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Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

28 May 2010

Photo by Brad Ruggles on flickr

Our house in Botswana was surrounded by houses with families of small children who would often come visit and play in our yard. One day a bunch of these kids were in the yard (probably nine or ten – we seemed to attract kids whenever we were home), and they were getting a little bit rambunctious. I was beginning to worry that someone might either get hurt or break something, so I ran and grabbed a pen and paper, then came outside and said, “Hey! Do you guys want to learn a new song?”

Of course they all responded enthusiastically.

“Ok, but you’re going to have to help me learn the words so we can sing it in Setswana, too!” Then I got out my paper and pen and asked, “How do you say ‘Head’ in Setswana?”

“Tlhogo!” they all shouted.

“And how do you say, ‘shoulders’?”




“What about ‘toes’?”


In English, none of the words to the song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are more than two syllables. In Setswana, none of them were less than two syllables. In fact, Setswana doubled the total number of syllables in the whole song. Man, I thought to myself, how on earth am I going to make these fit the rhythm?

Then we went through the remaining words – eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. I decided before trying it in Setswana, I’d teach them the English version of “Head, shoulders, Knees and Toes.” They got a big kick out of the song.

Then the real show began.

“Now let’s sing it in Setswana!” I said.

Getting out my piece of paper, we began to sing:

Tlhogo, magetla, lengole, menwana, lengole, menwana, lengole menwana! Tlogo, magetla, lengole, menwana, Matla, Tsebe, Molomo, Nko!”

Before we could get through the song for the first time, we were rolling all over the porch with laughter. They thought it was the funniest thing in the world to hear a Magua singing in Setswana, and I thought it was the funniest thing to sing such a simple song with so many syllables. After singing it a number of times over, I had it memorized, and sang it many times thereafter to the kids, and they laughed hysterically every time.

I later discovered that the words they gave me were all singular form – shoulder, knee, toe. But making them plural would add more syllables, so I kept it as it was.

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