ImageBy now more time has passed since my return from Botswana than the four months I spent abroad. A recent reunion in Boston with my fellow Americans from the trip however moved me to post a final reflection on my experience. Each of us admitted to the impossibility of a single day going by without thinking of our beloved Bots. For most of us the concept of Botho was the most intimately experienced and vividly remembered aspect of our time in Africa.This piece is an adaption of an article I published as an official reflection for Georgetown University.

Understanding the concept of botho is the single most profound understanding I have gained from my study abroad experience in Botswana. Botho incompletely translates from Setswana into English as ‘respect’. The concept is commonly expressed in the phrase ‘Motho ke motho ka batho’ meaning ‘I am because you are.’

As a visual introduction and explanation of this idea my friend sent me a picture. The image was of children sitting in a circle with their feet stretched out before them and touching in the center. The picture captures the essence of botho as a deep interconnectedness amongst all people. I asked my Batswana friends what botho means to them and they described it is a value promoting harmony and respect amongst people living together. The concept defies simple explanation but one friend distilled botho to “Having a deep sense of another person’s humanity. How to demonstrate being a human being to another human being.”

As a rapidly modernizing country I am concerned about the increasing influence of Western values upon Botswana’s traditional value system and how botho is affected. Members of past and present generations voice a common concern that Botswana is currently experiencing the rise of individualism and the decline of botho. Ironically, globalization and the increased interconnectedness of the world appears to be undermining the interconnectedness of the Batswana people. Individualism is a western-export that challenges botho by replacing the “we” with the “I.” My friend explained to me that in the past botho required that you acknowledge the humanity within everyone and greet even strangers upon the street. A friend described the past as a world in which ‘there used to be no nobodies.’

Today however my friends describe a world in which people are more inwardly than outwardly focused. People are also increasingly status-conscious and individualistic. Whereas before everyone was respected for their common humanity, today greater respect is accorded to one’s individual wealth and social standing. Circles of association are being drawn in and becoming more exclusive. For example, weddings and funerals that used to be completely open to the larger community are today increasingly private affairs. My friends explained how botho calls upon people to move towards one another and discourages them from drifting apart or being alone. As Botswana incorporates Western individualism into its social fabric however many worry that botho is weakening as a binding social force amongst the Batswana people.

When personal or professional negotiations  break down due to a lack of respect, someone who feels slighted will invoke botho as a reminder to the other person that they deserve greater consideration. Botho means we are all human and therefore deserving of respect. Invoking botho in defense of your dignity asks of the other person to bring this shared ideal back to the forefront of his or her thoughts. Botho however is deserving of more than just temporary revival and should be brought back to the forefront of society’s collective consciousness as well.

Since returning to the United States, botho has continued to exert a positive influence upon my thoughts and behavior. The affect has been both subtle and profound. More profoundly I feel a greater interconnectedness with the whole of humanity. I read recently in The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky  declare for the whole of humanity “all are responsible to all for all.”  Botswana allowed me to better comprehend the truth of this statement. It is to my mind another expression of botho, a universal truth reformulated in a different time and place. More subtly botho has impacted my experience of daily life. While walking down the street I feel that it is important for me to meet someone’s gaze, smile, and acknowledge them. If introduced to someone, even casually, I take their acquaintance seriously and remember their name. Most importantly, I more fully understand the commitment I have to the people I love and how important it is for me to listen to them, to be with them, and to look them right in the face and tell them that I love them.