In my 8am class, the class I co-teach, my students were doing presentations. One of the presentations was particularly poor and the students had no qualms about telling their peers how disappointed they were with their performance. Since I fulfill more of a supporting role, I followed the lead of the major professor. He didn’t make an effort to curb the enthusiasm of the class and permitted them to be very vocal in their criticism. As the debate became more and more heated, the students reverted back to their native tongue, leaving me completely lost. However, I have the false belief that if I listen and concentrate hard enough when this sort of thing happens that somehow I will comprehend what is going on around me. Sadly, this tactic does not work. This was noticed by my pupils as one girl turned to another and said, “Oh look, Dr. Kelly doesn’t understand.”
After the debate finally subsided the professor kept using a Setswana word, “Rragawa” which basically means, “Do you understand?” This was a new word for me, so I wrote it down, checked with someone that I had the correct meaning and pronunciation, and then went about trying to utilize it on my own. That was where the plan fell apart. In my noon class (which I teach independently) I asked the class “Rragawa?” Silence, then laughter. No one had a clue what I was saying. I had been so proud of myself that I had learned a new word, and now all of a sudden my hopes were dashed. I told them I was trying to ask them if they understood me. I was given about 10 different alternate words and phrases, but none of them sounded remotely similar to “Rragawa.” This is not the first time this has happened, but my students are good sports and like me enough that they don't hold it against me when I embarrass myself on a regular basis.
Once class was over I headed to driving school. Did I tell you my instructor’s name? Duckpound. Yup, pronounced exactly like it sounds: duck-pound. Duckpound does not speak English. That’s actually not true. His English is limited to, “Are you having a husband?... I am good guy, we should kick it… I will come to your place for dinner and drinks.” “Yes I have a husband; no we will NOT be kicking it; no, you cannot come to my house for dinner and drinks.” Duckpound and my driving lesson pretty much solidified my belief that Setswana may be my Everest. After my driving lesson I decided there was no turning back; I hitched a ride to Alliance Francaise and signed myself up for Setswana lessons.
Nearly every day here brings with it a Lost in Translation moment for me. If you haven’t seen the movie, it has an excellent depiction of my efforts to speak Setswana. I am Bill Murray; the Japanese guy is pretty much every Motswana I meet here. And the two Japanese women laughing in the background represent anyone witnessing my attempts to have a conversation in Setswana: