Author Archives: gaetsalo

Sedibala pele ga se ikangwe

Text: “Sedibala pele ga se ikangwe”

Translation: “The well down the road [or in the next village, or down the path] cannot be relied on”


This phrase is a favorite of my informant, B, because of its many nuances. B is a middle aged man who lives and was raised in Gaborone, Botswana. This is a common phrase in Setswana —the national language of Botswana— used as a metaphor to relay that the future is unpredictable. B first learned this phrase from his parents in his childhood (1970s/80s). 

The phrase is often used to remind others of the unpredictability of the future. For example, if B’s and his wife were to set off on a road trip B has the option to fill up the gas tank before they leave but instead chooses to fill up in the next town over. Unfortunately the gas station in the next town is busy, and the next town is shut down and they are unable to find a working one before the car runs out of gas, the wife could say “Sedibala pele”. The phrase is so common, people often don’t finish the entire sentence, and the other party will still understand what is trying to be portrayed. 

B cites this phrase as a personal philosophy that has stuck with him since he was a young child, reminding him to focus on things in the present that he can control, and to not rely on the future because it is never guaranteed.


From what I know, the sentiment of this phrase is a common one throughout most cultures. It reminds me of the saying “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” which has origins in western agricultural communities, however it gives a similar message; not to rely on the future because it is not guaranteed. The phrase serves as a reminder of the inescapable uncontrollable nature of luck and chance in life. It speaks to the nature of humans to predict the future, see patterns in the past and assume they know what will happen next, as we know, that is not always accurate.

The niceties of language

Text: “Manate tsa puo”

Translation: The niceties of language; to beautify language or to pepper your speech with colorful language etc


K is a middle aged woman who was born and raised in Botswana and lives there currently. This is a common phrase in Setswana —the national language of Botswana. This saying references the customs of the Setswana language. A lot of speech in Setswana is in metaphors and proverbs, making it very difficult to translate directly to english. This phrase is often said to ease people who are having trouble understanding Setswana. It is essentially saying, this language is often unnecessarily convoluted, therefore you mustn’t feel bad when you do not understand. K used and heard this saying very often in her work in advertisement while working with business clientele who were not native Setswana speakers.


A saying such as this comes from an astute awareness of the perspective of outsiders that is incredibly interesting to observe in Botswana culture. Known for being very friendly and welcoming people, who are also very proud of their culture, it is unsurprising to have a saying that acknowledges the difficulties outsiders may face, encouraging them, while simultaneously complementing their language’s idiosyncrasies.

You can smell the wood

Text: “​​ça sent le sapin”

Translation: You can smell the wood


K is a student studying fashion in Paris. He first heard this French idiom in a car with his Parisian girlfriend’s family. The girlfriend’s sister was coughing a lot, and the mother said this phrase in response. This saying is essentially a way of saying, in jest, that someone is close to death. The “wood” in question is a reference to the material of a cheap coffin. Therefore, saying that a person can smell the wood, means they are very close to being in a coffin. 


This phrase reminds me of the similar saying “knocking on death’s door”. Joking about death, or discussing it in such a flippant manner is quite a common thing in most western cultures. Death, typically, is something that is feared in most western societies, likely because what happens after death is understood to be unknown and undiscoverable to the living. Thus this dark humor present in such a normalized phrase is a response to the inherent fear of death so many have within themselves. Dramatizing something as simple as a cough (or other situation in which this phrase arises) allows the folk engaging in this speech to exhibit some small amount of control over death; in taking the seriousness out of the topic, it removes some of the fear about it too.

Bana ba motho ba kgaogana tlhogo ya tshoswane

Text: “Bana ba motho ba kgaogana tlhogo ya tshoswane”

Translation: The people of a family are to share the head of an ant.


B is a middle aged man who was born and raised in Gaborone, Botswana and lives there currently. This is a common phrase in Setswana —the national language of Botswana— used as a metaphor to express the importance of family, sharing, and putting others before yourself. 

B first learned this metaphor from his wife who came from a large single parent household (7 children) It was their reality that the only means through which to prosper is for them all to share and be giving, despite not having much to give. Caring for the entire family is more important than one single individual.


This metaphor is very representative of the greater Botswana community and its cultural norms. It is highly valued in Botswana culture to be selfless and to give freely. This metaphor emphasizes that it is easy to give when you are in abundance, however, even when you only have something as small as an ant’s head, you must still find it in you to share that with the family (or community). This is a distinctly non-western philosophy and way of living. In the US, it is the norm to be extraordinarily individualistic. In Botswana, however, as exemplified by this phrase, the only option is for everyone to prosper, going directly against holding one person above the rest.

Botlhale jwa phaka bo tswa phalaneng

Text: “Botlhale jwa phaka bo tswa phalaneng.”

Translation: The intelligence of the antelope comes from the calf.


B: “This saying symbolizes that the future belongs to the next generation. Young people are the future of the world. It tells us to look to the younger generation to solve the problems of today. We [his generation] can’t solve them because it was created by our paradigm. To solve community issues, we need young people to approach to find a solution through their unencumbered paradigm.”

B is a middle aged man who was born and raised in Gaborone, Botswana and lives there currently. This is a common phrase in Setswana —the national language of Botswana— used as a metaphor to express that it is not only the old that have the capability to be wise, but the young do as well. B first learned this phrase from his parents in his childhood (1970s/80s). 

B claims to refer back to this phrase often in his consultancy work, often looking to his younger employees to offer a completely different perspective and experience to his own. Additionally, he relates this phrase to Africa as an entity. With around 60% of the population being under 25, B believes that it is the youth —with their unencumbered creativity, talent, energy, and problem solving— that will spearhead growth into the African continent. 


This metaphor encapsulates the characteristics of the people of Botswana. Traditionally, respect is an incredibly important attribute to have and show to all others in the community regardless of age or status. This phrase highlights the calf —youth— as being just as important and capable of contributing something of worth —intelligence— to its elders and community. It is representative of the importance not to dismiss others because they are seemingly “less” than you.