Thursday, July 16, 2009

One More In the Name of Love


You think they’re hard to manage in your life? Try dealing with all those normal frustrations, confusions and miscommunications and then adding a pinch of cultural relativism and a dash of language barrier and a fistful of societal quirks.

Voila… complete mayhem!

So I’ve had my fair share of maddening moments with the opposite gender in this country but last week was particularly harrowing. In this man’s defense it is only fair to give you a proper preface to Batswana Love Dynamics… after which I’ll let you decide if he’s is

a) Normal
b) A Stalker
c) Pathetic
d) Desperately in love with me

Now, I can see you reflecting on my phenomenal character and famous good looks and instinctively leaning in to circle letter (d) but allow me to sidetrack you for a moment with a brief review of romantic societal norms in southern Africa.

So, first, a cultural lesson.

Then the story of Baba a.k.a. The First Man Who’s Made Me Feel Irresistible and Irate All at Once

Alright, culture:

To the American mind, Botswana’s love culture is a land of phenomenal ambiguity. It begins with a language that uses the word “rata” to mean both love and like. In turn, without proper context, the audience who hears you exclaim “ke a go rata!” might not know if you’re referring to zeal for a passionate lover or fondness of a warm plate of semp and dinawa (just about the most unhealthy conglomeration of carbs, oil and protein you can fathom but a Damn Tasty Dish… I rata semp and dinawa thata!)

Alright so the language thing seems minor because how many times have you bellowed out “oh I LOVE this song!” and moments later hung up the phone with your hubby citing the clich├ęd yet affectionate “love ya!” Sure, there are ambiguities in English too but, for some reason, the manifestation of this love elusiveness is far more influential in Botswana.

The first time I noticed it was during a class on love and dating where my teenage students were asked to explain their understanding of a number of words relating to the theme.

What does it mean to have a “crush” on someone?
It means you love them but can’t have them.
What does it mean to “date” someone?
It means when you’re in love with them and take them out to get to know them more.
What does it mean to “be dating” someone?
It means no one else can love her because you agree to only love each other.


Then there was the day when the teacher women took the village women to the kgotla for a court case in front of the chief. The village women had been threatening to hurt the teacher women… and why? Well, I asked one of the teachers and she said:

“You know, these male teachers just love everyone. They have a wife but they go out and love the village girls and then they come back and love us teachers and it creates problems for everyone.”


So “love” sometimes gets a bad rap here in Botswana. And it’s also frequently degraded to the level of flirtation wherein a man can meet you once and get your number and then text you the next day “I love you. When can I see you again?” Last weekend a friend of mine was dancing with a man in a club in Gabs and he leaned in and said “I just love you!” (that was a record - we toasted tequila to his remarkable efficiency)

So aside from semantics the other thing to understand is frequency. Now, as a seasoned American flirt, I can pitch with the best of them when it comes to dating etiquette and appropriately Playing The Game. We all know, for example, that you don’t call for 3 days after the phone-number-exchange and you always let the phone ring twice before picking up (so as not to seem too eager). You also never admit to being available both weekend nights (despite the fact that you’ve bought a pint of icecream and planned to watch the Rocky movies marathon-style if he fails to ask you on a date by Wednesday). Oooo, that’s another one—no accepting dates on a Thursday for a Friday… who the hell does he think he is calling less than 24 hours before we’re supposed to go to the North End for a fancy romantic dinner?!

Ahem—where was I?

Frequency, right. Okay, so maybe American dating-norms are a bit too prudish or arrogant but image yourself in a land where No One Fears Looking Desperate… Can you picture it? Well, allow me to illustrate the oddity… this is male behavior that is, not only tolerated, but also encouraged…

- Hounding her friends for her contact information and personal details
- Sending her text messages that liberally use the word “love” mere hours after you’ve met her
- Rapid-fire calling with little attention to the fact that she keeps rejecting your calls
- Sappy voicemail messages not once but THREE times on the first day after meeting
- Continuing this barrage of contact efforts for a full two weeks despite the fact that she responds to NONE of the calls, texts or messages

This was Baba’s routine from July 4th – 14th to my great dismay. The friend who had drunkenly passed on my contact information refused to reveal herself which was smart on her part but infuriating to me. Still, I had seen this routine go down with friends in the past and figured that enough ignoring would eventually send the message.

By the 10th day I was sincerely impressed with his persistence and a little annoyed since my voicemail box kept getting filled and my text message beeps kept going off in class. Still, I was determined to wait him out and not succumb to the gnawing urge to pick up the phone and scream “Leave me alone, you freak!” (I’d been warned that negative attention often backfired and the playing-hard-to-get interpretation tended to mask even the most candid of rejections)

So, day 10 goes like any other day: I go to school, I come home, I go for a run, I come home, I cook dinner, I go to bed. With one Glaring Deviation…

When I come home from my run I find a little blue note slipped under my door:

“Hi Jessy. I just stopped by to say hi. This is my number. Hope to see you soon. ~ Baba”

I am flabbergasted. (I think flabbergasted is a word that’s used too freely in normal conversation but I assure you this was warranted…)

For one, Baba lives 30 minutes from my home which means 50 minutes at rush hour. Helluva hike at 6:00 at night.
Then there’s the fact that he found my house which means he was driving around the village asking people where the white girl lives.
And THEN in the awareness that, had I not been out on a run, I would have had to face this guy and do what... freak out because he’s acting like a stalker? Demonstrate cultural flexibly and invite him in for a cup of tea? Refuse to answer the door? Sound my hand-held-rape-blow-horn?

So, yeah, I was a little shocked and also a little unnerved. I called a few friends who got me to relax by reminding me of Batswana dating norms but then also encouraged me to relay the details to the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer “you know, just so it’s on file… just so he knows…”

I never neglect and opportunity to contact the incredibly-attractive-and-protective Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer (you might remember him from earlier blogs) so I call him and he asks a number of questions and takes notes and tells me to send a single, direct message to Baba saying that I am not interested in seeing him again and that his texts, calls and visits have made me feel uncomfortable.

I do this and Baba stops and all is well.

Remember how in the last blog I was craving the clamor of a Boston night? This week I’m craving all those pretentious, American, yuppie bachelors in white button up shirts drinking captain and coke and playing up their best aloof posture while trying to smile at you with that air of charm and subtlety. I am WAY better at That Game.

Guh. Boys.

Well, I guess it’s all part of the acclaimed cultural-exchange.

Travel has this phenomenal ability to make you crave the novelty of other-ness and simultaneously yearn for the comfort of all those things you’ve Learned and Known and Become from years of static living.

Arrogant American Boys: keep up the good work… consider it part of your cultural identity.

And Single American Girls: hang in there… things could be worse…

Sunday, July 12, 2009


It’s freezing here but every night I sleep with the fan on to drown out the racket.

I literally c r a v e the sounds of a Boston night over this village clatter.

Traffic? Sirens? Car alarms? Drunk neighbors? Melodious compared to the average evening in Newtown Ward of Kumakwane Village.

I keep expecting to get used to it. It’s been 15 months… isn’t there a point of acclimation I’m supposed to reach in all of this?!

It’s 8:32p.m. and I’m exhausted from a cold I’ve been fighting (winter here, remember) but there’s no way I can go to sleep. Why not? Well, allow me to play for you My Lullaby…

There are 7 neighborhood dogs that live within a 50 meter radius of my house. If a goat or chicken happens to wander into one of these dog’s respective territories they go absolutely ballistic. On and on. Barking frantically. Since I arrived my landlord’s dog has had two litters… her 4 remaining puppies bark with just as much zest and hysteria as the older dogs. I have come to loathe the pets in this country.

But not more than roosters. Hell No. My friend Rahj grew up in Gaborone and drives me home to the village now and then. He’s a city boy through and through and when he arrives at noon and hears the rooster he says “Woah… you have roosters here?! Do they crow when the sun rises-- is that actually true?” Uh, yeah. Sun rises at 6:00. Sure, he crows at 6:00. He also crows at 4:00, 3:13, 2:41, 1:56, 1:18… you get the point. Damn bird never stops. Batswana eat just about every species of animal… roosters are an exception. I find this enormously disappointing.

Style. Oh Style. Toothless and drunk Style. He loves to sing. He takes care of my landlady’s gardens and changes my light bulbs now and then. He loves to sing. L o v e s T o S i n g. Style sings all through the night. Competing with roosters and dogs. When he wakes up at 4:00 to heat water on the outdoor fire for the family’s baths… he’s still singing. I prefer his drunken murmurs to the dog’s tirade… but still.

Kumakwane does not have a village newspaper… or any newspaper for that matter. It also does not have a town hall, a radio station, a clerical phone line or a website. The great majority of Kumakwane families do not have cell phones. Parent and grandparent generations have a high illiteracy rate. So how does the kgosi share information with his village residents? Easy: he has a government vehicle drive through the village at 9:00 in the evening (when everyone is safely home from the lands, work, school, etc… a Captive audience) broadcasting important announcements. In the past year I’ve heard this imperious vehicle shrieking about parliament meetings, kgotla gatherings, civilian weddings, community events, court cases and funerals. The loud speakers that broadcast our local “news” can be heard all over the village. It is so phenomenally loud that I honestly believe it could sit in one central spot and be heard by all 3,400 villagers. But, alas, that is not How Things Are Done in Kumakwane. Nope. Instead the vehicle circles the village for hours at a time repeating its announcements in piercing repetition. Sometimes I use this as an opportunity to practice my Setswana listening skills. Sometimes I bury my head under my pillow and curse.

Crickets. They’re nice, right? They remind you of summer. They have that kind of purring, rhythmic sound, right? WRONG. They’re beasts. They breed in my pipes and I swear they’re getting bigger. My house is all hollow cement walls which means one thing: echoes. Such infuriating echoes! Can I justifying spending a heap of money on carpets just to muffle the sound of crickets? I develop sincere empathy for those plagued by the locust in Exodus.

My neighbors in the roundeval hut spend winter nights huddled around their fire. Their fire happens to be a whopping 10 feet from my bedroom window. Family banter is fine. Sometimes they sing and that’s actually lovely. But there are four kids and someone just had a baby. Yup, you guessed it: a Colicky Baby. And so when the baby cries and the toddler whines and the teenagers fight and the mother yells I want to bang on my window and reprimand the whole dysfunctional lot. God, can you image there was a time when all the village families were that transparent?!

Sigh, alright 8:47. Fan time. Ear plug time.

Who’d have ever guessed that of all the things to miss I’m sitting here craving the raucous commotion of a Monday night in Somerville…?

(And here you’d hoped I had something profound to say ;)