My immediate past job was in the media environment. This job afforded me the rare opportunity to traverse the length and breadth of Botswana, a vast and beautiful country with flora and fauna as diverse across regions as the people who inhabit them. Batswana vary in cultural practices, language, cuisine and many other attributes.
Our lunch in Kavimba was fresh bream fish and pap, both cooked in an open fire, in three legged pots, while we waited. For the fish, our host put water in a three legged pot, arranged cut river reed just above the water. The fish was then placed on the reed; pot covered and placed on fire. The result was a pleasantly steamed fish. The flour for the pap was pounded out of the maize using the mortar and pestle. In Tutume we had delele, roasted chicken and thopi.
I don’t recall much of our lunch in Rapplespan. But still vaulted in my memory is the zero communication between the people we were to interview and us. I was traveling with two gentlemen, a photo journalist and another producer. Our interviewees were only conversant in Afrikaans and none of us could decode it. A social worker from the village came to our rescue.
Back in Gaborone, the Rapplespan story was edited, aired and forgotten. I settled into my normal life – and hopefully so did the old man and his grandchildren. The selfishness of media work. You rattle and unsettle the peaceful lives of other people to feed your gluttonous desire for content, then full and fulfilled, you move on like nothing happened. My apologies to those who follow their stories with some philanthropy work.
My marriage to Bakani exposed me to a similar experience; communication barrier.
The second part of my wedding was on the 23rd November of 2002 in Makuta, my husband’s home village. A group of elderly women and I carried small bundles of wood on our heads. A traditional dance group led the procession as these bundles were delivered to the home of my husband’s grandmother, nkuku, Mma-Oketsang (MHSRIP). This was part of my initiation into my husband’s culture. I could relate to the beat and melody of the African songs, but could not make sense of the lyrics. This was not a problem, until I was introduced to nkuku, who spoke Ikalanga only, a language I did not understand. A translator was engaged to enable some intelligible conversation between the two of us – and this was to be the beginning of our life of ‘mediated’ communication.
Nkuku lived in her community in Makuta, a rural village in the northern side of the country while my husband and I live in the capital city Gaborone, 470 kilometres away. There is no mutual intelligibility between our two languages; Setswana and Ikalanga. Over time I got acquainted with the everyday lives of my extended family. I observed that, although nkuku was only conversant in Ikalanga, she enjoyed listening to the state radio, RB 1. I found nkuku’s relationship with RB1 intriguing in many ways. Firstly, as with other forms of media in Botswana, radio predominantly uses Setswana and English. What meaning did she derive from listening to the radio? What did the absence of her language on radio mean to her? I never asked nkuku these questions. Secondly, I wondered how nkuku interacted with the world outside her immediate environment. Isn’t it through the media that we see, hear and read about other worlds?
Before my initiation into Bakani’s family, it never occurred to me that other people might be affected by the dominant use of Setswana in the public domain in general and in the media in particular.
Years later, while studying at Rhodes, I was exposed to multiple media theories. My attention was grabbed by theories on media and society, especially those that position the media at the centre of identity and culture. Scholars who hold this view argue that in the past people referred to more ‘traditional’ aspects of their lives to produce a shared understanding of their social worlds and their own location within this, while in the modern world the media have become central to such processes. They insist that the media play a key role within such cultural processes. National culture is, for example, at least partly sustained through the media. Language and culture cannot be separated.
I remembered nkuku and Rapplespan. Their access to the media influenced the focus of my research. Or maybe it is best to say their inability to access the media or their experience of media exclusion formed the basis of my research. I took a physical and emotional journey, listened to real life stories. My life was changed. Since then I interact with language debates cautiously.
This story, which influenced my MA thesis, will one day become a book….