Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Finding Common Ground Between Botswana and the US: Part 3

Final Thoughts and Where We Go From Here


As I conclude this three-part column, I also complete my time in BotswanaÔÇöfor the present, at least, and with the hope of returning. The past five months have been some of the most educational and rewarding in my life. I am so thankful for this experience and the Batswana who have made this the ride of a lifetime. As I look forward to the long journey back to my first home, I ask myself “where do we go from here?”


When I go back home in too short a time, I will be bombarded with questions about my experience in Africa. The majority of these questions will the stereotypical, “did you get sick?”“How was Africa?”“There much be so much poverty! Did you feel safe?”and so on. People ask these questions expecting short sweet answers or claims about how happy I am to return home and be back in ‘civilization’. Though I am excited to escape the heat, not ride combis, and have washing machines, there are a lot of things I will miss. Back home, people will not want the long detailed answers that really explain my experience. No one wants to hear the truth that I’ve been realizing while on this continent: Botswana and America are more similar than they are different. It takes both of usÔÇöAmericans and BatswanaÔÇöto find that common ground so as to see each other and everyone else as equals.


Only a few weeks into my time here, I had the privilege of meeting the US Ambassador, Earl Miller, at the culture day festival in Manyana Village. During our brief conversation, we discussed the many parallel issues of Botswana and The United States. Miller, originally from the state of Michigan, told us that upon retirement, he is contemplating returning to his home state to work on social and political issues. Though the United States spends billions of dollars annually on aid to foreign countries, issues that it claims to fight overseas are ones that also need to be addressed at home. I have spent the past several years traveling as much as possible to learn and understand different cultures and places.However, my most profound discovery is that the poverty I look for in India or South Africa can just as easily be found five minutes away from my college’s picturesque campus. I find racism, classism and sexism manifested in every society I enter, just sometimes with a different appearance.


In light of presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s comments earlier this week, expressing his opinion that all Muslims should be barred entry to the United States, we see how dangerous bigotry is. Trump represents the worst values of the US and serves as an example of the ignorance and racism that fuels so much unjust hatred. (A question I have been asked here is if all Americans support Trump, and the answer is largely no. Anyone who supports Trump does not understand the foundational value of religious freedom on which America stands.) He is letting the actions of a very small minority, framed in a context of extremist ideology and failed states, dictate the treatment of a peaceful majorityÔÇöover 1 billion people.


Two summers ago, I had the privilege of going on a scholarship through the US Department of State to Turkey to immerse myself in the culture and language. Similar to my time here, I lived with a host family and adopted their ways of life. One of the most remarkable aspects of my summer was that it was the month of Ramadan. Being with my Muslim family in a Muslim country during their most important holiday was not only magical, but enlightening, and filled with family, friends, and delicious food. Never did I feel unsafe orÔÇöas I have been raised ChristianÔÇöthreatened or persecuted for differing religious beliefs. We talked, laughed, and found that common ground to which I devote my life and studies.


If I had never crossed the world, taken those steps and learned to see beyond the media portrayal, I might not have seen the ignorance and fear that shrouds the prejudice that Trump exemplifies.


Though Trump is the most brutal American example of prejudice and bigotry, I hear similar claims in Botswana. I’ve witnessed non-Christians face harsh judgment; I’ve heard people agreeing that all Muslims are terrorists; I’ve even heard declarations so bold as to make Botswana a Christian country, eliminating freedom of religion. It is a lack of want and will to connect with those who are different, to hear their stories and sympathize withthem that leaves the world disconnected and ignorant on all fronts. It does not just take meeting a different person or traveling to a different place to move past these generalizations, but an open mind and conversation to something different.


Though the perceptions I experience of rich, white American glamor in Botswana and elsewhere are not the harshest or most damaging of the existing stereotypes, I feel them boxing me. Assumptions are made, taking the individual human out of their body and nationality.  Breaking down those preconceived notions about who someone is one of the most important skills a person can learn as the world becomes continually more connected and globalized.


So where do we go from here?


To those who are foreigners in a new land, I encourage you to learn and immerse yourself in the cultureÔÇöride a combi, eat traditional food sold on the street, and learn enough of the native language to have a simple basic conversation. Though each of us is shaped by our cultural and social background, try to step away from the belief that those values are the only correct system of operation. Listen, ask questions, and try to understand. Adapt the aspects of culture you can and try to integrate without compromising your coreÔÇöI have never and never will accept harassment or cat calls, and if you are a man reading this who catcalls women, please stop. But there is no better or worse, simply different. Cultural change is not something that can be forced by an outsider but happens internally and through exchange. When you enter a place, take a step back and try to understand before you judge. Try to live in that culture, rather than live surrounded by it.


For those meeting someone with a strange accent who clearly stands out, open up, help and be nice. Correct cultural blunders rather than judging themÔÇötrust me, I’ve made millions of them during my time here, many of which could be avoided if someone asked if I needed help or told me the proper way to do it. If someone speaks with an accent, looks different or just plain tells you that they’re not from here, reach out a hand. Understand that there is a whole life, identity, language, culture and family that they have left behind as they navigate new worlds. Ask questions to learn about it, invite them to events. If there is an image you have of their culture (e.g. all American’s are impersonal) have a conversation about it.


As has been told to me in several of my intercultural classesÔÇöone of my majors in UniversityÔÇöculture is like an iceberg. Only the top is seenÔÇöclothes, language, accent, etc.ÔÇöwhile the majority that supports it hides under the water. Understanding the visual aspects is finding out why the Motswana says Dumela to almost everyone on the street, while the American makes eye contact, smiles, and continues on. As people travel and expose themselves to new ideas and cultures, take the opportunity to share and learn, live and grow. It is through these new connections that we promote tolerance, learn acceptance and remove the bigotry that plagues society. This is where we go from here, and everyone needs to promote a world of commonality, not one of hate.


Read this week's paper