(Originally published 23 April 2019)
After living in the US for 10 consecutive months, going back to Botswana presented me with a series of culture shocks. The most prominent of these culture shocks was how people adressed me, especially older people. I As a Mostwana, chances are you’ve been addressed with something along the lines of:
“Ao, o nonne jang/ Ao, o bopame jang”
(Oh my, you’ve gotten so big/small)
“Heela! Ke eng o le mokima/mosesane jaana?”
“Elegore ba go jesa eng?/”
(What do they feed you)
After asking my friends from East, South and West Africa, I learned that these type of “greetings” are common in their communities too. I surely hadn’t experienced anything like this abroad. This could very well be because I live in a predominantly white town.
For some reason, elders have taken to using phrases such as these in place of simple greetings. Living in Botswana normalized these experiences because when I came back from the US, I was taken aback. I was curious about whether or not we Batswana were the only people that did this. After having discussions with my East, North and West African friends , I learned that these potential harmful approaches were common in their communities too.
Since it is not something that happens only in Botswana, I think it is important to talk about the effect of these offhand approaches. Greeting someone by mentioning their weight loss or gain is undoubtedly an offhand remark. Whether it is intended to be a conversation starter or not, the long-term effects of these judgements can be harmful. My mother often comments on how the youth of this era tends to be more sensitive than the previous generation. That is why potentially destructive traditions like this one need to be left behind. If continued, they could trigger or inflate disorders such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a mental illness that makes you hate your body.
Perhaps during earlier times this kind of behaviour was acceptable. However, people need to understand that we live in an extremely different era. They need to understand that there is an influx of mental illnesses, particularly in the younger generation. According to the World Health Organization, one in every four people will be affected by a mental illness of some form in their lives. Of these people affected by mental illness, statistics from the Mental Health Foundation show that, 50% are affected by age 14 and 75% by age 24. We live in a world where body confidence is implicitly and explicitly challenged daily through the media. Trust me, we don’t need this judgement coming from our homes too. This constant form of criticism and judgement is catastrophic to the already declining body confidence of the youth.
Thankfully, I was not entirely affected by this aggressive nature because of the mouthy resilience I got from mother and my father’s stubbornness. Once I realized that the behavior of was affecting my self-perception, I stood up for myself. When I was greeted with, “O nonne jang ngwana wa ga Biki” (you’ve gotten so fat), I would reply similarly with, “Ee Rakgadi, ke batla go tshwana le wena” (yes auntie, I want to look like you). It is fascinating to see the energy shift when the dynamic is reversed.
All of a sudden I am at fault, having committed one of the biggest forms of blasphemy possible as a Motswana child, ke thokile maitseo, ebile mo mogolong (disrespected my elders). There should be a clear distinction between respect and standing up for yourself against verbal intimidation because these slick, backhanded comments are a form of intimidation. This is where the extremist concept of maitseo (manners) becomes irrational. I’ve come to the realization that a lot of our beliefs, maitseo included, protect people (especially elders) from tormenting the youth. I am not completely against tradition, but we cannot continue to dismiss this behaviour. I believe that some of our beliefs need to be rationalized. Respect is a very beneficial virtue, but it is not a one way street. We should respect people and people should respect us, regardless of age.
This constant form of criticism and judgement is detrimental to the already declining self-confidence of the youth. Body Dysmorphia can lead to; depression, the misuse of weight loss/gain supplements, backdoor surgeries, and in severe cases, suicide. I urge everyone to enter this new year with an atmosphere of mindfulness. Be mindful of what you say, how you say it, and how it could impact someone’s life.