Lost in Translation 2: Where’s The White Dude Going?

April 8, 2007

I seem to have a thing for linguistic errors in Southern Africa; I've told my story about crossing the Border from Botswana to South Africa during December 2005. Many years prior to that, when I was living in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990's, I made my share of blunders.

First, let's get oriented…Botswana is a sparsely-populated Texas-sized country of some 1.5M people in Southern Africa, just north of South Africa. The capital city is Gaborone, the economy is based largely on cattle and diamonds, and the country's leaders have — atypically, unfortunately, for Africa — spent the windfall wisely on roads, education, and healthcare rather than on arms, Swiss bank accounts, private jets, and Parisian chalets. 2007-04-08_13-18-31-609.png

In the early 1990's the government was making a big push in education, with the ambitious goal of enabling all children to go through at least Middle School. Since they were building schools faster than they could train teachers to staff them, the Peace Corps and other foreign agencies helped provide many expatriate teachers. I was one of them.

I taught in a village of some 5000 people named Mmathethe (red pin in below map); if you can't figure out how to pronounce that, you're in good company — I lived there for two years and still couldn't get it right! In fact, this episode of Lost in Translation hinges on mispronouncing it.

The other places…

Gaborone, the capital city (green pin in map below). I would often go there for the weekend to visit friends, stock up on groceries, or perhaps see a movie.

Lobatse, (blue) the center of the country's thriving cattle industry. It boasts a large abattoir which, under certain weather conditions, gives the town a not-so-faint odor of dead cow carcass.

Kanye, (yellow) the nearest big town to where I lived. It had bigger shops, a car dealer of two, a couple of banks and restaurants, and innumerable bars.

Magoriapitse and Metlojane, (purple) two small villages past Mmathethe, on the same road. Importantly, neither of these two names sound anything like Mmathethe, except for the first M.

2007-04-08_14-08-34-078.pngAs Peace Corps volunteers, we were not allowed to own cars or motorcycles — a technical point, since we didn't earn enough to afford them anyways. We got around Botswana the same way most people did: by bus or train on the major roads, and by hitchhiking on the minor roads. Hitchhiking in Botswana is very well set-up, with informal, but well-known, places to stand and get a lift — called "hitching posts", an elaborate system of hand-gestures to indicate to passing vehicles where you're going, and an expectation that you will pay the driver the rough equivalent of a bus ride on the same route. You often get crammed in the back of a pick-up truck, but hey, if you're going to a small village, that might be your only option!

A typical trip back home after a weekend in Gaborone would start at the Gaborone bus station, where I would catch a bus to Lobatse, a one hour ride. From there I would transfer to a Kanye bus for a 45 minute ride. The Gaborone-Lobatse and the Lobatse-Kanye road were both paved.


Getting the final 25 miles from Kanye to my home village of Mmathethe, however, was another matter. That road wasn't paved until the year after I left, so I only know it as a bone-jarring, dust-ridden dirt road. There was a bus that plied that route, but its schedule and reliability were completely unknown.

The Mmathethe-bound hitching post was at the south end of Kanye, where the road leading there and points beyond (Magoriapitse, and Metlojane) started.

A car — usually a pickup truck — would drive past the hitching post, and everybody there would signal which village they were headed to. If the car was going there, it would pull up, its occupant typically a government worker or farmer. Everybody waiting at the stop would dash over, the driver would roll down the window, and a fast and furious conversation would ensue, followed by people climbing into the back and settling down. It really is amazing how many people can fit in the back of a pickup truck in Botswana.

Not knowing Setswana that well, it would take me a bit longer to figure out if this was the right ride to catch. Basic hitchhiking Setswana comes in very handy, and among the first phrases the Peace Corps' excellent language training teaches is, "Where are you going?" That much I could handle. I also knew the politeness hierarchy, where you show higher levels of deference by referring to a man as sir, father, chief, and ultimately God.

Here's a typical conversation:

Me: "Dumela, rra." (Hello, sir)

Driver: "Dumela. O ya kae?" (Hello. Where are you going?)

Me: "Ke ya kwa Mmathethe, rra. " (I'm going to Mmathethe, sir.) (Correct pronunciation is nearly impossible for a non-native speaker. The two M's draw out the first sound and have to be said in a particular tone, and the two "th" combinations are also very delicate sounds.)

Driver (puzzled expression): "Gatemang?" (Pardon me?)

Me: Ke ya kwa Mmathethe, ntate. (I'm going to Mmathethe, father.)

Driver (now really confused, asks again): "Ga ke go tlaloganya. O ya kae?" (I don't understand you. Where are you going?) It was clearly not Metlojane or Magoriapitse, but where else?

Me (beginning to sweat; this isn't the first time my pronunciation has been off. It's like somebody saying, "I'm going to Chicago" and the other person hearing, "I'm going to aljreialakelkdlsiwuq.") "Ke ya kwa Mmathethe, kgosi. Ke morutabana kwa sekolong." (I'm going to Mmathethe, chief. I'm a teacher at the school.) The only village down that road that would have an expat teacher would be Mmathethe; I hoped that would clarify things.

Driver (trying desperately to understand, turns to passenger in front seat): "Lekgoa le ya kae?" (Where's the white dude going?)

Passenger (taking a complete stab in the dark): "A ne a re 'Mmathethe' a ke re?" (He said 'Mmathethe' didn't he?)

Driver (turning back to me, the perplexed look gone) "Eh heh! O ya kwa Mmathethe? Ke eng o ne o se mpolele?" (Aha! You're going to Mmathethe? Why didn't you tell me?)

Me: "Eh, kgosi, ke ya teng. Ke kopa lift, tswee tswee." (Yes, chief, I'm going there. I'd like a lift, please.) The latter bit was probably obvious, as people don't tend to hang out at hitching posts for the scintillating conversation.

Driver: "Go siame. Palama kwa morago. O tlaa ntuela 3 Pula, a ke re?" (Cool. Get in the back. You'll pay me 3 Pula, right?)

Me: "Dankie, morena." (Thanks, god.)

With that I would scramble in the back and force myself in between the passengers, animals, and food supplies. Depending on the current state of the road and the relative insanity level of the driver, the ride would take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Regardless, everything I was wearing would be covered in a fine coat of dust by the time we arrived.

The hitching post in Mmathethe is right by the Trans Kalahari Highway Bar. The car would come screeching to a halt, the passengers would alight and pay their fare, and inevitably head into the bar for a refreshing cold drink and perhaps a game of pool. From there, it was a 15 minute walk for me back to the school.

trans-kalahari-highway-bar-custom.JPG mmathethe-cjss-custom.JPG



7 Responses to “Lost in Translation 2: Where’s The White Dude Going?

  1. Richard Bolen on April 8th, 2007 4:23 pm

    Really liked your article. It’s nice to see a personal story, which we think is very important to a real estate blog. It’s all about trust and about character. Who wouldn’t want to trust a peace corps teacher?

    Want to call your attention to our new blog here in Lake Tahoe: http://www.laketahoerealestateblog.com. It’s just getting up to speed, and our focus is to provide real, fact-based information to the public about Lake Tahoe all the time. We’ve still got a bit of build-out to do, but a lot of the ideas and information is already in place.

    One recent post, (http://www.laketahoerealestateblog.com/?p=63#more-63) is one of our first foray’s into putting something out there about ourselves… other than just biz per se.

    What’s so cool here is that you’ve figured out the same things we thinking about… there is a lot more to all of us than just listing and selling a house.

    Thanks again,

    Richard Bolen
    Lake Tahoe Real Estate Blog

  2. James G Carroll on April 9th, 2007 5:47 am

    Monna-we, wena o kgosi ruri. I’d buy a house from you, if only I had any money and lived in California.

  3. Donald Johwa on October 1st, 2007 9:00 am

    This is really weird because I was also a teacher at Mmathethe CJSS as a tirelo sechaba participant in 2003. I came to the states for college and now live in RI. It gives me chills to see those photos, especially the one of “trans kalahari bar”. I spent many nights in that bar while Mma Smarts was in charge. Setswana sa gago se ntse jang?

  4. Kevin Boer, Broker Owner, 3 Oceans Real Estate, Inc. () on December 19th, 2007 8:51 pm


    Ke santse ke bua Setswana…golegonyenyanna. Ga go na batho ba bantse mo States ba ba buang Setswana. Wena, o dira tire efo mo States?

  5. Karen on March 14th, 2008 1:26 pm

    Dumela Rra! I lived in Lobatse from ‘88 to ‘91, this really took me back. I had a friend from Mmathethe. She spent ages trying to get me to pronounce it correctly. Oliben Tshweneetsile. Oh, well I tried. It provoked a lot of laughter amongst all our children anyway! Thank you for bringing back the memories.

  6. Mark Nesbitt on June 29th, 2008 3:25 pm

    Hi Kevin - great reading your story, brings it all back.

    I worked as a civil engineer in 1990-2 mainly supervising the construction of rural water supplies in Metlojane, Tswaneng, Magoriapitse, Gamoswana, Letlokane, etc… and did over 70,000 kms in 18 months on those dusty roads.. Many stops at the Trans Kalahari. Also drew a weekly cartoon for Mmegi newspaper for 2 years “Fence sittin’ by Luke Warm” which led on to a career change to cartooning back in the UK at the end of my time in Botswana.

    Thanks for the memories!

    Sala sentle.

    Mark (from Ireland, now in Devon, England)

  7. From The “I Missed That Class Where We Talked About ‘Place Value’” Department: Palo Alto Per-sq-ft Prices Drop Precipitously Down From $75,000 | 3 Oceans Real Estate, A Boutique Real Estate Brokerage Serving the San Francisco Bay A on July 20th, 2008 3:49 pm

    [...] In a former life, I was a middle school math teacher. In the Peace Corps. In Botswana. I distinctly remember spending a number of days teaching about the importance of place value in numbers — you know, the concept that decimal points and zeros aren’t just decorations. .32 and 3.2 and 32 and 320 are distinctly different. [...]

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