Botswana Story Nr. 2:

Dream Marriage with a Late Wife

By Jürgen Duenbostel

They already had three children together. But somehow they did not manage to get married. You know, a cow costs a lot nowadays. So it was hard for Kemoreng to save enough money for the lobola. And over and above this he lost his job.

It also takes some time to complete all the preparations for the necessary wedding procedures. The bride and the groom originate from villages far apart. And their families use different traditions and rituals. Therefore members of both families have to undertake long journeys to visit each other and negotiate in detail which customs and rituals should be applied for the wedding. Until everything is sorted out years can pass.

Years have passed. And Kemorengs girlfriend meanwhile passed away. She died from tonsilitis. The induna did not succed with his medical treatment. He was a quack. "The 300 Pula and then the additional 200 Pula, I payed, were wasted money", Kemoreng regrets today.

He then rushed her to the Princess Marina Hospital. But there they could not help her anymore. Blood poisoning had taken its toll. Kemoreng spent his last money to arrange a traditional funeral for his catholic late bride.

And then h e started all over to save money for the lobola. Because he still wanted to marry her - the late bride, posthumously. But lets start with how it all begun.

* * *

It was at the end of last century. The British were building the railway, which should bring ore from the mines in North- Rhodesia (today Zambia) through Bechuanaland to the ports in South Africa. "Jack!" That was how a british foreman used to call that labourer from Rhodesia, whose original name he could not pronounce. And "Jack" remained the labourers name in Bechuanaland, where he settled in the village Sefhare after the railway construction was over.

Jack is now the surname of Kemoreng. He inherited it from his grandfather. And the village Sefhare inherited with the family "Jack" from North-Rhodesia some of their customs and traditions.

Kemoreng likes to wear sun-glasses. Sun-glasses are a status- symbol of urbanised people. And Kemoreng is urbanised - today. He left Sefhare when he was twenty. He was looking for a job. May be, he also left, because the rules of the village were too rigid for him. Kemoreng had been looking after the cattle in Sefhare. He never went to school. The cattle was more important. Now Kemoreng can only write his name but not much else.

Sefhare is a traditional village. Most residents live in roundavel huts. But next to some of those you may find shiny new cars. Sefhare is also a special village: It is blessed with a permanent spring. In a forest at the foot of a hill the water originates. It seperates into two rins and doesn't even dry up during a drought. The people say that the gods are living in old trees at that spring and that the fountain is enchanted. Indeed, the two rins are crossing each other. When the water saw a white man for the first time, so the tale goes, the rins twisted to a cross.

Strict rules are followed in Sefhare. Visitors have to report to the chief when they are coming and going. In such village one easily becomes an outcast when one does not follow the customs. Some even may become bewitched. Therefore as well young folks migrate to the cities.

In the past the young men, once they were 16 or 17 years old, went to work in the mines in South African. It was a kind of maturation for them. They learnt to know the wide world in the city. At least that's what they thought, for they saw only the townships of apartheid. After nine month, however, when the rainy season began, they all came back to the village to plough the fields. And then the returnees told of their adventures, of the life in the glittering city.

Today most young people go to cities within Botswana. They tend to stay there. And then they separate - in a literal sense - from their traditional customs.

In the city, far from the social control of the village, Kemoreng met his girlfriend Mmabene. Mmabene came from Mmopane, a village West of Gaborone. Though the city is only half an hour's car drive away, it has not yet left too many traces. Sure, there are some tv-antennas decorating even traditional huts and transistor radios are bawling all time as everywhere in Botswana. There are also more cars than in Sefhare. But Mmopane's residents as well guard their traditions.

In the city, however, as it is done nowadays, Kemoreng and Mmabene just lived together without an engagement. Out of wedlock three children were born to them. But why they did not tie the knot?

They could have married even without consent of their parents - under the modern common law. "Under the common law you don't need to ask parents, when you want to marry", explaines the attorney Patrick Kgoadi, an uncle of Kemoreng, "you only need to go with your loved one to a priest or the district commissioner and bring two witnesses with you and then you can marry. Under customary law, however, the extended families are involved. You not just marry the wife, but her whole family; two families are linked with each other."

The customary law and the modern common law exsist parallel in Botswana. And most city dwellers live two lives at the same time: a modern and a traditional life. Someone who would act alone according to modern common law and ignore the traditional customs would cut his ties with the family. And at the same time would loose his social protection, because the family takes care if one of its members falls destitute. Who then - without state welfare - could dissociate himself from his family?

Kemoreng undoubtedly could not. But the customary law as well has its price. Soon after the funeral of his late bride her parents took the children away from the city and back to their village Mmopane. Kemoreng had not payed lobola and no wedding ceremony had taken place. Therefore the children belong to the family of the mother. That is the rule of traditional customs. Only once the wedding ceremonies are completed and the lobola has been payed both families are linked and the children could go to their father.

Kemoreng loves his children and wants to have them back. Therefore he wanted to complete the ceremonies, pay the lobola and posthumously marry his late bride.

"Today everybody does as he likes. People marry, people divorce, people kill each other." The old man Kekoahetse Sethebe, the father of Mmabene, peevishly expresses his opinion of modern times: "The women of today do not take care any more of the visitors like in the past, instead they put make-up on their face. In the old days they had to walk a long distance to fetch water, but there was always water in the yard. Today we have a borehole inmidst of the village, but frequently there is no water in the house. In the old days the girls learnt at school, how to keep the yard clean and to cater for guests. Today they learn English and Maths but no useful things like how to keep the bucket clean when milking a cow, so that the flies don't come. In the past the milk was cleaner and the cattle was healthier and provided plenty of milk. Yes, it's been a good old time in those days."

In the olden days it has been better, the old man emphasizes. Then the young man married partners from their own village or a neighbouring one. And they knew and respected the local customs.

Kemoreng too got his lessons how to respect the the local customs and the strict rules of the old man. When he visited his children for the first time and went straight into the yard, he immediately was chased out again. As long as certain rituals had not been carried out, Kemoreng was only allowed to receive his children outside the gate.

The cleansing ceremonies had been the stumbling block. Both families negotiated and could not agree which custom had to be applied for the cleansing. Finally they used both customs. Twice a goat was slaughtered and eaten in a ritual way and a sangoma cleansed the house and yard from the evil spirits of death. And Kemoreng had to bath in sacred water with ashes and herbs. So he got finally permission to enter the house of his late bride and see his children there.

Of course, the old man expects Kemoreng to bring little gifts, when he visits his children: mealie meal, sugar and tee for the children and - well - some snuff for the old man.

With his presents Kemoreng meanwhile is a welcome guest in Mmopane. But despite that somehow the negotiations about wedding and lobola do not progress. "The children can stay with us", the old Sethebe insists, "untill they have grown up".

About six cows Kemoreng would have to give as lobola. But can he ever earn that much money? Still he has not found a job and survives from a little sphaza shop which he operates out of his bedroom in Gabs-West. Selling mealies, softdrinks, cigarrettes and soap powder may keep him alive but would it be enough to maintain the children as well? And, in the first place, will it be sufficient to save enough money for the lobola?

Far away in the village Sefhare Kemorengs mother knows a solution: "The children could stay here with us". The mother with some other old women and a young girl are cracking nuts in front of their huts. A bowl full of nuts sells for one pula. They don't have any more cattle. "Life is hard in these days", the old lady says. In the past there had been more rain and plenty of wild fruits and roots to collect. Today those are gone and she doesn't know why. "Perhaps", she says, "it's the civilization".

The mother hopes that Kemoreng posthumously will marry his late Mmabene. "Then, when the children are here with us, Kemoreng will come more often for a visit and he will bring us some presents."

Today one finds in many villages in Botswana mainly old people, children and young girls. The men in best working-age have gone. Gone to the city, looking for a job and entertainment. And the girls as well, when they are 18 or 20, are leaving the village. Many work in the city as maid for little more than hundred pula per month plus food and accommodation.

But for the old folks and children who stay in the village it is too arduous to plough, to look after the cattle and carry water and fire-wood over large distances. And they have to walk longer and longer to fetch the wood, because close to the village the goats have stripped the ground bare. Thus the poverty in the villages increases and even more people are trying to leave. Theeir sons and daughters in the cities will at least send some Money home, the old people hope. But rents are high in the cities, life is expensive and jobs are getting scare. The money, their sons and daughters earn, often is just enough to keep them going.

So everybody transfers his hope to the next generation. The old people in the villages want their grandchildren to stay in the village and to plough, to collect wood and look after the cattle as soon as they are old enough. Once the grandparent are too old to work, the granchildren shall maintain them. But the unemployed parents in the city as well put their hope on their children. Once they have grown up and are better educated, so they think, they will find well payed jobs and then can support their parents. And the children, once grown up, see the poverty in the villages and migrate to the cities in hope of a good life which they seldom find. Again they just earn enough to keep themselves going and then they forget about their family.

Thus the extended family, which in the past offered social protection, is rapidly eroding. But there is not yet a state welfare that could replace the lost family protection for an increasing number of destitutes.

Does this mean, there will be no happy end for our story? - We don't know yet. But it seem that all are building castles in the sky, when they believe that the children will maintain them in the future. And Kemoreng, in lack of money and cattle for lobola, may never be able to tie the knot with his Mmabene. The marriage with his late bride will stay an unrealizable dream.