Penn Global Seminars I Am Because You Are

March 27, 2024
By Sean Woo, CAS '27

PGS: Writing Health and Healing in Botswana 

Sean, one of the PGS Correspondents, shares his experience abroad during the Spring 2024 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their images on the @pennabroad Instagram feed.

Botho in Botswana means “I am because you are.” This one simple phrase truly encompasses the identity of Botswana. See, the people of Botswana base themselves on the existence of others, and this starts with the basic interactions that evolve into more complex ones. For example, here, you give respect to gain respect. To initiate this, you’re expected to say "Dumela" to every random stranger you pass by as a form of greeting. From the security guards sitting at the entrances of hospitals to the restaurant workers, Dumela was a word that immediately connected our out-of-place group when the other side warmly smiled and greeted us back.

SeanOn our first day on the ground, our class split into multiple smaller groups so that various hospitals around Gaborone could take us in more effectively. Stepping foot in Princess Marina Hospital, the very hospital I had read about in the writing seminar, was surreal. Here, we accompanied doctors and went on rounds in internal medicine, obstetrics, and gynecology, watching first-hand the dynamics described in the ethnography Improvising Medicine by Julie Livingston. I also went to a nearby private hospital called Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital, where I talked with CHOP residents and went on rounds in the pediatrics ward. I saw handwritten medical chart records, professionals discussing pre-rounds, and patients ambling about. I went over CT and MRI scans of patients and even talked with a patient who got a scorpion bite at the emergency room of another hospital called Sidilega Private Hospital. Observing a hospital setting, in Botswana for that matter, upfront and personal was a new experience, something I didn’t even do yet back in the US. Even in a chaotic setting such as a hospital ward, the healthcare workers were all very welcoming and warm, answering all our questions thoroughly and untiringly. 


This ethos of hospitality and caring for the general population could be seen even in the very way healthcare was organized policy-wise. I learned from the various discussions with hospital administrators that healthcare in Botswana was completely free of cost for every citizen. While that did lead to bottlenecks and issues in the public model, such as long wait times and inadequate ICU beds, there were other avenues for the average citizen to get care. For example, patients could easily be referred to other private hospitals and get treatment subsidized entirely by the government. 

To learn more about healthcare outside of conventional biomedical practices, we also sat down with the Sangomas, or traditional healers. The Sangomas explained to our class the integral role they played in the community, providing critical emotional security and counseling to the population, so much so that even the Sangomas were acknowledged and supported by the government. These fascinating insights, not freely available to people much less to foreign visitors, were imparted to us in a genuine, friendly, and educational dialogue.

seanWhile our class focus was on health and healing in Botswana, we still did some really fun events, with the concept of botho, and of service and hospitality permeating through every interaction. On our first night, the class was invited to dinner at Kana Kgang, a relaxed outdoor restaurant. Right before we dug into the traditional cuisine consisting of savory Seswaa, braised oxtail stew, leafy greens, and sticky maize porridge, a worker approached each guest at the table with a bucket of water for us to wash our hands, a tradition of welcoming us to the establishment. Then, the musicians who were playing live music on traditional instruments such as the marimba and drums invited us forward to try playing the instruments. We laughed and danced as the sun continued to set.

seanThe next few days were a blur. From Martin, who individually walked us through the making of clay bowls at Gabane Pottery, to the hundreds of students at St. Joseph School warmly welcoming us and showing the school grounds, to the chefs helping us cook traditional dishes during our final night cook-off dinner, this hospitality was the most surprising and heart-warming aspect I encountered in my travels to Botswana. I can’t wait to visit the sunny plains of Botswana again, even if it’s just for the people there.


PGS Logo

Penn Global Seminars combine intensive semester-long study with a short-term travel component that deepens your understanding of concepts discussed in the classroom. Courses options are available for Penn undergraduate students across majors and years.