Monday, February 17, 2020

Ten Cultural Differences between Togo and Botswana

These are things I noticed while living on and off in these countries (in the Peace Corps in Togo, and doing linguistic research in both Togo and Botswana) over the last 35 years. Many of these differences extend to other countries so that the difference might be really West African versus southern Africa. They are all rather superficial, since I am essentially a stranger looking from the outside in.

These differences are the tip of the iceberg showing the great cultural heterogeneity of Africa. The Togolese and the Botswana are as different from each other as the Americans and the Japanese. Of course, I do not mean to imply there are no similarities between the cultures. But that is a topic for another blog post.

In Togo, but not in Botswana, the children have a song that they sing when they see white people. They repeat this relentlessly over and over as a white person passes by.

Yovo, Yovo Bonsoir.    (White person, white person, good evening)
Ca va bien?                 (It goes well?)
Merci.                          (Thank you!)

I know that the Ewe of Ghana have a similar song. I have heard that the Akan and Ga of Ghana have similar songs. And such a song also exists in Benin. But I do not know how widespread they are in West Africa. I admit that I do not remember hearing them when I was in Nigeria or Cote-d’Ivoire.

In Botswana, the children might greet a white person saying “Hello” or “Dumela”. But other than that, they largely ignore them.

In Togo, but not in Botswana, the entire cuisine is based on hot pepper, which comes in different varieties. No meal is complete without hot pepper. The hotter the better, even on the hottest of days. Here is a picture of hot peppers being sold in the market place:

Hot pepper in Botswana is a modern addition to the diet, found at places like the restaurant chain Nandos which sells chicken with its so-called Piri-Piri sauce. As far as I can tell, there was no hot pepper traditionally, and the traditional food people eat (sorghum or corn porridge with meat and gravy) does not have any hot pepper at all in it.

In Botswana, food bought for daily consumption is largely purchased in supermarkets in towns. In villages, the food is purchased in general stores and tuck shops. In Togo, food for daily consumption is largely purchased in open air markets, usually on asigbe “market day”. Even in towns and cities, supermarkets are a rarity.

In these open air markets, bargaining is the norm. So if you live in Togo, you become very adept at bargaining for prices. Such bargaining for food items is not common in Botswana.

While people in both countries are friendly, people in Togo are more outgoing. They love to joke around and laugh. They talk and argue loudly in public spaces. They are curious about strangers. People in Botswana are much more reserved. They will largely leave you alone, if that is your wish.

Togolese are intensely entrepreneurial, manning tables in front of homes and lining up along the street to sell almost anything (e.g., peanuts and bananas, peanut candy, bars of soap, bread, meat, little packs of detergent, teeth cleaning sticks, rice and beans, small piles of vegetables, etc.). In the morning, people walk around residential areas selling breakfast food (e.g., porridge). At intersections, people run frantically into the street to sell merchandise to passing vehicles (bread, boiled eggs, chicken shish kabab). Children at a very young age are taught how to sell things (collecting and counting money, giving change).

Botswana has less of a tradition of this kind of intense commercial activity. That is not to say there is no such activity. In town, one will find tables where people sell candy and airtime. During the season, people will sell watermelon, mangos and fresh corn on the side of the road. In the village, people will sell chickens and sour milk (madila). And there is a lot of outdoor commercial activity at the central station in Gaborone. But overall, there is far less informal commercial activity in Botswana than in Togo.

In Botswana, but not Togo, the traditional economy is largely based on cattle. Cattle is wealth. This simple fact has many deep and far ranging consequences for Setswana culture. For example, the traditional bride price in Botswana (bogadi) is based on cattle (standardized at eight cows now). Also, much of the culture revolves around the cattle post (moraka) and the activities there. The cattle post is typically located far away from the village and from the farming fields (masimo). In the past, young boys spent most of their childhood away from their families at the cattle post taking care of the goats and cattle. Since the cattle posts are often far from the home, donkeys are used to pull carts carrying people and supplies to the cattle posts. Lastly, most of the important traditional foods are beef based (e.g., seswa, which is pounded meat, biltong, which is dried meat and braai, which is roasted meat).

In Togo, the Fulani in the northern part of the country raise cattle. They sell milk and a popular cheese called wangashi.  But otherwise, cattle culture is completely absent. There are no cattle posts, no donkeys, no donkey carts. There are lots of goats in Togo, but they are in the villages, not at the cattle posts. Lastly, the distance between villages is also usually much closer in Togo than in Botswana, due to the need for land for the cattle to graze on in Botswana.

In Togo, but not Botswana, tubers (such as yams, manioc and taro) are an important part of the diet. As such, there is a tradition of pounding these foods into fufu with a mortar and pestle. The fufu is then eaten with light soup (usually cooked with fish or meat). Sometimes the tubers are pounded together with plantains (which looks like a big banana).

Here is a fufu restaurant in Lome:

Here is a step by step video on how to prepare fufu:

There is nothing like fufu (or tubers or plantains) in Botswana.

In Togo, traditional clothing (for both men and women) is based on wax print fabrics. These are colorful fabrics with complex designs. People buy the fabric in the market, and then have a tailor make a dress or an outfit to their specifications. And the tailors show creativity in creating new styles which people then show off by wearing. Tailors often have a number of apprentices.

While it is possible to see outfits based on wax print fabrics in southern Africa, they look distinctly west African. Traditional clothing in Botswana for women is a kind of German print fabric:

And the system of tailors and apprentices does not seem to exist in Botswana, or at least I have not encountered it.

Botswana women also have a tradition of wearing blankets outside the house, especially during the cold winter months. As far as I can tell, Togolese women never wear blankets in a similar way, probably because it never gets that cold in Togo.

In music, the main instrument in Togo is the drum. Drumming accompanies all ceremonies (e.g., funerals), and has been transferred over to the modern church, where the singing is accompanied by drumming. For example, in a recent church service I attended, there were three different size drums, each playing its own rhythmic line, each time a song was sung.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, such drumming is absent amongst the ethnic Batswana in Botswana. I don’t think I have ever seen a drum played in Botswana, and a motswana friend of mine says that drums were never used in any cultural events when he was growing up. Instead, rhythm in traditional Setswana music depends heavily on clapping and stomping.

There is however drumming amongst the Bakalanga in the northern part of Botswana (e.g., in the Kalanga cultural festival that is held in Domboshaba).

Curiously, when I have asked my Botswana friends about drumming in Botswana, there is some disagreement amongst them about how prevalent drumming is. But in Togo, there is no disagreement at all. At least in southern Togo, drumming is everywhere and used by everybody.

When Batswana give or receive something, they use both hands. This has been abbreviated to using the right hand, where the left hand supports the right elbow. This is a sign of respect that is not recognized in Togo.

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