"Welcome Home". One of my co-workers immediately greeted me with this phrase. The next cocked her head, looked at my face hard and said, you look just like a Kalanga (a tribe in Northern Botswana and Zimbabwe). I thought she was just being nice, or maybe teasing me a bit, until someone else walked into the room and as if on cue said, "you know, you look like you come from the North, like my husband's people - the Kalanga". When I met the next co-worker, who looks just like one of my Aunties it pretty much sealed the deal. I always assumed my ancestors were from West Africa, where most of the slave trade was based, but maybe I've made it to my ancestral home.
I've had the opportunity to travel to places that many would consider exotic, and in the past everywhere I've gone, I stick out like a sore thumb. In China people were obsessed with touching my hair and took pics of me with their cell phone. In India school boys stared with open mouth and families wanted to take their pictures with me. Here I completely blend in, people walk up to me and start speaking Setswana, it's a strange and beautiful feeling. There's a real human need to feel like you belong and it's quite a bit easier when you look like everyone around you.
Apparently there may be some draw backs to looking like you belong when you aren't equipped to play by all of the cultural rules. People here can be a bit subtle, that's great if you can read the cues and in between the lines. I'm afraid I don't have that skill yet and honesetly I'm not sure I can develop it before my 12 month contract expires. The directors in the office seem pretty aware of the danger, aware enough to warn me at least, hopefully with their help I'll avoid any serious cultural faux pas and at the very least I'll sharpen my intuition a bit dealing with these cultural subtleties.
I am feeling very much embraced by my long lost tribe. People have been inviting me to activities consistently and have swaddled me with advice and warnings. Most of the warnings seem to be about avoiding theft which is a bit of a problem here. Drive with your purse hidden under your seat to avoid car jackers. Avoid getting a house where there's construction next door, etc. This is arguable the safest country in Africa, there's hardly any violent crime, but theft is a serious problem.
As welcome as I'm feeling, I also realize that I'm still a visitor. I got a chance to meet up with another American a few days ago, who had been here about a week, just like me. It was funny to see that we were going through the exact same emotions; curiousity, fascination and deep appreciation of this new culture. We'll likely start experiencing the negative emotions of frustation and homesickness about the same time as well but for now it's great to have someone with whom I can explore Gaborone and this very interesting culture.
Here's my interesting cultural learning for the week - In Botswana marriages are a time of major celebration and expense. While everyone participates in the celebration the groom is responsible for taking care of all of the expense - he not only pays for the ceremony, the dress, and the venue, he must also pay lobola, a dowry which is usually 8 to 10 cows given to the bride's family. Cash is now often given in place of cows. The bride's uncle is responsible for negotiating the lobola. The bride is only responsible for buying the food for the reception. After I heard this tradition, I was bit confused why any man would want to get married - so I asked, "given how expensive it is, why would a man want to get married". The response I got was, "Because he has to". I'm not quite sure if that means that the bride somehow traps him, or if there's just a lot of pressure to get married from family and society, hopefully it meant something a bit more romantic like, his loves compels him to spend all his savings demonstrating his deep affection. Apparently, the bride can choose to help her sweet heart out with the expense, but it didn't sound like a common occurence. The tradition apparently spans throughout Southern Africa, which by the way, typically has a much later age of marriage then the rest of Africa. In Botswana the average age of marriage is 30 for men and 27 for women, compared to Kenya 26 for men and 21 for women.
The woman who explained the lobola to me asked how marriages worked in the states, she was a bit shocked that we don't have any dowry. When I explained that traditionally the bride's family is responsible for the wedding cost, but most couples pay for their own weddings; I'm pretty sure she vowed she would never marry an American.