AUTHORLiana Mehring Liana Mehring is a junior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in Culture and Politics and pursuing a certificate in African Studies. Originally from Greenwich, Connecticut a combination of will power and powers greater than herself brought...
March 16, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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On Botho, a Binding Social Force Amongst the Batswana People
May 31, 2012 | 2 COMMENTS
As a visual introduction and explanation of this idea my friend sent me a picture. The image was of children sitting in a circle with their feet stretched out before them and touching in the center. The picture captures the essence of botho as a deep interconnectedness amongst all people. I asked my Batswana friends what botho means to them and they described it is a value promoting harmony and respect amongst people living together. The concept defies simple explanation but one friend distilled botho to “Having a deep sense of another person’s humanity. How to demonstrate being a human being to another human being.”
As a rapidly modernizing country I am concerned about the increasing influence of Western values upon Botswana’s traditional value system and how botho is affected. Members of past and present generations voice a common concern that Botswana is currently experiencing the rise of individualism and the decline of botho. Ironically, globalization and the increased interconnectedness of the world appears to be undermining the interconnectedness of the Batswana people. Individualism is a western-export that challenges botho by replacing the “we” with the “I.” My friend explained to me that in the past botho required that you acknowledge the humanity within everyone and greet even strangers upon the street. A friend described the past as a world in which ‘there used to be no nobodies.’
Today however my friends describe a world in which people are more inwardly than outwardly focused as well as increasingly status-conscious and individualistic. Whereas before everyone was respected for their common humanity, today greater respect is accorded to one’s individual wealth and social standing. Circles of association are being drawn in and becoming more exclusive. For example, weddings and funerals that used to be completely open to the larger community are today increasingly private affairs. My friends explained how botho calls upon people to move towards one another and discourages them from drifting apart or being alone. As Botswana incorporates individualism into its social fabric however many worry that botho is weakening as a binding social force amongst the Batswana people.
In addition, botho today has become more of a civic or public virtue than a personally held and lived-by value. Increasingly, botho exerts less of an influence upon daily interactions and is invoked mainly in formal situations such as when working with strangers or professionals. In the past, botho demanded mutual respect shown to everyone regardless of who they were and the context of the interaction. This universal show of respect was expressed in both words and subtle mannerisms. For example, if sitting in a group one would never have their back turned to or be facing away from another member of the group.
Older generations observe today however that the mannerisms of the current generation and urban populations especially are ruder and less expressive of botho. Whereas botho used to dictate the respectful terms of interaction in all social settings, today botho has become more of a formality. In light of botho’s diminishing social power however, it is still invoked in moments of disagreement as a means of personal defense. When professional negotiations or personal interactions break down due to a lack of respect, someone who feels attacked will invoke botho as a reminder to the other person that they deserve greater consideration. Botho means we are all human and therefore deserving of respect. Invoking botho in defense of your dignity asks of the other person to bring this shared ideal back to the forefront of his or her thoughts. Botho however is deserving of more than just temporary revival and should be brought back to the forefront of society’s collective consciousness as well.
RESPONSE TO LIANA MEHRING FROM ALISSA ORLANDO July 15, 2012
Liana - I really enjoyed reading your piece and think that this idea of communal appreciation of the individual is very interesting. I have heard from others that this "botho" is being challenged by the advancement of Western cultures and values. However, I am always conflicted on this point. I would agree with your point that an increasingly commercial culture exacerbates class distinctions and may lead to community members assigning value to others based on socioeconomic privilege, as opposed to a ubiquitous common humanity.
However, globalization can also introduce new economic opportunities. With the exception of 2009, Botswana's GDP per capita has increased at around six percent every year. I would assume that this has increased people's quality of life significantly, so I always wonder what cultural factors are "worth" giving up for this added economic benefit. Perhaps the more important question is how can a society experience growth while retaining its values? I would assume that broad-based economic development programs would be better at this, but are there examples of countries that have successfully implemented broad-based economic development plans and retained a united social fabric?
Also, who has the right to critique the social evolution of a modernizing culture? If the Batswana people are willingly adopting the technologies and opportunities of the globalized world, is this a marker that they are willing to accept the negative externalities of globalization? To what extent is the idea of a communal culture romanticized, and to what extent is it integral to the function of a society?
RESPONSE TO LIANA MEHRING FROM SARAH AMOS July 20, 2012
What a beautiful concept — “I am because you are.” In a world punctuated by endless deadlines, tweets or traffic horns, it’s refreshing to hear that there still remains a sense of true community in this world (not just the one we have online).
I have found since living in Egypt and traveling elsewhere in the Arab world a profound sense of community markedly different than that of western cultures. Of course large familial gatherings and old-world style hospitality comes to mind when one thinks of collectivist cultures. But in addition to these obvious displays of hospitality, such being welcomed into a stranger’s home, I am stuck by smaller ways that this inclusive culture affects everyday interactions with others.
One time I was with an American girlfriend and a group of Egyptian friends at the beach and she and I became hungry. It was before our planned dinnertime, so we thought absolutely nothing of going to the store for a quick bite to eat before having dinner with everyone a few hours later. But what seemed innocuous decision to us proved to be a much bigger deal, because ultimately, the rest of the group wanted to eat together. They perceived our action as selfish and not thinking of the rest of the group. My friend and I were very confused by all the drama created—we just wanted a sandwich! But then I realized for as many similarities that my Egyptian friends and I had, there still remain important cultural traditions that shape our respective thinking and behavior. Sure it’s a silly story about a sandwich, but the next time with the same group, my American friend and I decided to wait until dinner so we could eat together as a family.