It was a rhetorical question that cut through the sweltering heat of one of the finest weddings I have ever attended. The wedding was held in Kanye in a ward called Matlalong, a stone’s throw away from Kgosi Mathiba CJSS where I did my junior certificate for two years in the late 1980s. It was the wedding of Kabo Gaongalelwe, the son of Justice Monametsi Gaongalelwe, the Court of Appeal judge. He was getting married to my sister in law, one Gaone Lekoko, a fine lady of incredible beauty and intellect. It was at this event that one of the ululating ladies posed the question that rang in my mind for some time: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” The question was not directed to me.
Like many weddings these days, the wedding was a fusion of the old and the ultra modern. The young Gaongalelwe gave the Lekokos magadi. On September 13, he with his uncles, brought bogadi to the kgotla for inspection: eight cows and a sheep, the one they call mokwele, or lengwaelo; the very one that should not urinate on the kraal upon delivery to the bride’s kraal or else e tlaa kaba diphatlha tsa tsholo. But on the celebration day, the best man and the best lady had to speak – a practice which is very modern, or better still, very western. In Setswana tradition, there is no space for the best man and the best lady to speak. Their principal responsibility is to hold a brush or a piece of cloth to keep the bride and groom spotless. The uncles and aunts are the ones who speak. So when the best man, one Leatile Gaobakwe, rose to speak; when he spoke about how he met the groom at Maruapula School, and he must have strung together a few English sentences; the rhetorical question was uttered by one elderly lady: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” The old lady had wanted to fuse modernity with tradition. She had wanted to ululate to this giant of a best man who looked like Teddy Pendergrass, but found English as a linguistic barrier; an impediment which hindered her comprehension. So the question was raised: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” The old lady had wanted to delight in the best man’s speech. Hers was a desire to understand; that’s why she picked on that polysemous verb utlwa whose multiple meanings include the semantic scope of understand. Her rhetorical question was therefore a protestation statement; requiring of the giant bear to revert to a language which was easy to understand for her. Her protestations were successful. The giant best man did revert to Setswana, but not before he coughed up a complaint that his Setswana was not good enough. And here lies the dilemma of our success and education. Our success and education have unfortunately dragged some from their language and culture. It has made them strangers to their own people and language. Even the willing praise singers and village ululaters sometimes find themselves asking the rhetorical question: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” when they wish to direct their praise to one of their own who speaks in a foreign tongue. How shall you bask in our praise, if we do not understand what you are saying? How shall we know if you are right or wrong? How shall we identify your brilliance if it lies masked by your linguistic sophistry? How shall we praise you if between us lies a linguistic Nile River which we must traverse to understand you? The question doesn’t confront the best man alone, it confronts all of us. It confronts us in the media. It confronts me writing this column in English for a literate audience which feels more comfortable in reading material in English and not in the indigenous languages. It is a most bizarre situation where news are gathered in Setswana and served in translation to native Setswana speakers. So I do hear the rhetorical questions from a worried villager: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” The question confronts a presenter on radio and a presenter on television: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” The question confronts a poet who writes his lines and rhymes in English; a poet who delights in dissecting his society in English. The question remains the same: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?” How shall we, your audience, join in your celebration and the comprehension of your reasoning if you have taken a linguistic flight and alienated your own people from your message? The question confronts a politician seeking votes and attempting to sway electorates. Politicians probably understand the challenge better and have largely responded to it comprehensibly. They address political gatherings in Setswana because they understand the political capital in the Setswana language. To ignore the Setswana language would be to disregard the communicative power that comes with the language. And politicians are not that foolish. They understand they have much to gain by using the local language, instead of making the claim that Setswana is difficult. Even those whose Setswana language competence is seriously deficient; they have demonstrated admirable courage to attain competence in the language. So though their language competence is poor ba lelediwa mogolokwane ka batho ba a ba utlwa.
So the sun set; the tents were folded; the father of the groom rested from a successful and memorable occasion. On our minds remain memories of a beautiful day. Me, I am still haunted by that rhetorical question: “Re tlaa go leletsa mogolokwane jang re sa go utlwe?”