Navigating Public Transportation & Gender

I got lost using the combis in Gaborone last week, and to be honest, I’m not surprised. It was bound to happen, since I’m still new to the city and culture. I boarded a combi outside the University of Botswana that I thought was going to the station, but after 15 minutes I realized I had no idea where I was going. I asked the woman next to me where we the combi was headed and she was incredibly helpful and nice. She got off at the next stop with me and directed me to the Broadhurst Route 1 combi. It was already dark out.

IMG_combis
several combis gathered on a main road in Block 9

Halfway though my ride, the only people aboard were the driver, an older woman, me, and the guy who ushers people onto the combi. Then the older woman got off and I wondered if the rest of the ride was going to get weird or uncomfortable, since some of the CIEE staff warned the international women not to get on a combi at night when there were only two men inside. I thought it was an exaggeration, you know, making sure they covered all possible scenarios, but the ride did get weird.

As soon as the usher slid the door shut behind the woman, he turned around and started asking me how I was, etc. I was wary, and with good reason, because he also asked me where I was living and which combi or taxi I needed to catch at the station. After talking for only two minutes or so, he asked how he could see me again. I immediately wanted to get off the combi. I tried turning him down by telling him I had a boyfriend, which I hate resorting to. I forget what he said in response, but he was surprised. Still, he shrugged it off, said that he had a girlfriend, and that we could “work around it.” Was this guy kidding? I wanted to tell him I wasn’t interested but it was just him, me, and the driver, and at the end of the day, I don’t speak the cultural language and I didn’t feel comfortable at all giving him a blatant ‘no’ while we were still on the combi. And the fact that he literally waited until the one other woman excited the combi before he started hitting on me made it feel extra creepy. I felt corned. It was like he knew. The few times men have bothered me on the combi, they’ve never done it in the presence of another woman. Never.

When we arrived at the station, he attempted to follow me to my final combi by trying to take me over the narrow bridge to the bus rank, but I quickly backed away, gave him a flippant “Goodnight. Thanks,” and went over the other bridge that goes through Rail Park Mall.

That was definitely a stressful situation. Obviously I won’t/can’t generalize about Batswana men, since I’ve met plenty of decent guys here and unwanted male attention is a global problem faced by all genders. Still, the attention here has been different than in the US. Catcalls, honking, and touching haven’t been a problem for me here. Neither have lewd comments (but maybe that’s because I don’t speak Setswana!). But I’ve noticed a trend of a number of guys here feeling entitled to women’s time and attention. Certain guys will ask for your number after talking with you for only a few minutes and then proceed to call and text you a lot and with some of them, it’s unclear whether they’re interested in being your actual friend or something more. Other guys, like the usher on the combi, will ask to “see you again,” and press the issue if you don’t give a firm “no,”” which is insanely objectifying and uncomfortable. I suspect the man on the combi only asked because I’m a woman and he assumed I was “available” for him. He certainly didn’t ask because he was smitten with my enchanting personality.

I can’t speak for the particulars of other women’s experiences and being an American woman adds a whole new layer to the gender dynamics. Still, the whole thing puts me in a psychological space that saps some of the joy out of traveling. The only consolation is that having the deal with bold, persistent men has forced me to adapt and become bolder personally, speak up more, draw clear boundary lines, and not feel bad about being pushy.

*update: I learned how to say “leave me alone” in Setswana! It’s “ntlogelo” or “ntesa.”

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