Monday, January 17, 2022

Speak clearly and don’t lose your message

Those Sir Seretse Khama words still ring true even today. They emphasize the need to eschew obfuscation in the name of educatedness and pretentious learnedness. They are the words uttered before I was born sometimes early April, 1972 in Francistown. “Our aspirations, our goals, our politics, our principles must be identified and expressed in terms, which our people understand.

This means that we must build them on the foundations provided by Botswana’s culture and by Botswana’s values and traditions”. The need to communicate clearly is sometimes undermined by infantile politicking and equating the utterances or writings comprising complex English terminology memorized from western and eastern literature as equivalent to mental and academic brilliance. This is most unfortunate. The practice robs the audience of the intended message. The addresser then becomes the self addresser lost in self-glorification. He impresses the audience as it grins and delights in his vocabulary dexterity, only to realize that the messenger lacks the message. A channel has become the message. His message remains swallowed in his ego such that as he stands to speak, the only audible message to him and to the audience is I am better than you lot!

Sir Seretse Khama advises differently. His clarion call is that clarity is key. Such clarity is better attained, he argues, by using the words, the idiom, the proverbs and images that our people understand. The Botswana landscape is full of images and terminologies that speak so Batswana. We must dig into Botswana’s culture, values and traditions to find appropriate means of communicating with our people. Sir Ketumile Masire tells me that pre-independence there were those who argued that Batswana lacked the concepts, the terminology and idiom to express and comprehend modern democratic and parliamentary terminology. There were those who said Setswana lacked words for president, democracy, parliament, speaker, chief-whip, opposition party, councillor, constitution and many others. They argued that attempting to explain these to villagers around Botswana would be a pointless exercise. As Masire and others went around the country speaking to the people about a new world order, the nay-sayers, the doubting Thomases, the scoffers, the critics, the faithless, the uncircumcised Philistines all rubbed their hands with glee awaiting failure and disappointment. Little did they know that there would indeed be disappointment ÔÇô but it would be coming their way.

Sir Seretse Khama with his contemporaries, amongst these, the formidable Sir Ketumile Masire, was committed to expressing the politics, the national goals and national ideals in a manner that was comprehensible to Batswana. Terms, concepts and ideas had to be packaged in a manner that was comprehensible to the audience. They were not beginning a new tradition. They were continuing an old one which had been developed by many who came before them. Imagine the white people coming amongst the Batswana of 17th century wearing shoes. Batswana had no shoes; they had never seen shoes before. They lacked the concept of shoes they had never seen anything of the sort. Their feet had never been enveloped by a shoe. Neither had they seen anybody’s feet that covered. They gazed upon the hard shoe for a long time. Their eyes moved between the white man’s shoe and the hooves of their beasts. They saw a striking similarity. They realised that the shoe e bopegile jaaka tlhako, e lebega setlhako (like a hoof). The word was coined; a shoe was forever to be known as setlhako (that which looks like a hoof). The same thing happened with the word mirror. The object mirror was most fascinating. It was used by an individual for seeing oneself. For the people, it was selo se se dirisiwang go ipona, eseng go bona sepe gape. The word seipone was coined.

The need to speak to Batswana in the local language and idiom has always existed. It has always been challenging to find the terms and expressions which will resonate with the people, that is why the relentless terminology development with a functional edge has always been at the core of perfecting the communicative tool. Many in politics and media have had to dig deep into Setswana lexicon and idiom to find terms and expressions which make sense to the people. Some terms have had to be carved from the rural agricultural life of the Batswana. Take for examples the word for apartheid. We could have used a term for discrimination kgethololo to refer to discrimination.

Instead the Batswana went into the cattle terminology of separating the calves from the cows; or separating the cows from the bulls. The agricultural verb for such an act is go tlhaola from which the idiom: go di tlhaolelwa di bekerwe is derives. The term tlhaolele to refer to apartheid was formed. In religion as well a similar thing occurred. Translation of the Bible and the preaching of sermons to the Tswana was most challenging. For instance there was no term for the concept sin. Sin was understood as an ugly thing or evil act; in other words selo se sebe. The word sebe for sin was as a consequence coined. The root of this word is found in a variety of Setswana words. It is used by Bangwato to describe an ugly person motho yo mompe or yo mobe.

The challenge for the modern Motswana; politician, writer, journalist, or teacher is to communicate with precision and not attempt to impress the audience with fancy meaningless terminology. How I wish many of us would remember the words of Sir Seretse Khama and express our message in terms, which our people understand.


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