Random Thoughts and Musings by moi

Musings by a feisty, opinionated Deaf gal who wants nothing but the best for her community and her people

samedi 19 juin 2010

Colonialism In Action

I'm watching the first season of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a TV series from HBO, on DVD this week. It is a heartwarming, sweet series and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It has a neat premise and I'm enjoying the glimpse of life in Botswana it affords me. But as I watch, it becomes more and more obvious to me that I'm seeing a country (and TV series) soaked in colonialism, even though Botswana has been independent of Britain since 1966. What's more, Botswana was a British colony for only 80 years! So for the effects of colonialism to be as entrenched as they are in Botswana is startling and speaks volumes about how damaging colonization was, and still is, to whole cultures and peoples.

Immediately apparent effects of colonialism include the buildings, clothes, and devices/machines. The buildings mostly look like buildings you would find in America, including one posh modern hotel and a series of 1920s and 1930s-vintage buildings, as well as a smattering of houses in a variety of styles. The clothes include a lot of lovely batik prints, but the styles and cuts are very distinctly modern Western Civilization. The people, except for their fascinating and distinctive African features, look like people we would see in America. There are cars, fake nails, computers, roads, telephones (along with the attendant Yellow Pages and answering machines), and more. There are border patrols and passports are a necessity. In other words, other than the lush African landscape, this place looks much like a small town in America. I found that sad and startling.

Other effects of colonialism are subtler and more insidious. One thing that immediately struck me was how almost everyone speaks English. There is a very distinct African (Botswanan?) accent and there are a few words that they say differently, including Sir and Ma'am Rra and Mma, a greeting Dumela, and yes and no ee and nnyaa. But otherwise, it is very much English. The names were very surprising to me. The surnames are unmistakably African, including Ramostwe, Makutsi, Tsola, Bapesti, and so on. But the first names are unmistakably English, such as Grace, Lucien, Oswald, Alice, Michael, et cetera. That's amazing to me that they are choosing names that are not their ancestral names, instead opting for names preferred in a country that took over theirs. In the fourth episode, there is a scene where the detective meets with a witness, but the witness speaks the native language so his granddaughter translates between English and the native language. This drives home the point that most Botswanans (called Batswana) do not know their native language! Linguists know that language has a symbiotic relationship with culture, neither able to exist without the other. Language also shapes thought. Therefore it is possible to conclude that Batswana have altered their culture and thought patterns from the old days to something more British. Wow.

Let's examine the educational system there. There are colleges, training schools, and universities. The secretary, Mma Makutsi, graduated from secretarial college. One case involved interviewing people at the local university. The concept of formal schooling that spawns schools, universities, and colleges is very much European, not African. Interesting. Schools are where citizens and subjects are indoctrinated with the knowledge, skills, and values that a successful member of their society is expected to have upon completion of formal schooling. Draw your own conclusions from this.

There was one intriguing episode where an Indian (as in India) business owner appeared - and he was the first non-native person I'd seen up to date. He looked white from a distance then when the camera panned in, I realized he was actually Indian. He had all the bells and whistles, including a closed circuit TV system and a fancy alarm system that nobody else had. He, during the episode, got a satellite navigation system for his car. When the mechanic tried to explain how important it is not to leave the system in his car because it'd be stolen in no time flat, he pooh-poohed the advice. His attitude toward everyone else was very patronizing and condescending. It's ironic, considering that India was a British colony for far longer than Botswana. But this represents the current ideal in many cultures of the lighter-skinned you are, the better off you are, thanks to centuries of European colonization.

Colonists succeed by forcing natives to speak the colonizing language rather than their own, by forcing their educational system on the natives, and by recreating their ways of life in the colony. They also train natives to become professionals, thus ensuring the cycle of oppression continues and will continue, even when the colonizing forces have departed. This has clearly happened in Botswana.

This said, there were heartwarming glimpses of the native culture still present. The kindness, openness, and love of the Batswana are clear throughout the series. The accent and words are vestiges of what once was spoken all over the country. Mma Ramostwe, the protagonist, seems to represent a subaltern, in my view, because she frequently stands up for what is traditionally African. At one point she talks about the African heart, which holds that if one wrongs another and he or she is truly sorry for what has transpired, the wronged will try to forgive the transgressor. In every colonized culture, there have been individuals and groups who have actively resisted colonialism and reminded their peers of their indigenous values, language, and traditions. I believe she represents that here.

This all seems awfully familiar to me. Does it to you?