Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Loathing and laughter on Botswana roads

Humorous inscriptions on rear windows of local combis provide insight into the pulse of the larger society.

The combi snakes perilously through the rush hour traffic ÔÇô to the anguish and annoyance of other drivers. One sticks out a middle finger. Unfazed by the taunts and blaring horns, the combi driver takes one more gamble, driving through the red light as bemused drivers look at each other and shake heads.

“Relax,” reads an inscription on the back of the combi, as if in answer to the cursing fellow road users.
Such inscriptions have gained currency over the past few years ÔÇô and many are quite hilarious, as if to provide tonic to the drivers that are daily abused by the maniacs behind the steering wheels of most combis. Here is a sample: PEACE MAGENTS. Malope a teng. Tswaa mo go tsona. COUNTER ATTACK. 3 missed calls. Big Daddy. One more time. Monate o a itirelwa. Strategy. Fast move. Sorry ke a feta. Who is krying a pain. Destination unknown. Captain Babatona. Beautiful madam. The righteous they live by faith. Fast move. Morena ke letlhogonolo laaka ke kgomaretse ena. Desert missile. Dintsa di bogola poo.

A fan of this kind of pop culture is local artist Ann Gollifer, who sees it ÔÇô at one level ÔÇô as the driver or owner personalizing their vehicle, and, at another level, as the writer expressing a viewpoint on any of the issues of the day.

“The driver is also communicating a message to his customers, and, at the same time, conveying his wishes,” she says. “It makes you laugh and think about issues.”

She says the trend blends well with the Tswana culture of proverbs, and generally playing with words. She is even prepared to forgive the misspelling of words that abounds.

“It’s cool,” Gollifer says. “It’s a way language develops and becomes contemporary. The language the drivers use to communicate their thoughts is influenced by the modern technology that is at our disposal, such as the computer-speak, sms, and email.”

English lecturer, Dr. Tiro Sebina, observes that this is popular epigraph that happens in a literate and urbanized community, among the working class. He finds that the messages are sometimes cryptic, but convey the sentiments of the writer, as well as capture popular consciousness.

“The messages are about things the writers or drivers are concerned about at the time,” Sebina says. “Such messages convey a world outlook of the writers, and can provide insight into the pulse of the larger society. If looked at carefully, these messages can be interpreted to symbolize the issues affecting the larger community.”

He draws parallels with the novel “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” ÔÇô which takes its title from an inscription on a public service vehicle that the writer introduces at the end of the book. The corrupted word “Beautyful” resonates with the theme of corruption around which the novel revolves.

Sebina does not dismiss these epigraphs lightly, but holds them as embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. In fact, he goes further to suggest that this is a form of literature because it expresses particular social attitudes.

Sebina suggests that if carefully analysed, it could be found that there are hidden messages behind the inscriptions. Why, for instance, would someone take the pains to write in bold letters, “Malope a teng,” on a new vehicle? Given the rivalry within the taxi industry, this could be a pot shot at some competitor. What about, “Sorry, ke a feta”? Taken from a small businessperson’s perspective, this could relay the owner’s aspiration to climb the social ladder above the competitors’ heads. In some cases, the writer seems out to reassure the passenger. An example would be “The righteous they live by faith”, which effectively appeals to the religious sentiments of the passenger.
The way Sebina explains the language corruption is that it is an act of defiance to draw attention to the self. It suggests non-conformity, and challenges convention.

“I am not prejudiced to this kind of literature,” says Sebina. “I treat it just as I treat Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, which I regard as an elevated form of literature. What we read on the combis is literature as well, and is related to the daily life issues. It voices out people’s aspirations, moods, and lamentations in cryptic form.”

As in advertising copy writing, Sebina recognises a sense of imagination and innovation in the inscriptions.

“To select what one would think to be the appropriate slogan, they would have thought hard,” he says. “It requires a lot of intellectual effort.”

Graphic designer, Modirwa Kekwaletswe, traces the phenomenon to the 1960s when a new school of art emerged in the United States. Underpinned by the social and economic upheavals of the era, it came to be known as display art. With the world getting more individualistic, personal expression was the in-thing in many artistic pursuits.

“Is there life after death?” teases a popular sticker pasted prominently inside most combis. “Mess with a taxi driver and find out.”

Phew! Who would dare? Not with this devil-may-care lot. (FPN)


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