Botwana Sunrise

Another beautiful morning here!

We found a blog post done by Liana Mehring back in 2012 (, while she was a student at Georgetown and studying in Botswana for a semester. Her comments are very enlightening and offer anyone, with an interest in knowing more about this lovely country, an insight to its many aspects.

The blog post is printed in its entirety here:

“What can language tell us about a country? Botswana means “place of Tswana.” The Tswana are the dominant ethnic group in Botswana, and the citizenry of Botswana are referred to as Batswana, or the Tswana people. Setswana is the language of the Tswana people and the dominant national language. To recap, you have the Batswana people living in Botswana and speaking Setswana.

The prefixes change the meaning of the word Tswana, with bo referring to the land, ba to the people, and se to the language. The term Batswana, however, bears a double meaning. In official government rhetoric, Batswana is an all-inclusive term for the entire country’s citizenry. Ironically, the word contradicts this rhetorical inclusiveness by specifically referring to the ethnically Tswana people as distinct from the country’s various other ethnic groups.

This double meaning highlights a tension in Botswana between an official narrative of national unity on the one hand, and the reality of a diverse population dominated by the Tswana people on the other. This double meaning also perpetuates the dominant, albeit debatable, assertion that Botswana’s success and stability as a multiparty liberal democracy is rooted in its having a ethnically homogeneous population. Although this homogeneity is certainly a contributing factor to Botswana’s national success, I would argue that the responsible management of the country’s valuable natural resources, including its diamonds, is an even greater source of stability.

Linguistically supported fictions perpetrated by the government, however, contribute to the myth of a non-ethnic society despite the presence of minority ethnic groups, such as the Kalanga, Kgalagadi, Herero, and Yeyi. In the 1990s, these groups challenged the Tswana majority for both recognition and influence in Botswana. At its worst, the Tswana majority’s non-ethnic rhetoric is superficially harmonizing and ultimately supremacist in effect. At its best, however, such this language could be a means to realizing a genuine ideal of civic participation being open to all individuals regardless of their ethnic identity. Thus it is clear that double meanings abound in Botswana.

Pula is also a word saturated with meaning and symbolism. It is most immediately the Setswana term for rain, but it is also the term for the country’s currency. As a landlocked nation covered largely by the Kalahari Desert, rainwater is a scarce and extremely valuable commodity in Botswana. Pula is also a term for blessing or luck. As such it is the national motto of Botswana and is featured on their coat of arms. A single word encapsulates the rain that nourishes the country’s crops, as well as the wealth and blessings that follow from this rain.

Names in Setswana also bear a multilayered significance. Nicknames are common here, running the spectrum from the clever to the absurd. So far, I’ve either met or heard of people named Reptile, Touch, Oral, Laptop, Danger, and Swimming Pool. Nicknames like Kelly and John are often a Westernization of traditional names, mercifully offered for the benefit of foreigners like me. This is despite my best efforts to pronounce the guttural g’s and rolled r’s in Setswana, which are usually cut short with, “You can just call me Kelly.” But beneath every nickname and anglicization is the Setswana name given by someone’s parents, each one with its own unique significance.

For example, everyone knows one of my friends as Double O. Sitting with him on the benches outside the dorms, I’m likely to hear “Double O” shouted at random across the quad, identifiable amid a stream of rapidly spoken Setswana. Double O’s name is derived from his first name Omphemetse, which means “I saved you.” His second name, Mogomotsi, translates to “someone who offers comfort and solace.” These names fit his personality as someone who is a loyal friend to those who know him. The second “O” comes from his last name, Oneile, meaning, “he has given.” This fulfills Double O’s designation as a caregiver: Omphemetse Mogomotsi Oneile, a savior who has given comfort.

While talking about the significance of names in Botswana, Double O said that he believes names sometimes function as self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, he knows someone named Kenosi who is an old man without a wife or kids. His sole caregiver is someone who, in Double O’s own sympathetic words, “isn’t even a relative.” Kenosi in Setswana means, “I am alone.” Double O also has an uncle named Senatla, which roughly means, “someone who works hard and does that work perfectly.” Senatla’s name embodies his work ethic, and he is beloved throughout his village for working hard to plan weddings, funerals, and other important life events.

Double O was quick to add that these examples were merely his own observations. But now that I’m aware of this unproven yet intriguing phenomenon, I’m eager to discern the meaning behind every name. As for me, a couple of my local friends spontaneously gave me a Setswana name, Keitumetse, which means, ‘I am happy.'”

One thought on “Botwana Sunrise”

  1. A well-written blog, which helps those of us not living there, to understand a bit more about their society, traditions, and lore. Thank you for sharing this!

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