Growling and muttering in Setswana, the driver brings the rusty old khombi to sputter and die on the shoulder of the cracked road. Though my Setswana is not good enough to make out his words, they sound as close to cursing as I have ever heard. I feel like joining him. He grabs a fuel can as the vehicle coasts to a stop.
“Sorry, makgoa,” pressing his palms together and bowing his head in the traditional gesture of apology before he dashes for the petrol station down the road. I look around the taxi, confused: makgoa, the plural form of the word lekgoa, typically refers to white people.
Pakeha, mulungu, gringo, toubab – white foreigners take many names across the world. In this corner of the world, the word is lekgoa. I should know well enough: before the people of Reed Holler learned my name, the name lekgoa seemed to suffice. The term irritated me to no end, not least because the Setswana prefix “le-” puts me in the same noun class as a fatcake (legwinya) or rat (legotlo). Humor would improve the situation when scolding failed:
“Lekgoa! Lekgoa! Lekgoa!” some child or another would shout.
“Lekgoa?” I would ask, looking around in feigned panic. “Le kae lekgoa? Ga ke a bone,” I say. “A white person? Where is it? I don’t see,” before composing myself to point to the nearest gogo and ask “Lekgoa?”
The gogo would usually chuckle and correct the baffled child, pointing to me and saying, “Ke Malome Thabo.”
Back on the khombi, there appears to be just the one lekgoa. So why did the driver make use of the plural?
I asked my Language and Culture Facilitator from Pre-Service Training, a jovial man by the name of Pule Seotimeng. Besides its more typical meaning, Pule explained that the term lekgoa can also refer to an employer or rich person. As the owner and operator of a successful catering business, Pule employs several people and often lends or gives money to family and friends. Despite his jet-black skin, Pule also takes the name lekgoa in his village. My fellow taxi riders and I formed a kind of collective employer of the driver. Hence, the plural form of lekgoa.
I suspect that lekgoa’s dual meaning is an unfortunate vestige of the historical economic disparity in South Africa. Since the Dutch East India Company established its resupply station in present-day Cape Town in 1652, whites have held the economic power in South Africa. The abolition of slavery by the British in 1833 did little to change South Africa’s economic disparities; since then, the main relationship between whites and blacks in South Africa has been as employer and employee. Similarly, black South Africans have sometimes addressed me as baas, an Afrikaans word meaning exactly what it sounds like. Etymology and socioeconomics intersect in these words to reflect South Africa’s divided history. Though these socioeconomic dynamics are changing, economic and racial divides in South Africa largely remain synonymous.
The economics South African language aside, people in the village rarely call me lekgoa now. As a “Volunteer” earning a “living stipend,” the term is hardly accurate anyway. These days, people mostly call me Thabo, along with some name that acknowledges one of my social roles in the community: Tichere or Meneer, for teacher; Abuti or Bra for brother; Malome, for uncle; Ntate, for father†.
Pule can keep the name Lekgoa. I prefer to go by Malome.
†The title Ntate doesn’t necessarily refer to someone with children; rather, it refers to men not old enough to be addressed as Madala, for Grandfather. I likewise have no legal nephews or nieces here. Nonetheless I often take the name Malome, which indicates familiarity rather than kinship. The term confers some measure of honor, referring specifically to your mother’s oldest brother. In Tswana culture, this is your most important male relative, the relative who fulfills important social roles like negotiating lebola (marriage contract) on your behalf.