The Village People

The Village People

Taryn and I have spent the majority of our first month in Botswana living in the village of Molepolole (pronounced Moh-leh-poh-loh-lay), about an hour north-west of the capital city of Gaborone. Though we will be living in Gaborone and conducting the majority of our ministry there, we felt that it would be important to follow the tradition of many of the previous Mennonite workers in this country and begin our time here by living in a more remote village. This village living has been done as a means of getting immediately into the more traditional Setswana culture than would be found in the cities. Though “Moleps” is large, the biggest village in Botswana, it retains traditional cultural practices more than “Gabs.” In Gaborone, though western culture is prevalent, the traditional customs, practices, background and beliefs form the framework through which even the overtly North American or European façade is interpreted. In many instances, though the structure of business or relationship or even faith may seem familiar to us as western expatriates, the local underlying assumptions may be completely different from our own.

We have been living with the Koogotsitse (Koh-ho-tsee-tsay) family (fa-muh-lee; I’ll stop sounding out words now) in the middle of the village, in an area called ‘New Town.’ Indeed, the area in which they live does not seem traditional to the same extent as much of the rest of the village. The traditional life is still here, but some of the wealthier, more educated families live around us, and therefore there is something of a convergence of cultures, something found to varying degrees throughout Botswana.

On the day we arrived in the village, we got settled into the clean, new cinderblock-walled and tin-roofed room which we were given (despite it being clean we have had an ongoing battle with massive cockroaches, which somehow made their way from the outhouse and into our room; at night it is impossible to use the outhouse as they cover the walls and floor like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie). We then spent some time sitting with Mma Moeti (the mother of our family, named in reference to her firstborn son, Moeti) as she washed clothes in a large metal basin in the courtyard. She asked us what our hopes were for our time with them, to which we responded that we simply wished to be able to observe the daily comings and goings of their life, to hopefully pick up some Setswana, and to be helpful rather than a hindrance, if possible. Mma Moeti, a recently retired school teacher of 30 years who speaks excellent English, said that she would happy to accommodate us as best she was able. She then called to one of the children in Setswana (two of her grandchildren live with her) and instructed us to follow them into the house.

We sat on the massive, plush leather seats in her living room and proceeded to be shown a DVD on their 42-inch plasma flat-screen about Botswana traditions and customs. Mma Moeti was featured in the DVD, which was done by a family member as part of a class project. Afterwards she asked us if we needed any clarification. She further expounded on her statements in the video that traditional culture in Botswana is fading, and needs to be reclaimed. Mma holds to the view that the country needs to be able to embrace the modern world for the sake of the economic stability and future prospects of the country, but at the same the traditions which have been shaped and refined over the centuries cannot be forgotten or neglected. She sat there exemplifying her own perspective, well educated and wealthy, in the traditional garb of a Motswana wife, washing her families’ clothing by hand, outside of her television room. Mma then gave Taryn pause by proclaiming that she was going to teach her how to slaughter a chicken.

There is much that makes Botswana not seem so foreign to us foreigners. Our first week in Molepolole apparently coincided with the final week of the most recent season of “The Amazing Race,” as we heard reference to it in a few places, were given the rundown of the list of interesting American duos remaining in the competition, and saw the show being played in a few different locales around the village. Satellite dishes on the sides of modern buildings and grass-thatched huts alike are common throughout the country, uniting people with much of the rest of the world in evening entertainment options. Television, brand marketing, movies and popular music have much overlap the world over, most of it originating in the United States and Europe (cultures very much related to us in Canada), thereby creating a sector of familiarity the world over. Seeing Leonardo DiCaprio on a banner advertising some watch brand or another, while in the midst of a transaction in an unfamiliar language at a local shop, is surprisingly comforting.

For people in Botswana, having been exposed to North American culture through their television programming and otherwise, we of different skin-tone are maybe not entirely unfamiliar. When I was younger, growing up in Gaborone, when we would play soccer (football) matches against the more rural schools there was often a crowd of people simply gawking at the fact that a white person would be playing at all, yelling at me during the game, amazed if I somehow did something well, and affirmed when I messed up. It seemed somehow bizarre that someone clearly not from Botswana would be playing a game so familiar throughout Botswana.

That was about 10 years ago. Two weeks ago Taryn and I went with a few of our new family members here in the Koogotsitse home to a small, dusty, broken glass and thorn covered football pitch near our house for a game of pick-up. By the time we left two hours later our group of 7 had turned into about 40 children and youth, ranging from 5 to about 20 year old. Though it was clearly somewhat unusual to have a few white people playing on this little field, people did not seem particularly amazed by it. In fact, Taryn has been informed on a few occasions that it is known that white women are good at football, as they have seen the skill displayed Canada and the United States in the women’s World Cup on TV.

The village itself is made up of a few paved roads which divide the different wards, and in between is crisscrossed with dirt double-track roads and footpaths. Dogs, goats, chickens and cows wander around, and how people are able to keep track of the location of their livestock is beyond me. At night the village is incredibly noisy, as the cicadas here are massive and very loud, the dogs bark to each other from far and wide, the roosters crow at about midnight, 2am, 4am, and 6am, and the donkeys bray consistently. They’re our favorite, we never realized how hilarious donkeys sound. The other day we were sitting and talking inside while visiting a friend when Taryn suddenly started laughing, having heard a donkey in the distance getting louder, before racing into view of the open door braying loudly with its head up as it ran, and then disappearing into the distance.

During our short time in Botswana, Taryn and I have been very graciously received by many people. We are just beginning to learn Setswana (I was negligent as a child growing up in the British schools here and did not learn the language), and with our meager words and phrases people have often shown appreciation at our efforts. It is humbling for us, especially as the majority of people we meet speak English. We have been to a few different occasions, such as funeral prayer services, as well as two weddings, and people often welcome us into these times of gathering as guests.

For one wedding three weeks ago I was given the opportunity to sit with the elders of the family the night before the event, as they got together for their meeting to discuss the food preparations for the following day. The hierarchy among the men was apparent, with the older given seats of honor and the younger men given what was left. I felt honored to be able to be a part of it, knowing that I was definitely not in the correct age or experience bracket. However, they wanted to give me a chance to be a part of something which they knew I had not previously witnessed. After a while during this proceeding one of the men nudged me to follow him, which I did as we crouched through the doorway of a dimly candlelit grass-thatched hut. Piled high against the walls were stacks of the haunches, intestines, ribcages and heads of three freshly dismembered cattle, the meat for the feast the following day. I found myself agreeing to come and help them cut them up at 4 o’clock the next morning. I arrived the next day, and we spent the next 6 hours cutting up meat while the cooks began preparing them in the massive cast-iron pots sitting over carefully prepared coals. The elders of the family treated me as their own, and were sincerely appreciative of my unskilled efforts to aid them (actually I did build a pretty sweet un-mortared brick wall around the fire pit, I’m just saying). After finishing the meat we drank bush tea and ate fat cakes, and I struggled to catch the occasional word as they joked back and forth in Setswana.

More recently, we were also able to attend the wedding of a friend who we lived with as a family during our previous years in Botswana. Taryn and I were both welcomed as family members, and we had cheap viagra and cialis a great time. I shared some words during the reception, including a message from Mom and Dad Dirks, some of it written in Setswana, which the crowd appreciated. After, I sat down and Taryn smiled at me, only to have her face drop as she was called up to the front to deliver a message of her own (she did a great job, and it was actually good that she was only told then as she had no time to be nervous at speaking in front of a few hundred people, mostly strangers).

The church services which we have attended in Molepolole have been new experiences for Taryn and I as well. While there are some mainline denominations in the village (Anglican, Catholic, Methodist), most of our family attends an African Initiated Church, called the United Evangelist Church of Christ in Africa, founded by Mma Moeti’s cousin. We have been largely welcomed into the congregation, which meets in the shade of a large thorn tree outside of their cinderblock church building prior to the service, where everyone greets each other. The service itself consists of constant standing for singing, in which most people are clapping and moving, followed by everyone taking a seat, only to jump back up again as someone begins another song for everyone to join, without any songbooks or lyrics on big screens. This lasts for about an hour, after which a handful of people from the congregation (some deacons, some lay ministers, some church members) are told that they will be preaching. They come up one by one and preach from a scripture passage of their choosing, sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for 20. The messages are broken up by more songs by the congregation, some initiated by the speaker, and some initiated from within the congregation as they give the speaker a chance to gather her thoughts as she seems to falter. Most of the speakers are women. One of the young men in the congregation informed me that the church voted about 5 years ago to allow women to be preachers, and that the church has been experiencing growth since that time. The strong female leadership has been a good thing in his estimation.

During our last service at UECCA in Molepolole we were invited to come up and share some words with the congregation. Though I had been given the chance to share who we were and where we were from in our previous occasions there, this time both Taryn and I were told to give a message. With a translator, I gave a brief talk in regards to passages I had been reading in Exodus 20 and 34, and then Taryn shared from her readings of Psalm 23. While it was a bit nerve-wracking to be asked to speak at a moments’ notice, we felt honored to be able to participate in their service. They made us feel like special guests our whole time there and really showed us hospitality as a congregation.

We had many new and enjoyable experiences in Molepolole, and spent time just wandering around to get a feeling for life there. Visiting the original village settlement of Ntsweng in a valley in the hills above the current sprawl was amazing, as was seeing the Molepolole River flowing through the cliffs out of it into a beautiful little gorge just below Livingstone’s Cave (where 19th century explorer and missionary David Livingstone had an interesting interaction, hopefully we’ll have a chance to write more about that at some point). We also had a great evening at the local stadium watching the Botswana national under-17 team (the Zebras) tie Algeria 1-1, despite being down to 10 players for much of the match. The crowd in the stadium did not know what to make of us, mostly assuming we were cheering for the largely Caucasian Algerian team. Some people booed us and wagged their fingers at us, though when they realized we were cheering for Botswana we received high fives and hugs. We also spent numerous hours just playing and hanging out with Faith and Thuso, the grandchildren of Mma Moeti who live there, and who eventually stopped just watching us eat and interact and laughing at the way we do things. We enjoyed their company. Taryn also particularly enjoyed taking care of Tlotlo (please try to say his name fast), their cute little two year old cousin. The whole family made our stay enjoyable.

On our last day in the village, Taryn and I walked around to the houses around the Koogotsitse yard to say gosiame (‘goodbye’; alright one more, it’s pronounced ho-see-ah-may). Walking to each others’ houses and visiting is a part of village life which a number of people we have talked to say they regret has not been able to carry into the cities in the same way. The elders who we visited and had visited a few times during the month were gracious and appreciative. We hope to see them again when we go back to Molepolole to visit.

Knowing that we were about to move to Gaborone to start preparing a house for ourselves there, one older woman, a cousin to Rra Moeti, went into her cupboards and found some bowls and mugs, which she sent with us. She said that it is traditional to send young family members who are starting a home with some basic items for the home to make the transition a little bit easier. For Taryn and I, the whole transition to Botswana without much familiarity and without our friends and family has certainly been made easier by being welcomed in by our new Botswana family. We now look forward to transitioning into our home in Gaborone.