Greetings don’t cost a thing… or do they?

Madume Ga a Jewe

How many times have we all heard the expression ‘manners don’t cost a thing’? I’m willing to bet a lot of people are familiar with it. I was always told ‘madume ga a jewe’, or in English, greetings don’t cost a thing. Growing up, my parents drilled into me the importance of being a decent person and treating everyone with respect and decency. At the very core of this unwritten code of ethics; is the idea that wherever you go, it’s always polite to greet people. This is especially important if they are older than you.

However, with the passage of time, the tide seems to be turning on this basic but important etiquette rule. A lot of Batswana will recognise it as part of the spirit of botho that many Africans pride themselves on. For a time, I thought this change was largely a generational thing; that the younger generation was to blame for this custom dying out. But now I’m not so sure because it seems to be happening right across the board, and also becoming commonplace!

Even The Older Generation Are At It!

Towards the end of last year, I went to my doctor’s and was taken aback and sorely disappointed to be met with a distinct lack of response when I greeted a number of older women. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said to my husband, loud enough for said ladies to hear; “Wow, you know we’re in trouble when you greet your elders and they ignore you!”

As anybody from Botswana will tell you, that’s just not something you do; you’re not to question your elders, even if you think they are out of line, whether you know them or not. Needless to say, my ‘rude utterance’ didn’t go down well, to put it mildly. I looked over my shoulder and found the ladies in question sending numerous daggers my way. If there was ever an “if looks could kill moment…!” Still mildly annoyed, I (surprisingly) calmly went back to them and politely said,


“Sorry, is there a problem?” To which the ladies retorted, “What makes you think you can tell us off for not responding to your greeting?!”

Again, I surprised myself with just how calm I was when I responded,

“I’m sorry if I came off as rude, but I was merely expressing sad disappointment towards being ignored all morning when greeting people, including my elders. I think it’s sad to observe this is happening all too often, and it saddens me beyond words.”


That seemed to appease them (phew!), which then led to a much more civil discussion around possible reasons why this could be happening. Long story short, in the end we were all laughing, with them explaining that the reason for people not responding is because ‘they are ailing; they are ill or besieged by all manner of problems”. In the end they did apologise and urged me never to change my stance on this, no matter what response I keep getting (or don’t get) or how it makes me feel!

Should Greeting People Be Dependent On Your Mood?

Fast-forward to a similar incident this week, this time involving a much younger woman in her early 20s. I was sitting in the front seat of a combi going to work when she joined me up front, folded her arms and sat there looking like she had a cob on. Staring straight ahead, face like thunder, with a full pout on; she didn’t say a word to anyone. That struck me as odd, but I decided ok, whatever!


Also taken aback by this strange behaviour, the combi driver said to her;

“Oh, hi there, aren’t you going to say hello to us?”


He may as well have been talking to a brick wall. Unperturbed, the girl didn’t bat an eyelid, just kept staring ahead, not bothering to respond or even look at the driver. After 2-3 attempts, the combi driver eventually gave up. At this point I was so gobsmacked I decided to stay out of it. I mean, even if you can’t be bothered to greet people, you just wouldn’t resolutely refuse to do so if someone put you on the spot. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Talk about awkward!

When I got to work, I told my colleagues about the strange incident on the combi. Well, imagine my surprise when one of my colleagues defended the young lady’s behaviour! The colleague said she hates the idea of being forced to keep greeting people wherever she goes because sometimes she’s just not in the mood! She feels it should be dependent on your mood on the day. In fact, she believes even if you need help from people, it’s ok to just go charging in and ask of them whatever it is you want, never mind greeting them! I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like you’d be making demands rather than asking for help.


Flabbergasted, I said to her,

“Well, what about your elders, people you respect; is it ok to apply the same rule to them?!”


Eh, my colleague dug her heels in, saying it’s irrelevant because it all goes back to your mood! I found that shocking, but I guess you could say it’s the sign of the times. Wherever you go in the world, you hear the older generation complaining of the disintegration of the moral fibre, the corrosion of manners and general etiquette. It’s more than a little worrying though, when people, no matter how young or old, feel it’s a chore to do something as easy as saying ‘dumelang’, something that was instilled in me and a lot of my peers when we were growing up.

A Friendly Word of Advice

For those of you who are thinking of visiting Botswana, or even fellow Batswana who currently live abroad, I just want to take this moment to say that greetings are still very much a part of the Setswana culture. Oh, and it is true, they don’t cost anything! When you go into a place and find people, do say ‘dumelang’ because people appreciate it and still attach a lot of value to it. When you go into a place, smile and greet people; believe it or not, it goes a long way to getting you help quicker and more efficiently.

By contrast, if you walk into a place and swan past the people you find there, without so much as a glance or word, go wherever you’re going only to find you need the help of the very people you ignored going in, they are very, very unlikely to want to help you. In fact, they can even take you to task over that and make things very awkward for you!

So just do it, smile and say ‘dumelang’ wherever you go, if not to show some decency, at least to butter people up to help you out with whatever service you’re after. It may seem a little strange, but it’s one of Botswana’s little eccentricities and part of the reason we love being who we are! Well, at least I do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to go around saying dumelang to every single person you meet! It really applies to situations where you go somewhere and find people there, or if you bump into someone you know. Likewise, when someone comes into your space or finds you already in a place, etiquette dictates they greet you. But that’s not to say you can’t greet them first if you want to.


What’s your opinion on this matter? Do you think greetings are important? If not, why do you feel greetings have no place in today’s society? Please go ahead and share your opinion with YourBotswana.

3 months ago

2 Comments

  1. Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this post to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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