Botho: “I am because we are”

As the story goes, one day an anthropologist who was studying a remote African tribe tied a small basket filled with candies to a tree. He drew a mark in the mud, had the children of the village line up and explained that the first child to reach the tree would get all of the sweets.  When he yelled “Go” he was surprise to see the children hold hands and skip together to the tree. They took the basket and shared out the candies evenly. As one young girl explained, “How can one of us be happy if the others are sad?” She was describing an African concept of community spirit called “Botho” (also known as Ubuntu in Southern Africa). Botho is the idea that each person is inexplicably bound to everyone in their community and no one can really be content if the people around them are unhappy or unfulfilled. “Botho” loosely means “I am because we are” and represents the philosophical belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. 

In November of 2018, I got to see Botho in practice when I travelled to Botswana, Africa to teach a course on trial techniques. The teaching staff included two American attorneys (myself and my law – and life – partner, Rainey Booth) as well as five African lawyers from Kenya, Uganda and Botswana (all countries that still use English in the courtroom). The other instructors were amazing: beyond competent, charismatic and full of joy.  They each set aside their busy law practices and worked tirelessly to prepare for this volunteer, unpaid assignment.

The students were predominantly young lawyers with less than five years of experience. Interestingly, the majority of attendees were women as Botswana is an especially female-centric and matriarchal country. I have taught and lectured a lot in my career, but this experience was uniquely inspiring because the participants were so grateful for this chance to learn and improve.  Botswana has only recently started permitting Opening Statements so the students were eager to perfect the art of openings as well as enhance their mastery at direct and cross examination and case theming. There are no trial advocacy courses offered in African law schools so young lawyers learn solely from busy mentors or by making mistakes. The opportunity to actually be taught trial skills and study the science of oral persuasion really motivated the students. They arrived early and left late each day. They stayed after hours to ask questions and practice the techniques. They worked deep into the night preparing their “mock” presentations for the next day. They gave us their undivided attention; day after day no one took out a cell phone or surfed the web on a laptop. They showed a level of enthusiasm that was humbling.

Most striking, these young people were supportive of each other, not competitive.  Their constructive criticism of their fellow student’s performances was kind, thoughtful and helpful.  They truly embraced the concept that together they could make their bar association and legal community better for everyone. 

A highlight one afternoon was the ethics lecture by a beloved matriarch of the legal community, Pepsi.  She holds one of the highest ranks for lawyers in the country.  Pepsi she expertly put into words the true essence of a legal community.  Pepsi asked each person to remember the very first time they went to a party and were introduced as a lawyer.  She asked them to recall what they felt as they saw how just that word – “lawyer”- engendered immediate admiration.  She reinforced that they deserved that deference because of how hard they had all worked. However, she also emphasized that it was each student’s obligation to their profession to ensure that this respect remains justified: to never lie or misrepresent; to never cheat or cut corners; to always act with the highest of ethics.  Because one shady lawyer can damage the reputation of many and rob all lawyers of that respect. It was a lively discussion with many students acknowledging how much it meant to themselves and their families that they were a member of this esteemed profession.

On the last day, the students put on complete trials. They arrived energized in their full colonial barrister garb of  black robes and white wigs. They tried out everything we had taught them.  They incorporated stories, fables and proverbs in their closing arguments.  They experimented with simple visuals that could be shown to the judge (as there are no juries in Botswana).  They asked open-ended questions on direct (using the 4 Wives and a Husband technique: Who, What, Where, When and How).  They organized clear and concise cross-examination questions that built to a punchline.  I have never been prouder of a group of students. Their improvement was extraordinary.

The Botswana lawyers showed me Botho in practice: they held hands and skipped towards the communal reward … a better Botswana Bar.  And that is what Athea Lawyers hopes to achieve. Empowering female litigators by having their back because “I am what we are.”

NOTE: Justice Advocacy Africa is the Seattle based non-profit that organizes these goodwill teaching opportunities. Please consider volunteering to teach at one of their African seminars.  Feel free to email me privately, at zoe@littlepagebooth.com, for more details about the program.

Plus, a bonus reason to donate your time to this worthy cause, is the opportunity to see some of Africa’s wonders.  Having traveled so far, we opted to spend three days after the course ended on safari in the Okavango Delta. This flat safari plain, where the Okavango river flows into the Kalahari Desert and then dries up, is the last place for wild animals to easily find water.  It is thus a magical place for photographic safaris.  Getting there is not easy and started with multiple plane rides from Gaborone (the capital of Botswana) plus a puddle-jumper propeller plane adventure that landed on a grass field in the middle of nowhere.  Then, we drove by jeep another hour into the game reserve.  But what a reward … an unbelievable opportunity to see lions and giraffes and zebra and … and …. and … in the untouched wild. We stayed in a tent camp and the first afternoon I awoke from a nap to find an elephant right outside our tent … just beyond my toes.  How cool is that?

Zoe Littlepage

Recommended Posts