Botswana cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
For making a good impression, don’t try to be superior, just be simple and once people get to know you, you can tell them more about yourself. Learn the basics of the native language (eg. greetings). Always greet people even if you do not know them. The easiest topic to talk about is the weather. And if a person opens up to you, that’s when you can talk about where you come from and maybe about your family too.
You can impress your boss by talking about your work experience.
The most important topic to avoid is the tribal issue, because this a sensitive issue right now. Some tribes think that they are treated as minority groups and they feel they don’t belong there. You can’t discuss your personal relationships with a person you have just met; they will wonder about your upbringing. And issues of sexual orientation are taboo; you don’t discuss them openly except with someone you trust.
Batswana (people of Botswana) like to joke. If you want to make a joke, make sure it won’t offend your listeners. Avoid jokes that deal with racism.
It is important to understand that the Batswana are a reticent and generally shy people. Shaking hands is a common greeting. It would be extremely helpful to learn the most common spoken greeting: "Dumela Ma" to a woman and "Dumela Ra" to a man. Some ice breaking topics might include enquiring as to where they are from, if they are from a distant village, then you could ask whether they have any relatives close-by (wherever you are). If they are well-educated, you can talk about almost anything, especially where they have been educated and where they have travelled. If they are not very highly educated, avoid enquiring about husbands or wives as they may not be married. Instead ask if they have children (when enquiring about someone’s age, the Batswana will always refer to the year they were born rather than the number of years which have passed since they were born so be prepared for some quick mathematical calculations). Try to avoid asking for specific details about the location of their village. "Up the road" is a perfectly reasonable answer. Humour can be awkward so be careful how you use it and do not expect to be understood.
When you meet someone, try to remember their face and their name as you are bound to bump into someone from work at the supermarket or in the Mall in Gaborone. Make the effort to greet them using their name and you will gain lots of brownie points. Many of the local blacks feel that the whites cannot distinguish amongst them and to walk by someone you know and not greet them is extremely rude.
Batswana differ from one another. Ethnic background and place of residence are important factors in determining peoples’ level of comfort with touching and gestures. Batswana generally don’t mind talking to a person very close to them but they usually keep a distance of about an out-stretched arm from each other. Distance can be even greater when speaking or dealing with strangers. It is best to carefully observe each person’s degree of comfort with touching and their preference for personal space.
Regular eye contact is used in judging whether a person is trustworthy. Batswana will not necessarily maintain constant eye contact, but it is considered a sign of dishonesty if a person refuses to or is reluctant to make eye contact.
Different tribes have different ways of greeting. When greeting a colleague, it is customary to shake hands with both men and women. In the northern part of Botswana when greeting an elderly person you have to kneel down and give them both of your hands if you find them seated. If they are not seated you can just bow a little and give them your two hands. In other places you can greet another person by shaking hands. And in some cases, men and women will give each other a kiss on each cheek.
While talking, men generally do not touch other men unless they know each other but this would be occasional. This rule is similar for contact between men and women. This also applies to a woman touching another woman, although somewhat less.
Friends are more likely to touch each other and although they will often maintain a similar distance when speaking, the sphere of personal space around each person is not considered as private and inviolable. Professionally, eye contact is particularly important. How much associates will touch each other or the distance they will keep depends on familiarity and level of comfort but it is best to keep one’s distance if unsure.
Some gestures that are considered rude (middle finger erect, waiving a pointed index finger, pointing at someone). When a Motswana (singular of Batswana) does not understand the language that is being spoken, he or she will use hand gestures to communicate.
At the beginning of a relationship the distance between people when talking follows a North American standard. Keep in mind that Batswana tend to be shy so eye contact may take a while. Silences are not a problem and speaking quietly is very common. Once you have made a friend, a handshake upon meeting turns into holding hands for the duration of the conversation. They use gestures and facial expressions minimally and prefer a more indirect manner of speaking than Canadians are accustomed to.
Display of emotion
A public display of affection is not acceptable in rural areas; people tend to display their affections mostly in towns or cities. A public display of anger is common but is not acceptable, although people tend to show their anger anyway.
No they are not. Only public displays of affection are allowed and this generally means holding hands while talking together. They do not walk and hold hands as couples might in North America.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Work styles and pace differ between workplaces but it is important to be clean and punctual. Generally, Batswana men and women tend to dress conservatively in the workplace, both in summer and in winter. But dress might be different according to the organization a person is working for; some workplaces are informal and one can wear jeans to work.
Colleagues and even supervisors are often addressed as Mr. or Ms. with the last name. This form is usually more appropriate for addressing a supervisor and should be used unless told otherwise.
The working times vary from organisation to organisation. For instance, private companies like banks and shops resume duty at 8 am and sign off at around 5 pm, while government departments are open from 7.30- 4.30. No overtime is paid to government officers except for drivers (support staff). Generally the workday is from 7:30-4:30, but some working hours may go longer than this when there is outstanding work. The work week starts Monday and ends Friday evening. Most people working in office environments do not work on weekends, except when overtime is expected. Punctuality and reliability are both highly valued, by colleagues and bosses.
Deadlines are usually set with the expectation that they will be met; although there is often some degree of flexibility, especially when setting it. It is not uncommon to work considerable overtime in order to meet a deadline and failing to do so may be viewed badly.
The Batswana dress very formally. The men always wear suits and ties to work. The women wear dresses, skirts or trousers (ie: no jeans or casual pants). One always addresses someone one doesn’t know formally. The hierarchy is important so a secretary will always refer to her superior as "Mr. or Mrs." Age also plays a role, with the younger formally addressing the older. Once you have met a colleague you may then refer to him/her in a more informal manner.
Time, deadlines, punctuality, absenteeism and productivity are not at all as important in Botswana as they are in the cities of North America. This is critical to understand and accept as soon as you arrive. You will not change people, let alone a whole country.
Funerals are the most important event in the life of an individual. A great deal of money is spent on them and they often last three days. If the funeral is out of town an employee can be away for a week. Do not roll your eyes when yet again a funeral must be attended. Many people die in Botswana from AIDS or "the things" so there are lots of funerals. Generally speaking, the locals do not care how a person dies. "They were sick" is a perfectly reasonable explanation so be cautious about asking for the cause of death. AIDS is not generally referred to because people with AIDS die from pneumonia and other more commonly understood illnesses.
Preferred managerial qualities
A superior is usually respected for his or her level of experience in the industry or work at hand but management experience and the ability to bring out the best in his or her staff is also very important. Academic and professional skills give some indication of background and ability but an approachable boss will often be more trusted than one who puts a lot of distance between him or herself and the staff. Being open to ideas would also be a good quality to have in a superior.
A superior who is particularly distant and uninterested in his or her staff and their ideas and needs could probably not expect a particularly high degree of cooperation.
If the staff is generally very quiet around their superior and deferent, then it is often because there is little trust in that person. A superior who is not respected would not be told so directly, but it is quite likely that his or her staff would talk amongst itself. Other signs might be inflexibility or low morale. If a manager is an expatriate, the staff will respect him /her depending on the way he/she behaves. If he/she is too bossy, the staff will be afraid of him/her, which means that he/she shouldn’t expect a high degree of cooperation. If the supervisor notices that the staff seem to be busy or always run away or talk in low voices to each other in his/her presence, he/she should know that something is wrong.
The supervisor can ask his assistant or a closer colleague about the staff’s view of him/her. However, the staff person might not tell him/her their true feelings, as they might be afraid of offending him.
Local managers are well regarded if they are personable and open to new ideas. Education impresses people generally in Botswana but their ability to "go with the flow" is most important.
Expat managers will have to work a bit harder to prove that they are reasonable and friendly but if there is work to be done you will have to delegate diplomatically and, as subtly as possible and keep your expectations in check. Watch out for frustrated expats and avoid them if possible because you will be tarred with the same brush if you hang out with them too often and it is too easy to agree with them and fuel your own frustration rather than coming up with imaginative ways to do the job that needs to be done. Your staff will be quick to judge and they will be harsher on you than on a local.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decision-making depends on the type of management of the organisation. Some managers tend to be inflexible, keeping decision-making powers to themselves (top to bottom type of management). But generally there is consultation in decision making between employees and employers.
Ideas in the work place are generated by both the employee and the employers. These ideas are then discussed and a decision will be made. The decision can be made by the supervisor or according to the majority rule if the organization consults with its workers before making a decision. The decision is made such that they won’t be any bad after effects to the work place.
A worker/employee can go to his/her supervisor for answers or feedback but he/she should be aware that some questions might offend the supervisor. The supervisor might think that the staff is questioning his authority.
My workplace experience does not qualify me to answer this.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
In the olden-days women were expected to stay home and take care of the children and the family properties. These days women also work and many hold high positions too. Some co-workers, especially men, might think that they shouldn’t be supervised by a woman and this might lead to frictions in the work place. A female supervisor, who thinks that this might be the problem with some of her staff, should discuss it with them.
There are more than three religions in Botswana, including Christianity, Islam and Hindu. When hiring, religion is not taken into account and as long as the person has the required skills he/she will be considered for employment. Once hired, it is expected that this person will stick to that workplace’s rules; for example, they may have to come to work on the day he/she might be supposed to go to church, if need be.
In general terms, if one owns capital, livestock, land (farm), car, house etc he/she is highly regarded in society (as upper class), even if he/she does not have a high education level. Some people tend to use that prestige to exploit the poor people’s labour.
The class issue is more significant in towns and cities than in rural areas. If a person has the attitude whereby he/she considers himself/herself superior to others, then this person will have problems at workplaces. If that person disregards the ideas of his/her lower class colleagues, he/she is not likely to be productive.
Given that Botswana has around 19 ethnic groups, if a person is not able to work with people of other tribes there will be a problem. Batswana consider themselves as one nation.
It is a patriarchal society where men are considered (particularly by men) superior to women. At a grass roots level the women do most of the work. Gender is a topic the local women enjoy discussing with other women but I doubt they would be very candid with a man.
There are many religions represented in Botswana. They include the Catholic, Anglican, Quaker, and many Evangelical groups. The Evangelical is the most common choice of the locals. I don’t really know much about them. It is a very tolerant society.
The country is divided between the educated class and the uneducated class and this is abundantly clear in the major cities. Once out in the rural areas one’s status no longer hinges on education but on wealth and wealth is indicated by the number of cows you own.
The Batswana are generally tolerant but they feel that East Indians are generally not to be trusted. They tend to keep to themselves, their tribe and their village of origin.
The other group that the local Batswana look down upon are the San, a nomadic tribe used to living in the heart of the desert. Ask about them at the art gallery in Gaborone.
The other important piece of information regards to the division of the people along tribal lines. There are two dominant indigenous groups in Botswana, the Tswana and the Kalanga.
As with any new situation it is better to enter with caution and reserve judgment. Women should be treated with the same respect you would show a man. Stay away from the topic of religion unless someone else brings it up. Treat the educated with the same respect as the uneducated although the educated may question this equal treatment.
If you are new to a work place, it is very important to have a personal relationship with a colleague because he/she can help you get settled at work and also help you if you have problems with other colleagues/ boss. He /she can also be your mentor. Befriend someone by having a chat about the city (location), ask to be shown around the city. Develop that relationship gradually.
You can establish this relationship by being honest so that he/she can trust you and you can also invite him/her to your home for coffee or dinner, etc. or invite them to some social events. You can also establish a personal relationship with a client before getting to business. If they trust you as a friend they will trust you to handle their business. You can establish this relationship just like for your colleague. Make your client comfortable by offering a cup of tea and create rapport by discussing general social issues like the weather.
A personal relationship is not necessary. In fact, separate personal from business. Decisions are often made very slowly and consensus is the preferred method. Maintain a business-like attitude and leave the personal relationships to after hours and with your own friends. In all the large towns there is an expat community easily found and you should start there. The Batswana are generally very slow to warm up and appreciate that relationships take time. You also have the huge disadvantage of being there for a short period of time (a few years at best) and few local people are willing to invest the energy in a long-term relationship with an expat.
If you are running an office with a number of employees many of their problems will be personal, ie: lack of funds for a myriad of compelling reasons. Problems will be presented to you as though you are the chief of the village rather than the neighbour next door. The chief has a great deal of power and is the supreme judge. You may wish to encourage the employee to find a solution and offer him or her advice. You may also chose to decline commenting until you are on very firm ground and understand your environment better.
NB: If you are earning a reasonable salary and living in a house or apartment it is a good idea to hire a maid. Much as this may go against Canadian values, the employment you will provide is critical to the sustenance of as many as a whole family. You may want to look for someone who is interested in learning how to cook or would like to learn to type on the computer. If you find someone with ambition and curiosity you may develop a wonderful relationship with them. Always pay slightly more than the going rate and remember that food costs them the same as it costs you. We always provided our maid with food: a huge bag every month and loaded with protein: meat, beans, etc., toiletries: face cream, sanitary pads, toothpaste, etc., (all of which I would buy) We always paid for the return train or bus annual trip home and maybe another trip home at Christmas; all doctor’s bills and then the longer you stay and the more intimate you become with each other the more money you will provide for education, clothing, family events such as funerals, etc.
Privileges and favouritism
A colleague or employee might expect special privileges or considerations given your personal relationship or friendship. They might expect to be given first chance at promotions, for instance. To avoid misunderstandings of this kind, let them know that you follow certain rules and regulations, e.g. a person is given a promotion only if he/she qualifies (deserves it). That way, your friend / relative should prove through hard work that they are suited for a higher level of responsibility.
A relative might also expect to be hired if you are hiring. The best thing is to let them know that you are only hiring those with certain skills and that they have to compete with others during the interviews as well as meet the job requirements. Avoid nepotism.
The only time you might want to try to hire a family member or close personal friend of an employee is if he/she has proven to be honest, hard working, bright and personable. Otherwise equality is extremely important to keep everyone honest and try to keep corruption at bay. If you are lucky enough to make a close friend at your place of business, maintain the relationship exactly as you would in North America.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you have a work-related problem with a colleague, try to talk to him/her about it in private. Try not to fight with him/her, just let him/her know that you are not happy about something, if he/she doesn’t listen that’s when you can ask a supervisor to solve your problem.
If you see that a colleague with whom you used to get along is trying to avoid you, you will know that something is wrong. It might be just a personal issue that he/she wants to deal with alone, but the best thing is to talk to him/her about whatever might be making that person avoid you so that you can know if you have offended him/her or not.
I can’t imagine a work-related problem that cannot be dealt with without having to confront anyone, but do so privately. Do your job as well as you can.
Motivating local colleagues
Your local colleagues will be motivated by having satisfying job positions, i.e. having certain benefits and good working conditions, including a good supervisor. They might be motivated because they are committed to their careers and are also getting good salaries. The other thing that motivates colleagues is being given an opportunity to continue their studies so as to advance their careers.
Hard to say, but perks and prestige are important. Cars are regarded with a great deal of importance. Generally, the more ostentatious the perk the better. Uniforms are very popular, as are designer suits.
Recommended books, films & foods
The only book I can recommend is History of Botswana written by Thomas Tlou. Other books are written in Setswana.
The Botswana traditional meal is Porridge: it is called papa/ bogobe in Setwana (Botswana language); this is the staple food and it is made from maize meal. The other most liked dish is the maize cooked together with beans (dikgobe).
www.info.bw (this website contains almost all Botswana information) and www.gov.bw which contains Botswana newspapers as well as organization, schools websites and other private websites too.
Seretse Khama 1921–1980. If you don’t do anything else, read this. Also, Bessie Head and Alexander McCall Smith are some good authors.
To learn about Botswana while in the country, you have to watch Botswana television. There are usually cultural events going on, so I would recommend that you go to concerts such as drama festival, traditional dance festival, or local singers’ festival. On September 30th, go to the National stadiums, or if you are in the rural areas, go to the Kgotla, for Independence Day celebrations. There are lots of different sports activities in Botswana: soccer, basketball, softball, rugby, desert racing etc. Sports events are usually advertised whenever there is an upcoming big event.
If you want to find a cultural interpreter while in Botswana, visit the chief in rural areas or go to the museums in the towns and cities.
Visit the Kalahari Conservation Society. There are also the Botswana Bird Club, the Gabarone Club for sports, the Golf Club, Yacht Club and Flying Club. There are lots of churches and many Ba’hai places of worship. There are charming museums in Gaborone and Mochudi (a village just outside of Gabs) and a wonderful art gallery in Gaborone. There is a British Council lending library, the National Library, USIS lending library, UB library. Maru A Pula is the local private secondary school with an auditorium in Gaborone. There are many cultural events held there. Ask about Maitisong for music and drama. You might try going to the WUSC offices to meet the current reps. Don’t be shy. Most Canadian expats are friendly and social. There are some wonderful bookstores in Gaborone as well as three newspapers that come out weekly and semi-weekly.
There are lots of good restaurants and excellent South African wine. There are no local open-air food markets in Botswana because no food is grown in Botswana except maize for personal consumption. Only cattle can survive the harsh desert conditions. All the fresh food is imported from South Africa and is bought in supermarkets similar to ours but much smaller. A real treat is the whole wheat bread baked daily at most supermarkets. The whole-wheat variety costs less than the highly refined white (as it should be everywhere!) and is a very simple and delicious loaf.
The national heroes are these three chiefs; Bathoen I, Khama III, and Sebele I. These chiefs fought for Botswana’s independence. The other national hero is Seretse Khama; he was Botswana’s first president and also the first Motswana to marry a white lady.
Sir Seretse Khama who was the paramount chief, educated in England, married to a white Englishwoman. He set the tone for racial harmony in a country never colonized and arranged for the political independence of Botswana. There is a detailed history, which is a must-read to help you understand the Batswana.
Shared historical events with Canada
Not to my knowledge.
There is a link between University of Manitoba and the University of Botswana. Hence Canadians are very privileged because they are looked upon with a great deal of respect and affection by those at UB.
Most Batswana don’t know that there is a country called Canada; they only know about USA and since USA is not liked that much, Canadians should tell Batswana where they come from lest they be misjudged too.
Many Canadians believe Africans to be very extroverted. The Batswana are very shy and dour.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Francistown city in the northern-east of Botswana as the fourth of seven children. She was raised in this city until the age of 18 when she went to Lentweletau, a village in the southern part of Botswana. There she worked as an elementary school teacher for a year. She then moved to Gaborone city to continue her studies and completed two years of a Bachelor of Science. She then came to Canada to study Computer Systems engineering. She will be graduating in April 2003 from Carleton University, Ottawa.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Canada the eldest of two girls. She was raised in Toronto Ontario, Plymouth, Montserrat and Hertfordshire, England. She studied drama at the University of Toronto. Her husband's work took her family to Botswana in 1991 for four and a half years where she worked at the French school and at WUSC as an administrative assistant to help with general office organization. She is currently living in Toronto with her husband and two of their children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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