The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I am a "Lekgoa"

In the past I have written about acceptance of how things work in this culture.  If we get angry everytime we must wait in a government office for a form to be filled out, it will be a loooooong two years.  As I have said previously, there are some days in which these things bother us more than others.  Bringing a book is key in those situations.  Waiting is an easy one...we just need to get used to it.  We need to relax, learn what time we really need to arrive somewhere, and let go of the stress.  I have found that meditation can help a lot with this.

But there are ways in which we are treated that are difficult to accept.  I have written a lot about how hard it is for me when people ask me for money.  One thing I haven't talked much about is being called "lekgoa."  If I never mentioned it, "lekgoa" technically means "vomit from the sea."  It goes back to when the missionaries first arrived in Botswana in the 1700 and 1800s.  Originally the word referred to the British, but now it is a blanket name for all Caucasian-looking people (whether they identify that way or not).

At the bus ranks in Botswana, people constantly call me "English" or "Lekgoa."  For a long time, this bothered me...even that is an understatement.  I hated it.  I would engage in conversations with strangers, telling them that I have a name and not to call me "lekgoa."  It had a very negative connotation for me.  I didn't like being addressed based on the color of my skin.  I'm a person!  The color of my skin is just one aspect of who I am and it frustrated me that it is all people saw when they looked at me.

But those confrontations weren't doing me any good.  It just made my blood boil everytime I tried to take public transport.  I would get so frustrated that Batswana weren't understanding how offensive that word was to me.  Then I realized that I needed to change my attitude.  As much as I believe you shouldn't look at someone and only see the color of their skin, Batswana don't mean it that way.  They call me "lekgoa" in the same way we could call someone a New Yorker in the states.  It is just a recognition of where you come from--your "tribe" of sorts.  Similarly, in Shoshong some people call me "mokaa," or member of the Bakaa tribe.  They mean "lekgoa" in the same way.

Yet, I couldn't figure out how to release myself from the discrimination I felt everytime someone said that to me.  It doesn't happen much in Shoshong...much more in the capital, Gaborone.  I am hoping to live in Gaborone next year, so I realized that I need to change my attitude in order to make it possible for me to happily exist there.

So I decided to talk with a friend of mine about both being being asked for money and being called "lekgoa."  He was saying that I should tell people that I do not have money to give them.  That doesn't mean I have no cash in my wallet, but it means that I cannot give it to them for whatever reason.  That made a lot of sense to me and although I thought of that before, it made me feel better hearing him say it.

Then I told him that I know Batswana don't mean to insult me by calling me "lekgoa," but it does anyway and I didn't know how to change my perception of that.  I asked him how he would feel if he went to the states and they were calling him a name because he is black.  He said that it wouldn't bother him because he is proud to be black and wouldn't care if people assume things about him based on the color of his skin.  He and everyone who knows him would understand that those assumptions are false.  And that is all that matters.  I liked that.

And then it started clicking in my be content, I need to live within their reality.  I was projecting my understanding of "lekgoa" onto Batswana.  I could only see my understanding of its meaning, not theirs.  But with the recognition that they mean no harm must come my acceptance of that reality.  The only way to live within another culture is to accept that they are going to treat you like they will treat their countrymen.  And sometimes that can be really difficult to integrate into.  Obviously you can tell people when you like to be treated a certain way.  But at the end of the day, accepting their communication styles will result in a less stressful existence.  And who doesn't want that?


  1. Hi Amelia, I'm trying to connect with you because I was recently invited to be a PCV in Botswana as a Life Skills vol. I'm in the 7 day decision-making window. I have questions and would love to get your first-hand insights. My email is I've enjoyed your blog!

  2. Hi! How did you come about the title of your blog Masa? Ironically that is my name. Anyway who would have ever thought that a Motswana would be getting lessons from an American about their past? Firstly, I did not know where the word "lekgoa"originated and grew up using it with no harm intended. Thanks to this post, I formally apologise to anyone I have referred to as such and promise that I am going to refrain from using that word.

    I highly doubt that many Batswana know where it comes from and what it implied especially those who do not associate with Caucasians. To some, it seemed like racism but it really wasn't. The reality of the matter is Black and Caucasian Batswana rarely meet in social gatherings where socialization usually takes place. This has lead to a vague understanding of each culture so Caucasian usually find themselves on the defensive as a result of lack of understanding. Growing up especially in the rural areas, we are taught to idolise Caucasians and see them as somewhat superior to us. That is why you find that "blacks" usually ask for money from you. It is to an extent that people with good black bosses even call them lekgoa.

    Even in Gaborone, you still find that segregation especially when you visit certain entertainment sports. I would say currently, the people who find it easier to socialize with Caucasian are mostly those are in or have gone through private schools. Unfortunately that is the reality in my country.

  3. Hi Masa,

    I came upon the title because "MASA" is the program that Botswana was doing to roll out ARVs in a larger way. I looked up what it meant and somewhere I read that it meant "new dawn." So for me, coming to Botswana was a new dawn in my life. That is why I chose the title. You are the first person I have heard with that name.

    Your comments are really powerful for me. I am so happy to be beginning these dialogues about race and perception. I wrote this post in an effort to show that I am trying to get over the word and recognize that most Batswana, like you, truly mean no harm. But the fact that you learned something from my blog means so much to me. Thank you for that.

    I have noticed that people call their bosses "lekgoa" even if they are black Batswana. How does that make you feel? It seems to me like that would reinforce the superiority. I am not better than anyone and I certainly don't want to be viewed that way because of the color of my skin or the country of my upbringing.

    I am able to get on a deeper level of friendship with Batswana who know English better. That is because it is hard for me to talk about politics or philosophy in Setswana. But my Setswana is pretty conversational. So in the village I think I am close with a lot of Batswana who have not gone through private schools. It also depends on the foreigner, where he/she lives and his/her attainment of the local language. I agree with you that groups tend to stick together in the larger cities. But most of my friends (other than volunteers) are black Batswana.

  4. Hi Amelia,

    I grew up in rural South Africa and have lived in Botswana for the last 13 years so I am very familiar with the term. In rural SA kids will come running shouting Lekgoa!! Lekgoa!! to actually get a glimpse of the white man - and they used to be waving feverishly. My father used to shout back at them Mosotho!! Mosotho!! or Motswana!! Motswana!! which I myself have adopted doing - even to adults when called this. This usually results in great laughter from all parties as we are merely directly recognising our different cultures and respectfully appreciate each other. As such - the connotation doesn't bother me at all. Regards Gordon.

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