences or cultural appropriation. In fact, my friends and elders were flattered that I appreciated their culture so much.
One of my favorite memories is when my host mother took me to the fabric store to pick out a special print, and then to a local tailor, where we were fitted for dresses together. I wore my dress often in the village and received lots of compliments.
However, most people in Gaborone, especially the younger generation, wear edgy Western clothing, so wearing full traditional attire in the city may come across as dated. I embraced both the village and city lifestyles, and felt at home no matter where I was.
Batswana are incredibly friendly, so people approached me often and enjoyed talking to me about what I was doing in Botswana, and if I liked it there. They also loved to teach me about their music, food, language, and traditions. At weddings, I was encouraged to dance and greet my elders by bowing, shaking hands, and using proper titles. I also quickly caught on to the popular music, and soon enough I was playing “Sista Bertina” and “Skeleton Move” at parties to entertain my friends.
Try to learn the language
Like many people, I have a fear of making a fool of myself in another language, so I tend to cling to what I know best: English. Yet, everywhere I go I realize that learning the local language is incredibly rewarding and useful, even if most people know English.
Batswana are usually really flattered when you to speak their native language, Setswana, even if you’re not very good. Occasionally someone made fun of my pronunciation, but I would not let that stop me from practicing my Setswana. Most people truly appreciated it, especially my host family, who proudly witnessed me progress to speaking full conversations over time.
After passing the early awkward phase, my efforts were well worth it because people were regularly impressed by my new knowledge, and my network expanded once I could introduce myself confidently in Setswana. I remember when I went to buy a banana one morning from a lady at the cab station. I asked for the banana in Setswana, and her jaw dropped.
We had a pleasant conversation in Setswana about how I learned the language and why I was living here, and her appreciation made me so happy that I got over my fear of learning a new language. Of course, not everyone is welcoming to foreigners, but this skill will be very helpful in winning many people’s approval.
Talk less, listen more
This was a tip my mentor gave me when I was having trouble assimilating to my work culture. I had just started my new job at a nature reserve and was having trouble fitting in with my coworkers. They didn’t include me in conversations and were not eager to answer my many questions, so I didn’t feel that I was given a chance to prove myself at my job. Instead, I felt isolated at my workplace, so I asked my mentor, Base, for advice. She explained to me that Tswana is a high-context culture, and that I must watch and learn before jumping in, especially since most of my coworkers were much older than me and expect a certain amount of respect.
Comparatively, at my jobs in the US, I’ve realized that most Americans are talkers and learn by communicating directly rather than observing. Not to mention when I’m nervous or don’t know what to do with myself, I tend to talk more. This can be very off-putting and probably came across to my coworkers as if I wanted to take over, or thought I knew more than them. It also prevented me from properly observing how they communicated and interacted, so that I never accommodated my communication style to theirs.
I took Base’s advice, and eventually I changed my coworkers’ perception of me because I watched how they interacted with each other and adjusted my communication style accordingly. Perhaps equally important, I also got a lot better at understanding their language, so I could glean what their conversations were about without having to ask them to repeat themselves in English.
Although they are quite friendly, Batswana have their own set of stereotypes about white people, and about Americans, like anyone else. For example, as a young white American woman, I was often asked if I was in the Peace Corps because that is one of the most common experiences Batswana have with outsiders. They also usually assumed that I was quite wealthy, because many times white foreigners travel to Botswana to conduct exclusive business or to go on expensive safari tours in the north.
Foreigners don’t necessarily spend much time in the capital city of Gaborone, where I lived. People asked me for money often, and eventually I learned to refuse because I realized they assumed I was much richer than I was.
I also got the impression that, as an American woman, I was considered more promiscuous or easier to date. People sometimes told me this out right, like one of my teaching assistants who asked me very personal questions about my romantic life, or it was apparent by their actions towards me. This perception was also enforced by the way I dressed. For example, I began by wearing shorts on a hot day like I would in the US, but after I received more aggressive attention, I switched to light skirts like many of the local women around me, to blend in more without the chafing.
I also tended to have less conservative views about religion or female gender roles due to my different upbringing. This occasionally led some people to believe I was indecent or disrespectful, so I learned to state my opinions with sensitivity for the local beliefs, and only when I thought it was necessary.
Otherwise, I appreciated the refreshing opinions of my Batswana friends, even if didn’t always agree with them. I could recognize that we held similar values, even if we expressed them in different ways.