The left hand is a cursed hand. It is referred to in the Setswana language as letsogo la molema or letsogo le lebotlana, the small hand; the most diminutive hand, the less powerful and the most disrespected hand. The right hand on the other hand is the respected hand, ke letsogo le legolo, the great hand, the hand of power. In the Biblical Scriptures, Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father. In the parable of the sheep and goats, the sheep are set on Christ’s right hand and the goats on the left. Those on the right inherit the kingdom of God while those on the left depart into damnation of the everlasting fire.
The left hand is the hand of disrespect. You neither write nor eat with the left hand unless o le segole, the kind that should be left to die in the evil forest at birth. In the past, during the periods of questionable sanitation and hygiene, the left hand was the hand with which you wiped your bottom. In the 1970s and 80s, the left hand was even known as letsogo le le itlhakolang. This was done so that in the event that incomplete hand cleanliness was achieved, one would not poison themselves by consuming their own faecal matter.
Actually so entrenched in the Setswana culture that one must eat with their right hand to the point that the right hand in Setswana is known as moja meaning the side that eats! Negativity towards the left is not only in Setswana, it is also to be found English itself and other European languages. The very etymology of the word left reveals very negative roots of the term left. In English the word left has its roots in Anglo-Saxon lyft meaning weak, while right does not just mean a side, but also has positive connotations of correct or propriety.
Is therefore any wonder that a woman must always sit on the left hand side of a man? Isn’t this because the left side is the weak side and a woman is considered stereotypically as the weaker sex? The bias against the left hand is not only in English. In Hungarian, the word for right is jobb, which also means “better”. The word for left is bal, which also means “bad”. In Polish, the word prawo means: right as well as law, prawy means: lawful; the word lewy means: left (opposite of right), and colloquial “illegal” (opposite of legal). In Estonian, the word pahem stands for both “left” and “worse” and the word parem stands for both “right” and “better”.
In Setswana it has always been the greatest sign of disrespect to greet or touch someone using the left hand because the left hand is a most unclear hand. To touch or hold someone with the left hand has always been look down upon as a sign of offence. This belief is entrenched in the cultural beliefs of the Tswana so much that the Batswana have made it into an idiomatic expression: go tshwara motho ka letsogo/lebogo la molema. This idiomatic expression is now used to mean to ill-treat somebody, to look down upon them or to treat them badly.
Setswana mannerisms dictate that you receive that which is handed to you with both hands. This is a sign of respect to the giver. There is a variation to this practice however. It is also acceptable sometimes to receive with the right hand, the clean and respectable hand, while the unclean and weak hand holds the right arm at the wrist or at the elbow. This practice is an important part of Setswana etiquette and culture. Built into this practice of receiving with both hands, sometimes accompanied by a bend at the knees, is gratitude. This means that if someone receives using both hands, the act itself means “Thank you” making it tautological to say Thank you when you receive something using both hands. For a long time the import of this act has been misunderstood.
Some have thought the Tswana don’t say enough Thank you. They have been accused of being ingrates, lacking in grace and manners. The truth of the matter is that etiquette is culturally defined; some of it is lexicalized while some of it is acted out in real life situations. Receiving with both hands is therefore one of the Tswana practices of good manners that is usually drilled into children at a very young age. It is therefore not surprising that one of the worst displays of bad manners amongst the Tswana is to receive something with the left hand especially with your face turned away from the giver. It is not what appears as disinterest on the side of the recipient that is a sign of bad manners. It is also not just the fact that one is receiving with a single hand when they should be using two. Worst of all is that one is receiving using a traditionally unclean hand, a most despised hand. Receiving with the left hand is therefore one of the worst insults one can demonstrate/act out to a giver.
A lesson in Setswana etiquette shouldn’t just be lexical. It should not merely focus on what people say. It should include the patterns of behaviour that communicate good manners and decorum in general. Such a discussion cannot leave out the use of hands for one should always beware of the left hand, because the left hand, for a long time in many cultures, has been the hand that wipes the bottom.