With her host family

Montrose resident Amy McBride with her host family in ‘Motse’ at the welcome feast they prepared for her. 

Editor’s note: Longtime Montrose resident Amy McBride has spent the last 10 weeks in Peace Corps training in Botswana, and was sworn in as a volunteer on Oct. 4. She will spend two years building capacity of nongovernmental organizations in order to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. She is writing a monthly column for the Daily Press. You can follow her blog at www.amyinbotswana.com)


That’s what I say to greet more than one Motswana (the singular of Batswana, the people of Botswana) in Setswana (it’s Dumela to one person). Although Setswana is the national language, more than 20 other languages are also spoken, and some of the other (soon-to-be) volunteers will learn them to communicate in their villages.

Since our arrival more than two months ago, my 71 fellow Peace Corps Trainees and I have received several hours of Setswana instruction nearly every day, and we must pass our Language Proficiency Interview to move to our sites on Oct. 5. I’ve enjoyed learning a new language, but there are parts of Setswana that are challenging. For example, Setswana has an elaborate noun classification system. Every noun falls into one of 18 noun classes, and this determines its subject marker, possessive marker, and adjective marker. Huh? This means that, “Your red chair is ugly,” is “Setilo sa gago se sehibudu se maswe,” since setilo is in Noun Class 7. But if you want to say that your red chairs are ugly, it becomes “Ditilo tsa gago tse dihibidu tse di maswe,” since ditilo is in Noun Class 8. But, I’m grateful that unlike French and Spanish, Setswana nouns have no gender and I don’t need to remember whether a chair is male or female.

Setswana pronunciation is relatively easy. All of the Rs are rolled. Gs are “the sound you make when you hock a loogie,” according to our Peace Corps pronunciation guide. Some of the vowels have different tones, which means that if you say mebele, you’re either saying sorghum (a common starch) or breasts, depending on how you pronounce the Es. Some of you have asked how to pronounce Mma and Rra (which are like Ma’am and Sir), as in Mma Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma is the same as in English, except you hold the M longer and it’s more emphatic. And with Rra, you just roll the Rs. There are no Cs, Qs, Vs, Xs, or Zs in Setswana, unless the word is borrowed from another language, which happens a lot. Laptop in Setswana is laptop. So are corn flakes.

Last month’s column left off with my imminent departure to visit my “site,” where I’ll spend my two years of service. For security reasons, Peace Corps won’t let me tell you its name, so I’ll call it Motse, which is Setswana for “village.” I was there for two weeks, staying with a host family, and learning about my new community and the two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with which I will work. Motse is surrounded by hills and red boulders, and there are monkeys and baboons. They are mischievous, and I was warned about leaving windows open and valuables out. They also can make gardening difficult.

I attended a family wedding on my first Saturday in Motse, and many aspects were the same as in America. It was in a church, and the bride wore a lovely white gown and her five bridesmaids wore blue dresses. The groom and his groomsmen wore suits. A pastor officiated, and there were prayers, songs, vows, an exchange of rings, and the groom kissed the bride. The big differences in a Setswana wedding are behind the scenes.

Marriage preparation begins with meetings and negotiations. The maternal uncles (malome) from both families break the ice. The groom’s uncle contacts the bride’s uncle to tell him of his nephew’s intentions and set a date to meet the bride’s family and receive instructions on how negotiations will proceed. First is the magadi (bride price) negotiation. The magadi usually is eight cows and allows the groom’s family to thank the bride’s family for raising such a wonderful daughter for their son. Then there’s a ceremony for the payment of the magad. Next is patlo, when the groom’s family officially seeks the woman’s hand in marriage and the couple-to-be receives words of wisdom from the family. At least three weeks before the wedding, the couple visits the chief (kgosi) to announce the upcoming marriage, and their names are posted to allow people to object to the marriage. The final ceremony is when the bride goes to meet her new husband’s family.

The following Saturday I attended a funeral for my host mother’s brother. Every evening after his passing on Monday, there were prayers at his house, and his wife lay on the floor of the living room and greeted visitors. On Friday night, the corpse was brought to the house, and male family members slaughtered three cows, and stayed up all night to cook them into seswaa (pounded meat) in huge pots. The female family members spent most of the night preparing the starches (from corn and sorghum) and the morogo (vegetables…in this case, cooked cabbage). The funeral occurred at the house of the deceased, and began at 5 a.m. with prayers and songs. After we viewed the body, it was driven to the cemetery and we all followed for the burial. Back at the house, there were more prayers and song, and then I was recruited to scoop setampa (dried corn kernels that are chopped and cooked into a thick porridge) onto plates for more than 300 people. I was scolded (nicely) for scooping small portions (starch should fill at least half the plate).

When I wasn’t attending ceremonies, I was getting to know the two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with which I’ll work. Both serve Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs), which are children who have lost a parent or caregiver to HIV/AIDS or are otherwise directly affected by the disease. It’s estimated that 16.7 percent of Botswana’s children under 18 have lost one or both parents to AIDS. One operates a preschool and provides home-based care, and the other serves OVCs who are 12-25 through leadership and life skills training. I have lengthy job descriptions and work plans, and can’t wait to start strengthening these organizations when I start work on Oct. 9.

Peace Corps provided us with a Site Visit Workbook, filled with tasks to help us learn about our new village. We were to visit with community stakeholders, and I got to meet the dikgosi (chiefs) of my ward (neighborhood) and district (they’re like U.S. states…there are 17 of them in Botswana), along with the district commissioner (equivalent of a governor), Village Development Committee (kind of like a town council), the director of the District AIDS Coordinating Office, and many others. One interesting assignment was to visit a traditional healer. I met an old man who told me about how he will (for 2,000 pula, around $200) treat ailments like epilepsy, asthma, cancer, and fractures with plants that he finds in the bush. This healer told me that he doesn’t claim to treat HIV, which is good, because some people have opted for traditional healers instead of the free anti-retroviral therapy provided by the government of Botswana.

I got to visit the Motse Public Library, and I’m excited that one of my NGOs provides toddler play groups at some of its village branches. I got a tour from the senior library officer, and he explained the Library receives funding from the Botswana Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture, but it isn’t enough to meet all the needs. Some years ago, the Ministry gave the library a fabulous bookmobile to provide rural villages with books and internet, but it hasn’t been started in more than three years due to a lack of funds. Peace Corps allows us to pursue “Passion Projects” in our free time, and I think I have found mine.

At the end of my site visit, I headed back to Molepolole for the last two weeks of pre-service training, with a stop in Gaborone to attend a Rotary Club meeting. I was welcomed as a visiting Rotarian from the Montrose Rotary Club, and enjoyed a delicious lunch and Rotary fellowship. The club is led by an impressive Batswana woman, Tebego George, and we heard presentations from two Rotary youth exchange students from France and Germany who are spending the year at a secondary school in Gaborone.

We recently had the first rain (pula) since my arrival. We’re heading into the rainy season, which runs until March or April. Today (Sept. 30) is Botswana Day (Boipuso), which marks Botswana’s Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. It’s celebrated much like the 4th of July, with picnics, parades and fireworks. The rain has passed, so I’m doing laundry this morning (by hand, hung out to dry) and then going to a wedding with my Mma (where I get to scoop more setampa).

Many thanks to the folks who contacted me after my last column to find out what kinds of coffee and chocolate to send (dark, please!). I have a new address at my site, but I can’t publish it here (you can email me at amyloper

mcbride@gmail.com to get it) or you can use the Peace Corps address: Amy McBride, c/o Peace Corps Botswana, Private Mail Bag 00243, Gaborone, Botswana. Ke a leboga! Tsamaya sentle! (I am grateful! Go well!).

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