A pre-fabricated building at the back of DITSHWANELO's plot of land serves as its meeting room [pictured].  Sunlight filters through the trees surrounded it.  Birds sing and flit past the window, attracting attention with their bright flashes of colour.  An orange tree drips with fruits and the bougainvillea splashes vivid pink against the greenery and bright blue sky.  Interviewing people for human rights roles feels surreal in such a peaceful scene.  We could be delving into a candidate's communications skills when the conversation turned suddenly to child labour being on the rise, domestic violence, sexual molestation of children, xenophobia or the situation in Zimbabwe.
"A pre-fabricated building at the back of DITSHWANELO's plot of land serves as its meeting room.  Sunlight filters through the trees surrounded it.  Birds sing and flit past the window, attracting attention with their bright flashes of colour.  An orange tree drips with fruits and the bougainvillea splashes vivid pink against the greenery and bright blue sky.  Interviewing people for human rights roles feels surreal in such a peaceful scene.  We could be delving into a candidate's communications skills when the conversation turned suddenly to child labour being on the rise, domestic violence, sexual molestation of children, xenophobia or the situation in Zimbabwe.

"The candidate who said in his job application that "it's a tall order to meet all requirements for the position" was absolutely right.  We were seeking to recruit someone to undertake public education with the ultimate goal of creating a human rights culture in Botswana.  I rapidly discovered two major challenges to achieving such an aim. 

"The first challenge is the lack of effective communications channels in Botswana.  The majority of Batswana are not online.  The written word, online or through the post, is of limited value as many can not read and even those who can are unlikely to be swayed by publications alone.  Many people do not have ready access to a telephone; besides which, our efforts to survey teachers by phone showed that communication by phone can be highly inadequate.  The only national radio channels are the two government ones.  [Three commercial national radio licences were announced in May 2007 and declared a positive step for democracy.]  Otherwise, whenever we asked candidates what they thought was the best way to communicate with the grass roots, their answer was always "kgotla meetings".

The kgotla is the traditional place for all discussions in a village.  As a channel for communication the kgotla reflects the need to talk face to face and engage in discussion on the subject if a message is to be conveyed effectively and be believed by the people.  A message might be reinforced with pictorial posters and more detailed information as appropriate, but change would never be achieved just by telling people, it must be discussed.  This approach sounds eminently sensible.  Until, that is, one thinks of needing to talk to 1.75 million people spread over a country the size of France, many of whom live in highly remote areas.
An even bigger challenge is to change people's attitudes.

"…I realised that over the months I had gained a better understanding of Batswana's ways of expressing themselves.  I had learnt to give people more time, even if they were saying something for the fourth time.  Through discussions with DITSHWANELO's staff, I had learnt that disagreement is often indicated by silence, rather than speaking out.  People frequently need to be enticed into expressing their real views, despite the fact that I also found Batswana to be remarkably blunt speakers.  When someone agrees with another's view, you still have to give them time to say the same thing all over again, in their own words.  This is the traditional kgotla approach; this is consultation Botswana style.

"A hundred small encounters helped me to gain some sort of understanding of the culture, despite living in the big city.  From meetings with the coalition of organisations working to help the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, to conversations with people I met during workshops, I developed some insight into the way people think and respond.  The knowledge only made the idea of creating a human rights culture a still more daunting prospect. 

"In many ways Setswana culture is fundamentally based on people's rights, but those rights do not extend equally to all people.  Most Batswana approve of capital punishment, certainly for murderers.  Even more shocking, we heard Batswana literally say that homosexuals should be put to death. 

"I would have relished the chance to find out what these people actually thought to make them feel so threatened or appalled by homosexuality, and to find a way to address the challenge of changing their views.  But it would have taken much more than the two years I had in the country.  Such work needed to be led by the homosexual community themselves.  Yet they, understandably, were deeply afraid of coming out.  Homosexual acts, although not homosexuality itself, are illegal, punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.  One would have to be caught in the act, but speaking out in a hostile community would carry strong risks of being outed and trapped deliberately.

"…Although less extreme than issues about capital punishment and the legalisation of homosexuality, even the issue of gender equality could elicit a barrage of outrage from Batswana.

"…On one occasion I was discussing the statistics of our paralegal cases with Richard, the Coordinator of DITSHWANELO's Kasane office, in the far north-east of Botswana.  I asked if he could explain the increasing number of cases relating to cohabitation which were being brought to the Kasane office's paralegal programme. 
"Well", he said, "there's a lot of new construction going on." 
"Oh, so this generates land rights cases, does it?" thinking that my question had been unclear.

Richard smiled, put down his pen and looked at me in a way which could have meant "you asked about cohabitation cases, not land rights," or "you really have no idea of the realities", or "ah, this is sensitive, how do I explain this to you, young lady?", or "oh good, we're in for an interesting conversation here".  I always enjoyed my conversations with Richard.  He is a lovely, caring man and he always seemed happy to take the time to explain things to me.  The Kasane office worked much more with the community than the Gaborone office did, so conversations with Richard gave me a much better understanding of the realities of life in Botswana than I got from the rest of my work.

"No, the building programme means that there are lots of construction workers in town, which creates lots of new relationships," Richard explained patiently, with a smile.  "Women come from all around when construction is going on: Pandamatenga, Nata, even Tutume".  The later was about 500 kilometres from Kasane.

"There was actually a court case", he went on, "where a woman was seeking damages against another woman for taking away her husband."  He explained that the woman accused of thieving the husband had been recently widowed herself.  "The kgosi [chief] concluded that the woman had no case to answer because it was only natural that a widowed woman would want another man.  He told the first wife that if she were widowed she would do the same thing herself," Richard concluded.

"My feminist side was reeling at the thought of the impact that the promiscuous behaviour must have on men's opinion of women.  Worse, I could only imagine the consequences for the spread of HIV/AIDS.  In circumstances such as these, women are unlikely to insist on the use of protection if there is any resistance from the man.

"It is difficult to put yourselves in the shoes of women or men in a different culture when you are a white westerner who believes strongly in gender equality.  Yet it was clear that many local women held much the same views as I.  They, however, had to live with the pressures which this conflict between tradition and the modern life created for them. 

"Achieving a human rights culture was indeed a tall order and change would not happen over night."
The candidate who said in his job application that "it's a tall order to meet all requirements for the position" was absolutely right.  We were seeking to recruit someone to undertake public education with the ultimate goal of creating a human rights culture in Botswana.  I rapidly discovered two major challenges to achieving such an aim.

The first challenge is the lack of effective communications channels in Botswana.  The majority of Batswana are not online.  The written word, online or through the post, is of limited value as many can not read and even those who can are unlikely to be swayed by publications alone.  Many people do not have ready access to a telephone; besides which, our efforts to survey teachers by phone showed that communication by phone can be highly inadequate.  The only national radio channels were the two government ones (until the announcement of three commercial radio licences in May 2007).  Otherwise, whenever we asked candidates what they thought was the best way to communicate with the grass roots, their answer was always "kgotla meetings".

The kgotla is the traditional place for all discussions in a village.  As a channel for communication the kgotla reflects the need to talk face to face and engage in discussion on the subject if a message is to be conveyed effectively and be believed by the people.  A message might be reinforced with pictorial posters and more detailed information as appropriate, but change would never be achieved just by telling people, it must be discussed.  This approach sounds eminently sensible.  Until, that is, one thinks of needing to talk to 1.75 million people spread over a country the size of France, many of whom live in highly remote areas.
An even bigger challenge is to change people's attitudes.

…become aware that over the months I had gained a better understanding of Batswana's ways of expressing themselves.  I had learnt to give people more time, even if they were saying something for the fourth time.  In discussions with DITSHWANELO's staff, Alice had taught me that disagreement is often indicated by silence, rather than speaking out.  People frequently need to be enticed into expressing their honest views, despite the fact that I also found Batswana to be remarkably blunt speakers.  When someone agrees with another's view, you still have to give them time to say the same thing all over again, in their own words.  This is the traditional kgotla approach; this is consultation Botswana style.

A hundred small encounters helped me to gain some sort of understanding of the culture, despite living in the city.  From meetings with the coalition of organisations working to help the Bushmen of the CKGR, to conversations with people I met during workshops, I developed some insight into the way people think and respond.  The knowledge only made the idea of creating a human rights culture a still more daunting prospect.

In many ways Setswana culture is fundamentally based on people's rights.  'Botho' is central to Setswana society.  It is a Setswana word meaning respect and good manners, tolerance and understanding; based on, as Alice explained to me, the basic human-ness of others.  However, botho and human rights do not extend equally to all people.  Most Batswana approve of capital punishment, certainly for murderers.  Even more shocking, we heard Batswana literally say that homosexuals should be put to death.

I would have relished the chance to find out what these people actually thought to make them feel so threatened or appalled by homosexuality, and to find a way to address the challenge of changing their views.  But it would have taken much more than the two years I had in the country.  Such work needed to be led by the homosexual community themselves.  Yet they, understandably, were deeply afraid of coming out.  Homosexual acts, although not homosexuality itself, are illegal, punishable by up to seven years imprisonment.  One would have to be caught in the act, but speaking out in a hostile community would carry strong risks of being outed and trapped deliberately.

…Although less extreme than issues about capital punishment and the legalisation of homosexuality, even the issue of gender equality could elicit a barrage of outrage from Batswana.

…On one occasion I was discussing the statistics of our paralegal cases with Richard, the Coordinator of DITSHWANELO's Kasane office, in the far north-east of Botswana.  I asked if he could explain the increasing number of cases relating to cohabitation which were being brought to the Kasane office's paralegal programme. 
"Well", he said, "there's a lot of new construction going on." 
"Oh, so this generates land rights cases, does it?" thinking that my question had been unclear.

Richard smiled, put down his pen and looked at me in a way which could have meant "you asked about cohabitation cases, not land rights," or "you have no idea of the realities", or "ah, this is sensitive, how do I explain this to you, young lady?", or "oh good, we're in for an interesting conversation here".  I always enjoyed my conversations with Richard.  He is a lovely, caring man and he always seemed happy to take the time to explain things to me.  The Kasane office works more closely with the community than the Gaborone office, so conversations with Richard gave me a much better understanding of life in Botswana than I got from the rest of my work.

No, the building programme means that there are lots of construction workers in town, which creates lots of new relationships," Richard explained patiently, with a smile.  "Women come from all around when construction is going on: Pandamatenga, Nata, even Tutume".  The later was about 500 kilometres from Kasane.

There was actually a court case", he went on, "where a woman was seeking damages against another woman for taking away her husband."  He explained that the woman accused of thieving the husband had been recently widowed herself.  "The kgosi [chief] concluded that the woman had no case to answer because it was only natural that a widowed woman would want another man.  He told the first wife that if she were widowed she would do the same thing herself," Richard concluded.

My feminist side was reeling at the thought of the impact that the promiscuous behaviour must have on men's opinion of women.  Worse, I could only imagine the consequences for the spread of HIV.  In circumstances such as these, women are unlikely to insist on the use of protection if there is any resistance from the man.

It is difficult to put yourselves in the shoes of women or men in a different culture when you are a white westerner who believes strongly in gender equality.  Yet it was clear that many local women held much the same views as I.  They, however, had to live with the pressures which this conflict between tradition and the modern life created for them. 

Achieving a human rights culture was indeed a tall order and change would not happen over night.
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This associated website shows hundreds of Robyn's photographs from her life, work and travel around Botswana
Website & photos copyright 2007
Excerpts from
'Pula, Pula, Pula'
A human rights
culture:  a tall order
From soon after she arrived in Botswana, Robyn worked with DITSHWANELO - The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, first voluntarily and then as a Skillshare Development Worker.  'Ditshwanelo' means 'rights' in Setswana, the national language of Botswana.  The organisation's name therefore uses capitals to avoid confusion.  Ditshwanelo is pronounced, with phonetic spelling " di - tsua [silent "h"] - ne - lo" with "di" being the plural prefix and the accent being on the "lo". 
Other excerpts:

Day four: an outreach visit to test for HIV/AIDS

Rookies on the loose: the first night camping in the African wilderness


Glossary of Setswana words
Two years in search of money, rain & blessings for Botswana
'PULA PULA PULA'
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