Newly graduated from college, I stood on my porch one day, pondering familiar questions: Who am I? Where am I going? And what good is this philosophy degree? So I chucked it all and joined the Peace Corps. It was 1966.
Early that summer I received my assignment: the Bechuanaland Protectorate. I had no idea which continent it was on. An atlas revealed a British colonial protectorate north of South Africa.
In August, I began language and teacher training. Just before Christmas, I left with several dozen other volunteers on a flight to what was then the newly independent nation of Botswana.
I might as well have been leaving for another planet. My first encounters ranged from the cosmic to the comic.
The cosmic: On a moonless night a few months after arriving, I stepped outside and looked up. The 3,300-foot Botswana plateau and absence of light pollution hurled me into a breathtaking crystal-clear Milky Way that stretched from horizon to horizon. My sense of place in the universe changed forever.
The comic: I taught sixth and seventh grades in Tatitown Primary School near Francistown in Botswana’s northeast. The school had about 800 students. My teaching career began with a valiant effort to impress my students with my facility in Tswana, the national language. In recounting to a class the fun I’d had dancing at a recent school function, I confused the Tswana verb for “dance” with a verb that was, as one student put it later, a “particularly nasty” term for passing gas.
Hysterical laughter ensued.
Other moments strained the architecture of my identity. Soon after my arrival a male teacher hooked his little finger around mine as we conversed on life in Botswana and the United States. I had no idea my little finger could sweat so much. What was he doing? After regaining my composure, I realized this was a sign of friendship, of acceptance.
Other cultural surprises came from larger differences. One day the head teacher approached me with a serious look: “Mr. Shaw, we have a problem.”
It seemed that townspeople were concerned that I lived by myself. I must have done something wrong to be without family. How very unfortunate, he said. I quickly explained that I hadn’t been kicked out of my home, that my family still loved me, but that it was too far for them to come to visit. He seemed to accept that, but added that people would be more comfortable with me if a suitable housekeeper could be found to cook, clean, and do my laundry.
I got the message: I was an aberration. American individualism was colliding with Botswana’s collective society, where everyone had a place in a family, a clan, a lineage. Their concern was compassion. I needed to be knit into the community. So I hired a cook who, with her friend and young daughter, also cleaned and did laundry.
On a trip with friends through the Kalahari Desert, we came upon San-speaking hunter-gatherers. We stopped and tried to converse. I listened as the San talked to each other, their language noted for its variety of clicks that sound like someone clapping wooden blocks together. How different they seemed. Yet we all laughed as we traded tobacco and other items for ostrich egg shells, bows and arrows, a tortoise shell filled with sweet-smelling leaves and plugged with a scrap of animal skin. Our shared humanity outweighed our vast cultural differences.
Months later, two other San-speakers tracked my mare, which had been missing for several weeks, courtesy of roaming stallions. I watched these men study the ground where I’d kept her. I followed on horseback for the next few hours as they jogged ahead, occasionally glancing at the ground and conversing.
The mission ended when they pointed to a tree under which stood my lost horse. I was illiterate throughout this process; I might as well have been trying to tell time from one of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. At the same time, I was touched by the obvious satisfaction they took in helping me, even if, for them, it seemed to be no trouble at all.
Botswana was my first encounter with the powerful cultural differences that separate us and the profound human feelings that unite us. The experience still resonates for me today, and my gratitude for it endures.