Manners & Protocols in Tswana Culture


Botswana, like any other society, has certain expectations and standards of behavior that are important for maintaining order and harmony within the community. These guidelines, known as social etiquette, cover various aspects of social life, including family dynamics, community gatherings, intergenerational interactions, gender relations, and cooking and dining.

It’s worth noting that the Batswana, who have a long history of living in communal groups, have unique patterns of social interaction and ways of relating to each other. These patterns can vary between the northern and southern parts of the country, so it’s essential to keep this language divide in mind when exploring the manners and protocols of the Batswana. Understanding and respecting these cultural norms is crucial for anyone hoping to fit in and thrive in the Batswana community.



  1. GREETINGS: Batswana people, in general, believe in good, healthy relationships and value qualities such as empathy, cooperation, and living together as a societal unit. For this reason, greetings or the expectation to greet or be greeted form a fundamental aspect of judging mannerisms in Botswana. It is therefore considered anti-social behavior not to greet or respond to neighbours’ greetings. The greeting expectations also apply to strangers; you greet them, and they greet you. 

  2. When you see a person throughout the day, greet them appropriately for that time of the day (morning, afternoon, evening). There is no limit to the number of times one can pass greetings to others. Madame ga a jewel is a Setswana saying to support this notion, which means greetings are not food…so share them as generously as you possibly can”.

  3. You are expected to have an interest/concern about the “health” of your neighbors or those you meet. Greetings in Botswana are considered incomplete before the ‘how are you?” (o tsogile jang? in Setswana). The contextual meaning of this goes deeper for the Batswana because:

  4. “O tsogile jang?” is used to check the physical and emotional health status of the individual with whom you share the greetings. It is essential for the Batswana because how one feels on the day might determine how to relate to and address the person. For example, when asked, “how are you?” the person might respond, am not well; I just lost a relative.” The response will help in the ensuing interaction. Empathy is then displayed towards the person and his/her entire family. It will also be upon the person told to spread the bad news to others so they can come together and mourn.

  5.  It also includes the health or general welfare of the core family or those that one stays with, as well as the “welfare” of cows, goats, and even crop yields at the farms. Thus, it is also used to check how life is for the fellow Motswana (and you don’t necessarily have to know the person very well to care or share information).



The nature and structure of the exchange of greetings are also influenced and informed by the relationship between the people sharing the greeting and the age differences. It is generally expected that the younger person will initiate the greetings. Greetings can, however, be contextual and/or situational depending on whether one comes from Northern or Southern parts of Botswana: 

            Northern parts of Botswana: This is the area from Dibete village to Kasane on the Botswana-Zambia-Namibia border. The unique thing about this part of the country is that, in greeting or addressing an elderly person, the young must use the plural tense even when addressing only one elderly person. The singular tense is only allowed amongst age mates or peers, and it is considered unwanted/inappropriate behavior for a child to address parents (the elderly) in the singular form. 




GREETINGS: Dumelang (plural) rre/ntate/papa

REPLY: Dumela (singular) ngwanaka




GREETINGS: Dumelang mme/mama

REPLY: Dumela ngwanaka


RECIPIENT: Elderly apart from parents

GREETINGS:Dumelang rra/mma/mogolo

REPLY:Dumela ngwanaka

In the northern part of Botswana, there is a unique culture or way of greetings amongst the Bakalanga tribes, which is different from all the above. For the Bakalanga, when a minor (child) greets an elder, they are not supposed to open their mouth and say the greetings out… Instead, the child is expected to bring both palms (hands) together and point them towards the elder, who will lovingly grab them and kiss them before asking, “how are you?” or oa muka in the vernacular. Upon asking how you are, the elder is therefore giving the child permission to open their mouth and talk to them. Note that this form of greeting is observed when a child greets a parent or other elderly people, and it is called go buchila in the Kalanga dialect.

Lastly, the people of northern Botswana find it inappropriate for a younger person to ask their elders how they are (“how are you?”). In the context discussed above, this question might require the elder to explain certain things that they should not…for example, family fights or illnesses that the elder wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with a younger person. So for this part of the country, the child must initiate the greetings but wait for the elder to ask the” How are you?” question. The elder will voluntarily tell you how they are” if they are comfortable with that. 

  1. Southern Part of Botswana: this area stretches from Dibete village to Ramatlabama on the border with South Africa. It is different from the northern part in that; when one comes to this side of the country, it is considered acceptable for a child to address the elderly in the singular form. Unlike in the north, people in the south find no offense in a child or younger person asking the “how are you?” question, and a child is not always expected to initiate the greetings. For example, in this region, it is customary for the person who initiates the greeting to be the one who enters another’s yard or home. For example, if an elderly person comes to visit your parents and they are not home, as a younger person, you would wait for the elderly person to initiate the greeting before saying anything.

  2.  The interpretation is that a child takes their parents’ place in their absence…so not greeting the child would be equivalent to disrespecting that child’s parents. 

Note, however, that on the streets, it is generally expected that the younger person is the one to initiate the greetings (for both north and south). The Batswana take greetings so seriously that it is considered anti-social behavior not to initiate or respond to greetings. And this can shape and reinforce people’s perceptions of you.

Also worth noting is that despite the expectation that the younger be the ones to initiate the greetings, the Batswana still expect the elderly to also ‘respect” the young. There is a Setswana saying: Susu ilela suswane, gore suswane a go ilele. The saying translated means that the elders must respect the youth so that the youth can learn from them and thus give back the respect to the elderly. So, for this reason, some elders initiate greetings, especially when they realize the younger person doesn’t see them or is distracted.

Finally, there can be different expectations on the etiquette of greetings depending on whether one is male or female.

MALE: usually, the Batswana men wear hats at traditional/cultural gatherings and on their daily errands. So, therefore, there is a form of etiquette expected from them in relation to their hats: It is considered bad manners to exchange greetings with another with your hat on. So the best, acceptable practice would be to remove the hat or cap and hold it in both hands as you exchange greetings.



When greeting the chief or any village elder of royal blood, the hat has to be wrinkled, and your face must be “down” to avoid direct eye contact (direct eye contact, if prolonged, can be interpreted as a challenge).

You are expected to remove hats during meetings or any formal family gatherings.

For younger men, including those unmarried, a slight bow is expected to accompany their greetings. This group is also expected to sit on their heel” when greeting the elderly since seats are usually reserved for the elders; mosimane o nna serethe, they say. And by this, they mean in the literal sense: a boy sits on his heel probably because he doesn’t have a seat yet- the assumption being he will start having one as soon as he is married.

            FEMALE: In Batswana culture, it is customary for women to sit on the floor (mat) before exchanging greetings, especially during community or family gatherings. Sitting down is considered a meaningful gesture of respect, as it shows that the person has the time and interest to listen to their neighbor’s welfare and well-being. It is considered taboo to exchange greetings while standing, as it is viewed as disinterest in the context of Batswana’s cultural norms around greetings.

In greeting the elderly, young girls are expected to bow deeper than their male counterparts, probably because they don’t wear hats and therefore have to hold both hands together and demonstrate submissiveness which is regarded as a virtue good for marriage prospects. The tone of the lady’s voice must also be controlled such that it is neither too loud nor too low.

            Social interactions: as stated above, the Batswana people have a long history of living in various sizes and types of communities. These communities have a hierarchical social structure that influences the nature of interactions within them. The hierarchy of importance in Batswana social systems is as follows:

In Batswana societies, there is a hierarchy that consists of the Chief, Headmen, Royal uncles and aunts, heads of families (fathers or men), mothers, and the youth. Within this hierarchy, the young are at the bottom and are expected to carry the heaviest burden properly. There are specific ways and expectations for the relationships within this hierarchy.

All community members must show respect for the chief by standing up and bowing when he enters the kgotla, the traditional meeting place. It is also customary for men to remove their hats as a sign of respect. Often, a poet will be present to recite a poem that celebrates the chieftainship lineage:

             It is essential to educate people about the history and lineage of their chieftainships to ensure that there is common knowledge about the heirs to the throne. 


            The education can help prevent disputes or conflicts over chieftainship that might arise in the event of the chief’s passing.

The chief has assistants called headmen, who are responsible for managing the various wards within the village. The chief may also seek advice from his uncles and aunts, especially if his mother is deceased. The villagers respect both the headmen and the uncles and aunts, and disobeying or disrespecting them is disrespectful to the chief. The headmen are considered to be direct representatives of the chief.

The Batswana people, who have a long history of democracy in their society even before colonialism, strongly emphasize the importance of a chief being humble and respectful towards their tribe and community. The respectfulness is reflected in Setswana proverbs such as “kgosi thotobolo e olela matlakala,” which means “the chief is like a dumping site,” indicating that the chief is expected to handle all the problems of the village and treat everyone equally. Another proverb, “kgosi ke kgosi ka batho,” translates to “a chief is only a chief because he has people to rule,” emphasizing that without the people, the chief is nothing. These proverbs demonstrate the value that the Batswana place on humility, even for those in leadership positions and responsibility.

The Batswana people have a long history of practicing democracy in their communities, which is reflected in their relationship with their chief. The kgotla, or meeting place, serves as a traditional parliament where issues affecting the village are discussed. At these meetings, the following proverbs guide the relationship between the chief and the members of the public:

  1. “Mafoko a kgotla a mantle otlhe” is a Setswana proverb that translates to “everyone’s opinion is their own, and no one’s opinion is better than others.” This proverb reflects the Batswana values of accepting different viewpoints without conflict, valuing dialogue regardless of age or social standing, and upholding the principles of freedom of expression, consultation, and democracy. These values are important to the Batswana and have played a significant role in their society’s history of democracy.

  2. Mmualebe o bua la gagwe, gore monalentle a le tswe can be translated as “everyone should contribute” or “everyone should have their say.” The saying emphasizes the importance of participation and inclusivity in the community. The phrase also suggests that the Batswana value respectful debate and the sharing of ideas. In their interactions, Batswana people follow protocols and etiquette but also emphasize the importance of seniors showing respect to juniors to foster mutual respect within the community.

TABLE MANNERS: It is worth mentioning that the concept of table manners in Batswana culture can vary depending on the context in which food is consumed. These table manner variations may be seen during family meals, community meals, and special occasions such as weddings and funerals. It is important to consider these different perspectives when discussing table manners in Batswana culture.

Family meals: During family meals, strict protocols are followed from start to finish. For example, it is the responsibility of the male members of the family to gather firewood, chop it to size, and ensure that the meat is available. The female members of the family are responsible for cooking and serving the food. The family’s elders are served first, starting with the head of the family, who receives two plates or basins, one containing porridge and the other containing relish. Once the elders have begun eating, the children are called in to wash their hands and collect their food. This protocol is followed even at breakfast time. It is considered rude for a child to start eating before the elders, and children are not allowed to talk or play while eating. These table manners help to teach children the importance of eating well for good health.


Community Meals (Weddings & Funerals): The Batswana value a strong sense of community, where the entire group feels the happiness and sadness of an individual. For this reason, weddings and funerals are community activities, and there is a protocol for how the meals are prepared until they are served. At weddings and funerals is where they demonstrate a good sense of specialization and division of labor at the community level:

  1. The cattle to be slaughtered are trekked by the young, able-bodied young boys with the supervision of an elderly, unmarried man.

  2. An elderly, experienced person does the slaughtering, and the young men continue skinning, slicing, and eventually cooking the meat in big pots. It is considered taboo for women to come and attend to the meat.

  3. On the other hand, young ladies will be responsible for the starches and preparing salads. 

  4. When it’s time for the feast, all young ladies act as ushers, while the experienced mothers help supervise the dishing out.

  5. The elders will be served first according to their standing in the community until the children follow after all parents have been served.

  6. The responsibility to clean afterward lies with all children from that ward. Any child missing is seen as not representing his family/parents well and is sometimes disciplined. Inclusivity is meant to encourage this spirit of community. 

All in all, the Batswana on manners and protocol strive by the proverb: susu ilela suswane gore suswane a go ilele… and as explained above, those in positions of power or influence must have a sense of respect and appreciation for those reporting to them. For the most part, the Batswana believe in and have shaped their manners and protocol to encourage peaceful coexistence among the people. One might want to attest this aspect to the fact that the Batswana never went to war as a country.