Tag Archives: Setswana saying

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.

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.