Botho: A philosophy for life and law

The Batswana use the term “botho” to describe a person who is courteous, disciplined, and realizes his or her full potential both as an individual and as a part of the community to which he or she belongs. In a sense, it is a social contract by which one lives.
July 13, 2015 11:40 am

By Maria Lungu

Originally published in Tennessee Law, Spring 2015


I like to consider myself a citizen of the world. I am originally from Zambia, but I grew up in Botswana. I went on to study at Aiglon College in Switzerland for a year before moving to West Virginia for my undergraduate studies and finally to UT Law. One of the first things that people usually say to me when I start talking is that they cannot place my accent. After I clear up where I’m from, they usually squint their eyes, raise their eyebrows, and say, “Wait, how did you pick Knoxville and UT for school?”

It’s simple. When I came here, it finally felt like home.

When I studied abroad in Switzerland for a year, it was an exciting and fulfilling experience, but I had a very difficult time adjusting to my new life there. As an eighteen-year-old black girl who grew up in Gaborone, Botswana, saying this was a culture shock is an understatement. The thought of uprooting and living in a different country may frighten some people, but this idea has always thrilled me and I was able to gain a sound acceptance and understanding of the different people and my new life there.

[pullquote-right]”I have never lost sight of working hard to prove myself, being receptive to different cultures, and forging a path for those who will come after me.”[/pullquote-right]

Each place where I have lived has taught me so much and has ultimately become a part of me. Having lived in Appalachia, I discovered a new form of diversity that was not restricted to skin color. Appalachian people are considered a separate culture, made up of many unique backgrounds all blended together across the region. Like the Swiss, I pay attention to detail and have an unparalleled respect for time and organization. From my native country Zambia, humility and tolerance. Finally, I am largely influenced by the people of Botswana, since I lived there for eighteen years. They believe in the ethos of “botho,” which refers to the idea of “a world for the people.” The Batswana use the term “botho” to describe a person who is courteous, disciplined, and realizes his or her full potential both as an individual and as a part of the community to which he or she belongs. In a sense, it is a social contract by which one lives. This exposure to all these cultures will ultimately shape the type of lawyer I hope to be one day. Being an underrepresented minority in most of my communities, I have never lost sight of working hard to prove myself, being receptive to different cultures, and forging a path for those who will come after me.

[pullquote-left]”In a sense, [botho] is a social contract by which one lives.”[/pullquote-left]

My interest in working on issues relating to diversity and civil liberties stems primarily from my admiration of one of the greatest lawyers and activists of our time, Nelson Mandela. We all can learn from the legacy of President Mandela: his spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, his commitment to human rights and freedom, his selflessness, his ability to love and respect others even without reciprocation, and his dedication to bringing about change. My personal conviction is that the Constitution affords certain fundamental protections to this country’s citizens. The denial of these basic rights, particularly fair access to justice, not only has detrimental consequences for an individual, but also for society as a whole.

Finally, I can’t imagine a better place to study law than UT. I thank UT, because with my experience here I know I have the tools to be successful. I have had an immense amount of support from faculty and friends, which has allowed me to realize my potential and truly understand what it will mean to serve my community. My hope is for us to come together not only embracing shared beliefs and values, but also to acknowledge and celebrate our differences in ways that promote respect and appreciation.


Lungu is a rising 3L student at UT Law.