10/20 One Vomited From The Sea- Lekgowa - Michael Dykstra

10/20 One Vomited From The Sea- Lekgowa

There are a lot of reasons I love learning other languages. During my time in Guatemala, a med student at the time from Harvard who I was working with put it this way: “it is possible to get to know Kaqchikel culture without learning the language. But it isn’t possible to learn the language without understanding the culture.” I think his reasoning was two-pronged. First, the words of a language can help you understand how a group of people think strictly from the ways various words and phrases are composed. Second, in practicing the language to master it, you will be interacting with locals in a way that isn’t possible from another language, even if they speak some of a major language like English or Spanish.

A number of the linguistic subtleties I’ve learned thus far have been helpful and interesting, but chief among them is the word for foreigners. The words generally started as a word for white people since those were the first outsiders to arrive, but they have somewhat generalized since then. Every African language must have one, given the heavy impact that Europeans have played in the lives of all Africans. The most famous (and only one I’d heard before arriving here) is the Swahili word mzungu. This is the word that many white people will hear while walking around small villages in South Africa, Kenya, or any other Swahili-speaking country. It translates to “wandering man.” Why was this chosen? Well, the original explorers were typically bearded white men who all looked similar (particularly to people who’d never seen a white person before), and they’d see them walking everywhere with no clear purpose. Hence, white man = person with white skin who walked around aimlessly.

Now, I think that the Setswana word, Lekgowa, is even more precious. It is derived from the verb kgwa, which means “to vomit.” The literal translation of this word would read “One vomited from the sea.” They often use similar root words with different prefixes, so Sekgowa, the Setswana word for English, would translate, “language vomited from the sea.” My first reaction was to imagine how disgruntled the first white explorers (likely German in this area) looked like when they got off the boats! I don’t have a definitive answer for this one, but I suspect that the strength of this wording is rooted in the feeling of oppression by white elites. One article I read hypothesized that this origin came from the fact that “whites were so acquisitive and inhuman, even the sea could not hold them; it just ‘threw them up’.” This may sound harsh to you, but I encourage you to remember that the majority of the Tswana people endured the full force of apartheid in South Africa. Botswana itself was only a protectorate of the British Empire and gained its independence in the 1960s, but the effects were certainly felt here as well. In fact, the crest of Botswana with a zebra on it was to represent the peaceful coexistence of black and white together. Such a symbol wouldn’t have been chosen if issues of race were not apparent in society at the time. Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, married a white woman he met in the UK, which caused much outcry from both sides. The movie “A United Kingdom” portrays this dynamic in greater depth.

Botswana Coat Of Arms

I personally really like this word. Sure, it may have its harshness, but I think it captures my skin color and the sad history perpetuated by people who looked like me. Living in Africa as a white person, it’s impossible to ignore that history.

Interestingly, this word continues to evolve. In recent years it has been come to also describe black upper and middle class by black people of the lower class. While I could come up with many theories, I think that the racial dynamics this signifies are probably too subtle for me to understand 6 weeks into my time here (or maybe ever), but here’s one article I found to be an interesting discussion of the topic.

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