Culture is a slippery concept. I like to think of it as clay. You can do so much with it – mould, paint, stretch, ignore. How malleable it is, forever changing shape in our hands, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes through lightning-quick revolutions. But ultimately all it needs is a gentle hand, to not let it slip and fall through, to not let it disappear. ‘Treat me with respect” it says.
The most powerful and beautiful way culture manifests itself is through art. Each country does something different with its clay, shaping it and painting it in its own unique fashion. It’s important to note that this can be ugly. And disturbing and strange and messy. Culture can be full of scars because it is so often twisted and transformed by the pain of the past – wars, revolutions, epidemics, you name it. The important thing is that the creation becomes a symbol of the country, as distinct and unique as a thumbprint. So what does Botswana, our nation’s, thumbprint look like? What has it created with its clay? What are the colours, the patterns, the markings it has used?
The most prominent depiction of Botswana in literature is in Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series. These books are well-written of course. They are also the work of a white foreigner. No stand-out Motswana writer is the country’s ‘literary icon’; even Bessie Head was a South African immigrant. Numerous traditional dances, varied and extraordinary, are performed here– but in indoor shopping malls, rarely on stages. Folk and tribal music have been swapped out for more fashionable rap and hip-hop imports from South Africa and America. The paintings of the Khoisan, shedding colour and light on the lives of hunter-gatherers, have been dismissed to forgotten rooms in forgotten museums.
There’s a pattern here; our clay is becoming increasingly whitewashed. The colours are gradually fading and the West is bleeding through. We are becoming a poorly made replica of a foreign town, all our culture and colours and individuality stuffed in our back pockets, the rural areas. We are eroding Botswana’s very soul, painting over its art, history, music and language with a shinier, white veneer. How painful this is, like extracting a whole row of teeth to install a new artificial set. The problem is, too many Batswana have administered themselves with anesthesia. Nobody cares anymore. And if they do, it’s not enough.
How do we fix this? How do we paint our colours back on? Start in the schools. The quietest, most powerful revolutions occur with education and youth. Maybe before teaching our children French, we can teach them Setswana first. Fill the syllabi with the history of their own nation – and not just through the lens of colonization. Introduce them to their traditional instruments, teach them the back-and-forth melodies their ancestors sang, expose them to the exquisite basket-making and pottery their great-great-grandmothers once did. Give them their music, give them their art, give them their language, give them their culture. This is how we teach them to take pride in their skin, their tongue, their colour. This is how they learn to create patterns that are entirely their own.
‘Treat me with respect”, our culture cries. Let us listen. Let us learn.
Let the children play with their clay.