Tales of fake incomplete education, the hugs, the selfie, the make-up, the pouting & the “Reallys?” and “Wows!”

March 6, 2015

Here is the paradox of our time: the English language especially spoken with an American accent and perhaps spoken even in a more difficult British accent has a way of making the local look educated and sophisticated. Between the flowing drinks on the 19th floor of iTowers the local with a fake incomplete education, the hugs, the selfie, the make-up, the pouting & the “Reallys?” and “Wows!” is walking a tight rope of modernization, self-hatred, self-acceptance, self-discovery and dare we say it; self-redefinition. The lady wears an extremely short dress or skirt, drinking wine, and perhaps add to the picture, a cigarette. She dreams of a place, a far away land from the goats, the dust and the donkey – an achievement of some sort she has only seen on some American channel or perhaps glanced at it on the pages of a glossy magazine. What she dreams of is flight – an escape from surroundings and sweltering reality. If she cannot take physical flight, she will take mental flight and journey to what can be. She wants to visit a romantic place, a place called good living or success. Another one changes the tone and wears an African print from West Africa. It communicates her Africanness to the expatriate and somehow this fabric for a while transforms her and makes her an authentically African being; something intriguing – the call of the drum, the rhythm of the feet, the wild scream of one undefiled in the jungle – something screaming to be discovered, taken over, conquered and transported across the pond.

So when the language question arises. When her language question arises, the local talks about Setswana in fascination, the face beaming with pride and crocodile tears about the loss of the language. The language like the crocodile, the lion and the rhino has become exotic – something to consider in fascination. The local declares with pride and vain regret that she has lost the language. She wishes she could speak it like the grandmother and the grandfather, you know. But you know, she grew in Gabs and she hasn’t had the fortune to know the proverb and the idiom. She loves and repeats the idea that Setswana is difficult – It’s hard – that’s what she says. Somehow she believes in her ignorance, in her alienation from herself. Flight from the self and from her culture; flight from her people, her music, and her idiom elevates her to the position of the foreigner – one who comes from there. She delights in this level of weakness – of not knowing. She embraces it. She relishes it. It defines her. She is herself without the self. She is the shell with someone else within and sometimes without. She is someone created in her mind and in the pages of a glossy American magazine. But this self-erasing; this self-mutilation; this self-castration comes from the idea that everything local is not good enough. So the local leader, the local poet and the artist, the local lawyer and engineer share one common feature – they are rubbish. They are lazy – sloths! Ingrates! She has lost all belief in all local institutions: the kgotla, the kgosi and the ngaka are all relics of the past. If the decision were hers, she would get rid of them; she would emasculate them and put in their place an American or European structure. It is not only the local institutions that reek of backwardness; it is the food and the music too. She despises them all. She prefers coffee, English breakfast, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese cuisine interspersed with American burgers. When she does come around to eat local food, she giggles; she eats them during cultural events that celebrate her unique cultural experience. For to her, culture is nothing that she lives and breathes. Culture is a lifestyle of the poor that she visits once perhaps twice a year. So, once, perhaps twice a year, she eats watermelon, nchwe, kabu, dikgobe or letlhodi. Hers is a life of one in self-induced exile, not just from her own locale, but exile from the self.  So she wanders the streets in wonder. She hears the language. She understands what people are saying but she cannot utter a single sentence without mixing it with an English expression. Her tongue as well takes flight every time she tries to speak. It betrays her. But her education has been incomplete. So her words fail her now and then. The ideas are there but the vocabulary is lacking. So she gets frustrated by herself and everybody around her. Nobody understands. Even she doesn’t understand. Hers is a Sisyphean world of futility – of pushing on a bolder that keeps rolling back to the foot of the hill.

She sits at home. Poverty keeps her company. Pictures of her graduation are on the wall. Her certificates have not guaranteed her a job. Her eyes are fixed on the nothingness of her room. She sucks on her cigarette and blows. Her world has become a room and her life has become a huge ball of inescapable nothingness. So that night she will return to the 19th floor of the iTowers in a Romantic escape to relive her life once again.

MLA Kgasa: one of Botswana’s finest

February 21, 2015

One of Botswana’s finest. Dr. Morulaganyi Lochinvar Andrew (MLA) Kgasa is a pioneer Setswana lexicographer. He is the writer of the first monolingual Setswana dictionary “Thanodi ya Setswana ya dikole”. He was born in Kanye on April 16th 1914. He died on August 10, 2001, at the age of 87. He was the grandson of Motsatsing, whose origins are Barungwane from Kgatleng in Moshupa. MLA (as he was later to become known) was the third son of Tekonyane Dilotsotlhe and Reverend Andrew Kgasa, who was one of the first Batswana ministers of religion in the London Missionary Society (LMS). Kgasa is a graduate of Lovedale. Lovedale was a mission station and educational institute in the Victoria East division of the Cape Province, South Africa. In 1942 he graduated from Fort Hare. Later he taught at Tigerkoof and Lovedale. Some of the people he was proud to have taught at Tigerkloof and Lovedale were the former Presidents Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Ketumile Masire, former Speaker of Parliament Rre Moutlakgola Ngwako and former member of Parliament Rre Goareng Mosinyi. Kgasa is one of Botswana’s finest.


[-anya] versus [-ana]

February 19, 2015

It is now possible to make commentary on pairs of words, mostly verbs, whose endings differ only in terms of the suffix [-anya] or [-ana]. Usually such verbs are used interchangeably in daily discourse by various speakers without any semantic differences being assumed, and perhaps in certain instances the semantic distinctions may not be immediately apparent. Before developing this matter any further, let us consider a body of evidence extracted from a 20 million-word Setswana corpus. We will not consider all the evidence because we lack sufficient space to engage in a lengthy discussion.

  1. farologanya | farologana
  2. fapaanya | fapaana
  3. tlhakanya | tlhakana
  4. gokaganya | gokagana
  5. lebisisanya | lebisisana
  6. agisanya | agisana
  7. moagisanyi | moagisani
  8. kgaoganya | kgaogana
  9. tshwaraganya | tshwaragana
  10. kopanya | kopana
  11. tlhakanya | tlhakana
  12. tshwantshanya | tshwantshwana
  13. ngathoganya |ngathogana
  14. raraanya | raraana
  15. rulaganya | rulagana
  16. kabakanya | kabakana
  17. amanya | amana
  18. kgobokanya | kgobokana
  19. patologanya | patologana
  20. lebaganya | lebagana

Let us consider this pair [agisanya/agisana]. The [-nya] ending seems to suggest that you make two or more things do something. [itaanya] is to hit one thing against another or to make one thing hit another. [patologanya] is to make one thing separate from another. [amanya] is to make one thing touch another/is to relate one thing to another. [kopanya] is to join one thing to another/to cause two or more things to meet or join; [farologanya] is to separate one thing from another. Now let us consider the [-ana] ending. [-ana] lacks the meaning of causality, rather it expresses a state of being. For instance [farologanya] is to cause two or more things to be different while [farologana] is to be in a state of disagreement/separation etc. Strictly speaking [buisanya] is to make each other talk (you cause someone to talk & they also cause you to talk) while [buisana] is to talk to each other/be in a state of discourse. [lebagana] is to be in a state in which two or more things are facing each other. [moagisanyi] is therefore motho yo o agisanyang (because he/she does bring two or more people together) while [moagisani] is a neighbour (people who are in a state of neighbourliness).

Tales of fake etymologies: “sekalaba”

February 18, 2015

This morning I travelled with my friend and mentor, the history professor, Fred Morton, to represent the Botswana Society at a meeting with the Bathoen Trust in Kanye. The meeting was held at the magnificent kgotla offices of the Bangwaketse. We were fortunate to meet Ketsitlile, the Senior Chief Representative. What a great and wonderful man he is. He is weak with age now, but his mind is a living encyclopaedia. We were also privileged to meet Kgosikgolo of the Bangwaketse, Kgosi Malope II. At our meeting was also T.T. Mosimakoko who possesses some impressive knowledge about the Bangwaketse. Mosimakoko tells us of the story of “sekalaba”. Bathoen II’s buses were written “Sekalaba”. Many who did not know the significance of “sekalaba” created a village fake etymology which has since been handed from one person to another with much drama and devastating inaccuracy. The legend goes: Bathoen because of his power and influence wanted to dominate the transport business and therefore threatened potential competitors with the words: “lo se ka lwa ba lwa leka go gaisana le nna!“. He went further, he put the threat on the buses as a reminder to his potential challengers. Instead of inscribing the buses “lo se ka lwa ba lwa leka go gaisana le nna” he condensed the threat and put it in one word “Sekalaba” meaning “(Lo) se ka lwa ba”. That is the legend; that is the fake etymology of “Sekalaba”.


A different story with historical significance however is that during the time of peace and plenty amongst the Bangwaketse, they spread out from “proper” Kanye up in Ntsweng and spread their residences in the valleys below, the place known as Kanye wa marapalalo (marapalalo being the pearl white rock which used to cut through lower Kanye, before people built across it and hacked it off – not to be confused with the hall, named after this rock). During those days, particularly during the period of Kgosi Makaba II, Kanye spread beyond Nneneke, about 7km on the Mmathethe Road to a place called Sekalaba. Sekalaba is derived from the old Setswana verb “go kalabana” which means to “increase and multiply exponentially”. Ka dinako tsa ga Kgosi Makaba II motse le diruiwa di ne tsa kalabana. At the place known as Sekalaba, ke gone kwa go nang le setilo sa ga Makaba teng; this is a rock on which Kgosi Makaba used to sit. Since the village of the Bangwaketse spread from Pharing to this area; the area was named Sekalaba, to capture such impressive increase. Batho ba ne ba kanya (rested); motse o ne o kantse, wa bo wa bidiwa Kanye. So when Bathoen got his bus business, he looked forward to a future in which his business would increase exponentially. He therefore inscribed on the buses SEKALABA, reaching his hand into history, to the time of one of his ancestors; the great Makaba.

The left hand – the hand that wipes the bottom!

February 13, 2015


The left hand is a cursed hand. It is referred to in the Setswana language as letsogo la molema or letsogo le le botlana, the small hand; the most diminutive hand, the less powerful and the most disrespected hand. The right hand on the other hand is the respected hand, ke letsogo le legolo, the great hand, the hand of power. In the Biblical Scriptures, Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father. In the parable of the sheep and goats, the sheep are set on Christ’s right hand and the goats on the left. Those on the right inherit the kingdom of God while those on the left depart into damnation of the everlasting fire.

The left hand is the hand of disrespect. You neither write nor eat with the left hand unless o le segole, the kind that should be left to die in the evil forest at birth. In the past, during the periods of questionable sanitation and hygiene, the left hand was the hand with which you wiped your bottom. In the 1970s and 80s, the left hand was even known as letsogo le le itlhakolang. This was done so that in the event that incomplete hand cleanliness was achieved, one would not poison themselves by consuming their own faecal matter. Actually it is so entrenched in the Setswana culture that one must eat with their right hand to the point that the right hand in Setswana is known as moja meaning the side that eats! Negativity towards the left is not only in Setswana, it is also to be found in English itself and other European languages. The very etymology of the word left reveals very negative roots of the term left. In English the word left has its roots in Anglo-Saxon lyft meaning weak, while right does not just mean a side, but also has positive connotations of correct or propriety. Is therefore any wonder that a woman must always sit on the left hand side of a man? Isn’t this because the left side is the weak side and a woman is considered stereotypically as the weaker sex? The bias against the left hand is not only in English. In Hungarian, the word for right is jobb, which also means “better”. The word for left is bal, which also means “bad”. In Polish, the word prawo means: right as well as law, prawy means: lawful; the word lewy means: left (opposite of right), and colloquial “illegal” (opposite of legal). In Estonian, the word pahem stands for both “left” and “worse” and the word parem stands for both “right” and “better”.

In Setswana it has always been the greatest sign of disrespect to greet or touch someone using the left hand because the left hand is a most unclear hand. To touch or hold someone with the left hand has always been looked down upon as a sign of offence. This belief is entrenched in the cultural beliefs of the Tswana so much that the Batswana have made it into an idiomatic expression: go tshwara motho ka letsogo/lebogo la molema. This idiomatic expression is now used to mean to ill-treat somebody, to look down upon them or to treat them badly.

Setswana mannerisms dictate that you receive that which is handed to you with both hands. This is a sign of respect to the giver. There is a variation to this practice however. It is also acceptable sometimes to receive with the right hand, the clean and respectable hand, while the unclean and weak hand holds the right arm at the wrist or at the elbow. This practice is an important part of Setswana etiquette and culture. Built into this practice of receiving with both hands, sometimes accompanied by a bend at the knees, is gratitude. This means that if someone receives using both hands, the act itself means “Thank you” making it tautological to say Thank you when you receive something using both hands. For a long time the import of this act has been misunderstood. Some have thought the Tswana don’t say enough Thank you. They have accused them of being ingrates, lacking in grace and manners. The truth of the matter is that etiquette is culturally defined; some of it is lexicalized while some of it is acted out in real life situations. Receiving with both hands is therefore one of the Tswana practices of good manners that is usually drilled into children at a very young age. It is therefore not surprising that one of the worst displays of bad manners amongst the Tswana is to receive something with the left hand especially with your face turned away from the giver. It is not what appears as disinterest on the side of the recipient that is a sign of bad manners. It is also not just the fact that one is receiving with a single hand when they should be using two. Worst of all is that one is receiving using a traditionally unclean hand, a most despised hand. Receiving with the left hand is therefore one of the worst insults one can demonstrate/act out to a giver.

A lesson in Setswana etiquette shouldn’t just be lexical. It should not merely focus on what people say. It should include the patterns of behaviour that communicate good manners and decorum in general. Such a discussion cannot leave out the use of hands for one should always beware of the left hand, because the left hand, for a long time in many cultures, has been the hand that wipes the bottom.

Masepa is not an insult or a swear word

February 11, 2015

The first workshop of Son of the Soil (SOTS), organized by Bana ba mmala, was a great success with different speakers tackling various fascinating topics. It was held at the Botswana National Museum’s Little Theatre on January 30th, 2015. I spoke on the future of Setswana language in a globalized world while Batho Molema, who perhaps more than anybody else has recorded Botswana’s the largest collection of folk music and poetry, spoke on Botswana music. Molema shared the stage with the electric Dan Mogami. In this column I consider parts of Molema’s talk that dealt with euphemisms of a scatological nature and relating to genitals.

Batho Molema is old, his hair is grey, so he possesses a rare right, a right to speak freely without inhibition of censure. So on that day when he took to the stage he was on a singular mission: he wanted to deal with the issue of language. He was unhappy that there are those who say that pina ya Setswana e a rogana. He asks rhetorically: Morogano ke eng? Molema is convinced that the Setswana song does not insult. The maxim that pina ya Setswana ga e na bosekelo is not only partly true, but it has terrible connotations; that there could be something bad with the Setswana song, mo e ka tlhokang go sekelwa. He starts his presentation considering a line from a contemporary song. The said line is: o tlaa ja boloko jwa bankane ba gago. Molema is incensed. He says there is no expression like that in Setswana. He poses the questions again: A motho o na le boloko? A le itse boloko? Bommaetsho ba kgapha ka boloko, ba kgabisa matlo ka jone. Why has this artist avoided using the appropriate generic word: masepa? The answer is fairly predictable. The artist considers the word masepa a profanity. Why would that be the case when the same artist doesn’t consider faeces profanity? He proceeds with his education: masepa a podi ke dithokolo, masepa a tonki le pitse ke bopere, masepa a motho one ke masepa e seng boloko. There are giggles of embarrassment and shame across the room. He makes his point clear: we should be saying o tlaa ja masepa a bankane ba gago and not o tlaa ja boloko jwa bankane ba gago since people don’t have boloko but masepa. He is right, that’s how that idiom has been for a long. He develops the argument further, this problem with language affects our naming of genitals, which we happily do in English as penis and vagina, but find it is painfully difficult to express in Setswana without running to euphemisms. He has no time for euphemisms like bonna “manhood” and bosadi “womanhood”.

But is Molema right? Partly. What is considered an obscenity or profanity is culturally defined and depends on a period of time. Additionally different languages draw their swearwords from different semantic domains. For instance someone can insult you in Setswana by merely saying O tlhogo or using a simple noun phrase: your anus. Sometimes they can turn to an idiomatic expression to generate one of the darkest and worst insult you can say to someone: mmago setlhako! Swedes for example use mostly religious taboos when swearing, whereas the English tend to use words that could be regarded as sexually or bodily taboo. Other cultures also have taboos when using words which to them have religious connotations. For example to speak of frogs among the Zuni tribe when engaged in worship would be an act of profanity and thus, be swearing. One of the challenges in many Africans, such as Setswana, is the lack of difference between a swear word and a mere name of genitals as it is the case with English. The genitals are considered taboo and not usually referred to by their proper name unless in an insulting context. Euphemisms are therefore used instead. Expressions such as mapele, bonna, bosadi, lephotlha la marago or even just marago are used to express avoidance of the real terms that are considered offensive and indecent. However, every language has a collection of its euphemisms to avoid offence and

However, there is something deeper and interesting that Molema is trying to draw our attention to. Have we ever considered the context under which the Setswana songs were composed? For instance, are we aware that the anus and the breast were nothing special that could be avoided the same way that they are today? The breast was principally for a baby’s nourishment lacking much of the sexual connotations that it has. The anus was just another part of the body that had to be wiped and kept clean. As Molema puts it mosimane o ne a tshwanetse go se tlhakola dithatha! What is most shocking is how we are tolerant of the same ideas expressed in English and then we consider them taboo when they are expressed in Setswana. Take for example one of Boys to Men’s songs: I will make love to you, like you want me to now try and translate it into Setswana and see the challenge. The challenge is not in the translation. The problem lies in our rejection of expressing the same message in Setswana. This brings us to the second point that must be made: different languages express different concepts differently. Just because something can be expressed in one language, it doesn’t mean the same can be expressed in a different language.

Setswana certainly defines obscenities differently from English. The curse, the swear word as well as the anatomic scientific label have all been wrapped into one in Setswana. Contextually, it is generally difficult to dissect and separate the semantic domain of each of the meanings of the word. So is masepa a swear word? When used to mean faeces, it isn’t. However, there is something crude about the use of the word. There is something rustic and uncouth about its use. This leads us to the final point to make. There is more to meaning than a word’s denotation – its literal or primary meaning. Connotations (the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning) are as important as denotations. Connotationally, masepa is unacceptable.

Sorry I can’t respond to your enquiries

February 11, 2015

In the past year I have had to deal with DAILY requests of all sorts from various corners. People:

  • call my landline or my cellphone
  • email
  • inbox
  • write on my wall,
  • tag me
  • knock on my office door
  • send people to talk to me
  • write letters
  • Whatsapp
  • sms
  • ask questions through my page [otlogetswe.com]
  • etc


What are all these contacts about?

  1. young parents asking for assistance about children’s homework. I get these requests usually in the evenings or in the early mornings when I am at home catching up with the news, friends & family, having dinner or resting.
  2. journalists asking about language and cultural issues or asking for interviews.
  3. A couple of years ago I published a paper on statistical elements of Setswana names and I am currently working on a dictionary and thesaurus of Setswana personal names. On daily basis I receive at least five requests, mainly from expectant ladies in South Africa and Botswana, asking me to suggest a good name for their unborn babies!
  4. Because of my studies in Onomastics I have been approached to give wild animals names! I have named cheetahs and leopards held in parks and nature reserves around the world!
  5. Creative writers in Australia and the USA frequently approach me to provide them with common Setswana names for their characters in their novels or plays.
  6. Students, particularly in tertiary institutions, usually try and avoid reading and doing proper research and instead attempt to extract answers to their challenging assignments from me.
  7. Serious researchers usually contact me for collaborative work
  8. etc

Now all these pose a great challenge for me. Unfortunately I cannot respond to everybody’s request. I neither have the time nor expertise to do so. So, sorry I can’t help most of you. Please:

  1. If what you are asking about can be found in a Setswana dictionary, such as Tlhalosi ya Medi ya Setswana, Thanodi ya Setswana, Setswana-English Setswana Dictionary please buy the relevant book and use it for your child or your work. Put crudely, please stop contacting me about your children’s homework, I just don’t have the time to respond to those requests (Nobody should feel bad and assume that I am referring to them). Perhaps the best thing that one can do is to post such questions on their own wall with the hope that those who can, will be able to help.
  2. If what you are looking for can be googled, please google it yourself and don’t ask me to google stuff and send it to you. Familiarize yourself with search engines including specialized ones.
  3. If you are not my friend (and Facebook friendship doesn’t count-Facebook should have used the term “links”) please don’t call me. Generally, I abhor night and early morning calls.
  4. I am unable to advise on Setswana baby names, unless it is a proper onomastics research. Hopefully the Setswana personal names dictionary that will be published later in the year will help some of you.
  5. I am interested in discussing serious language and linguistic matters (not stuff like “A lefoko “kopi” ke Setswana”) with whoever is interested in language matters.
  6. I am also open to collaborative work in language, linguistics and cultural issues in general.

I hope I am not sounding harsh in this post. I just need to warn people that I simply cannot respond to everybody’s inquiries. I am just swamped.


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