Thursday, August 10, 2017

Old Friends, New Country

By: David Michael

Botswana's capital, Gaborone, as seen from Kgale Hill

In 2016 I spent a month studying abroad in Pécs, Hungary during the summer. We worked with students from the University of Pécs as well as students from another sister school, the University of Botswana. These five students from the African country became some of my closest friends. We spent every day together, constantly curious about each other’s cultures. Many laughs were shared, mostly about my attempts at speaking Tswana. Gaborone is a hop, skip, and a jump from South Africa. I could not pass on the opportunity to see them while I was in the neighborhood for a three-day weekend.

From Johannesburg the plane goes up, reaches maximum altitude for about a minute, and then begins it’s descent. I stepped off of the tiniest aircraft I’ve ever been on onto the runway leading into the second-tiniest airport I’ve ever seen (the tiniest title goes to Monroe Regional Airport in Louisiana). The size of the airport was actually the second thing I noticed. The first being a bright yellow sign that read: “Any person making inappropriate comments concerning hijacking, carriage of weapons or explosives may be prosecuted.”

I had studied Botswana quite a bit. It was my country of focus during Professor Kalyango’s Foreign Correspondence course. However, nothing is equal to experiencing a culture for oneself. The sign served as my first sense of culture shock. The government is quite strict. Negative talk about the president, Ian Khama, is forbidden as well. His portrait also hangs in every shop. It gave me a very “big brother is watching” vibe.

The frowning face of Khama was soon replaced by the wide smile of my friend who was there to pick me up. The next day I was reunited with the others as well. They showed me around their University, and took the moment to pick up their final grade reports from the office. I was handed one, and I attempted to read it. The grading system is fairly different. There are similar letter grades, but on a different scale. The classes are sorted differently as well, causing some grades to have a different weight. It was also on a 5.0 scale. I took notes in case I ever get the chance to study there.

From the University we traveled to the National Museum. My five tour guides explained different portions of their country’s history and I was left in awe by the artwork. From there we traveled further into the capital. We were only able to pass by parliament, as the girls would not have been allowed in considering they were wearing pants. Women are only permitted to wear traditional dresses in parliament, and have to sit on the floor during sessions.

Going to lunch we enjoyed a traditional meal of pap, vegetables, and mealworms. The food was incredible, but my favorite part about the lunch was right before we ate. The staff comes around with soap, a kettle, and a basin. They hold it for you as you wash your hands on the spot before eating. The interactions with the staff were also very intimate. The way my friends and the waitress conversed and joked, I thought they knew each other previously. However, they had just met. I began picking up more and more how friendly and open people are throughout the entire country. Personal relationships with one another are obviously very important, from family to your taxi driver. 

Washing our hands

Grilled mealworms
In Hungary, one of the Botswana students had noticed a little girl asking her mom a question while pointing at him curiously. This was obviously due to his skin color being different. He reminded me of this story, and then turned my direction to a small boy, who was staring at me in fascination. I smiled, realizing the shoe was on the other foot and I had become the minority. In fact, I did not see another white person until going on a Safari the next day.

After the safari we hosted a braai (barbeque) where I met many more friends. My Tswana was trained, and stories shared. Most of those in attendance were recently graduated from University so the hot topic of the night was employment. I had previously written a story about the high unemployment rates among the youth in the country. Being there however, I received more of a sense of how important it really is to them. The measurement of success starts with do you have a job or not. It means everything. The young persons whose company I was enjoying would become visibly depressed when discussing their job-hunts. Part-time jobs are not a thing. The students didn’t work while attending University, nor did they seek any jobs outside the field they’d studied. You do not do one job while hunting for another. They viewed a temporary job merely to make money as lowering their status. Those levels of jobs are careers meant for others.

Despite my short time in the country, I experienced and learned a lot about Botswana's culture. I look forward to returning there one day, hopefully for a longer period of time. I also hope to see my friends again soon. Who knows what country we’ll end up together in next? 

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