Saturday, January 23, 2021

Endangered species of culture

“Dumela/ng” seems such a simple and painless word to say in full but the decline in its use suggests otherwise. In a world where everything, from text messages to the workday, is abbreviated, the word has been reduced ‘mmelang’ or its most recent dentally articulated variation, ‘two-melan.’ The response used to be ‘dumela mma/rra’ but if it comes at all (it hardly ever does when you greet a group of people), there is a real bad chance some of it would be ‘ee’ and the literally tight-lipped ‘mm.’

Setswana has a rich vocabulary of decorum which beyond individual failure, is being institutionally phased out. When you call out someone, depending on gender, they are supposed to answer either ‘mma’ or ‘rra.’ Likewise you repeat such response – with question mark implied by stress and intonation, to cue a speaker to repeat a statement they just made. However, the indecorous response, which is most popular among the youth is ‘heye’ and a whole host of its animal-grunt variants. ?To be fair to the speakers, some (probably a majority) of them, would be totally oblivious to the indecorous nature of this sort of speech. When that is the case, the obvious happened: there was never education to guide them on what speech forms have or don’t have linguistic acceptability in Setswana decorum.

In being prepared for a world that lies immediately outside school gates, learners are drilled on the job interview process, anything from walking in the room to proper greeting protocol to when to take a seat and where to place one’s hands. Schools should be doing a good job but for one thing – they don’t provide learners with pointers on traditional decorum. The University of Botswana has set up a centre on scientific research, indigenous knowledge and innovation but the fact that it partnered with the Ministry of Infrastructure, Science and Technology probably means that the proper response to ‘Dumelang’ is not on the indigenous knowledge programme. Traditional greeting protocol is absent even where it should be present. The Communication and Study Skills course at UB – and indeed other tertiary institutions, does not entail Setswana decorum. Basically this means that some people graduate out of these institutions only half-literate in traditional greeting norms. The unlucky ones would go on to do job interviews conducted by people who are thoroughly steeped in that knowledge they lack. The Botswana situation is such that a majority of employers, managers and directors grew up at a time where traditional greeting protocols were strictly observed. Thus, a job-seeker who responds with ‘ee’ to ‘dumela’ might as well save his time and go back to pounding the streets than do the whole interview. Of the lucky ones who join the workforce, some end up working as front-desk staff and subject Batswana clients to indecorous language of ‘mmelang’, ‘heye’ and ‘ee.’ As currently happens, the revellers among these non-Setswana speakers have successfully adapted the nightclub vocabulary of flirtation to office grammar. Thus ‘ee rra’ has been replaced by ‘ee papa.’

More than being corruption of Setswana, this debasement of traditional greetings protocol represents yet another battle lost in the fight to reclaim cultural heritage.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper