Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Cultural Collisions with Botswana

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Cultural Collisions with Botswana

Article excerpt

Newly graduated from college, I stood on my porch one day, pondering familiar questions: Who am I? Where am I going? And what good is this philosophy degree? So I chucked it all and joined the Peace Corps. It was 1966.

Early that summer I received my assignment: the Bechuanaland Protectorate. I had no idea which continent it was on. An atlas revealed a British colonial protectorate north of South Africa.

In August, I began language and teacher training. Just before Christmas, I left with several dozen other volunteers on a flight to what was then the newly independent nation of Botswana.

I might as well have been leaving for another planet. My first encounters ranged from the cosmic to the comic.

The cosmic: On a moonless night a few months after arriving, I stepped outside and looked up. The 3,300-foot Botswana plateau and absence of light pollution hurled me into a breathtaking crystal- clear Milky Way that stretched from horizon to horizon. My sense of place in the universe changed forever.

The comic: I taught sixth and seventh grades in Tatitown Primary School near Francistown in Botswana's northeast. The school had about 800 students. My teaching career began with a valiant effort to impress my students with my facility in Tswana, the national language. In recounting to a class the fun I'd had dancing at a recent school function, I confused the Tswana verb for "dance" with a verb that was, as one student put it later, a "particularly nasty" term for passing gas.

Hysterical laughter ensued.

Other moments strained the architecture of my identity. Soon after my arrival a male teacher hooked his little finger around mine as we conversed on life in Botswana and the United States. I had no idea my little finger could sweat so much. What was he doing? After regaining my composure, I realized this was a sign of friendship, of acceptance.

Other cultural surprises came from larger differences. One day the head teacher approached me with a serious look: "Mr. Shaw, we have a problem."

It seemed that townspeople were concerned that I lived by myself. I must have done something wrong to be without family. How very unfortunate, he said. …

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