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 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 genitalia.
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 the word “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 time. 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 swear words 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 African languages, 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 embarassment.
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.