Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Funeral speeches an acultural, oftentimes ugly spectacle

It should be easy to blame the politicians who used the opportunity to speak at the funeral of Priscilla Moswaane, who was the wife of Francistown East MP, Ignatius Moswaane, to dabble in party politics but it is not. First asking if he is allowed to be “controversial-nyana” (a little controversial) without first getting the permission of the people he singled out to give such permission (Leader of the Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando and Botswana Patriotic Front president, Biggie Butale), former president Ian Khama proceeded to be controversial nonetheless.

“They have tried to silence you,” says Khama in a video clip that has been widely shared on social media. “I heard sometime last year about [ruling party officials] sending the police after you when they hadn’t launched your candidacy. Now they have suspended you and this floor-crossing law targets you. It’s because of you that they are bringing that law and what’s very interesting is that the person who is going to bring that law, that bill to parliament, is the same person who has been crossing the floor to different political parties all his political life. What hypocrisy!”

The context of the above is as follows: the person whom Khama says is being silenced is Moswaane who has been suspended from the Botswana Democratic Party by President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Kabo Morwaeng, who has been a member of four political parties, will during the current sitting of parliament, table a bill that seeks to prohibit floor-crossing. There is also irony within the irony that Khama mentions because at the BDP national congress in Mahalapye, then President Khama effectively silenced Moswaane by threatening to take disciplinary action against him in his speech to delegates.

BDP Secretary General and Minister of Employment, Labour Productivity and Skills Development, Mpho Balopi, could also not resist the urge to score political points when he got a word in edgewise on behalf of his party.

Funerals are supposed to be a solemn, non-political affair but tragically and increasingly nowadays, are being turned into a “freedom square” – an open-air political rally. It is an open secret that Moswaane is planning to join BPF, the party that Khama founded last year after quitting the BDP, which his father, founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, co-founded. Khama used a funeral to push a partisan agenda and there is no way that those who put him on the programme wouldn’t have known that he would do that.

Nowadays, what happened at the Moswaane funeral across the political spectrum and with alarming frequency. At the funeral of Mareledi Giddie, a Botswana National Front veteran who was buried in Mahalapye, some party activists launched personal attacks against BDP members in attendance. One particular attack was as virulent and as precise as to compromise the identity of the people that were being attacked. Following the funeral, some BNF members actually had to call BDP members who had been personally attacked to apologise.

Away from politics, funerals now provide an opportunity for feuding family members to attack each other and in some cases, speakers mention the targets of their ire by name. Away from the podium, family members have also been known to feud over things as petty as entrails of cows slaughtered to feed mourners. Where there is no politics and no feuding, funerals have become overly and incrementally festive. More than a decade ago, lavish funerals were the subject of a full-day symposium that was organised by the Botswana Society. The keynote speaker was then President Festus Mogae who lamented a terribly misguided practice that was impoverishing Batswana. In an attempt to lead by example, Mogae said that when he dies his wish is not to be given a lavish funeral. Time will tell. The House of Chiefs (renamed Ntlo ya Dikgosi) also tackled this topic and during his contribution to the debate, then Specially Elected Member, Basiamang Garebakwena, said that he has left strict instructions to his family that he should be buried in a simple reed coffin. Time will tell.

Despite the Botswana Society’s efforts, lavish funerals, especially Gaborone’s, only got more lavish. Modern Botswana, which culturally apes what black South Africa does, imported the idea of the lavish funeral from across the border. The after-tears merry-making sub-culture was also imported from South Africa. In January this year, one of the spades that were used to fill up the grave at the funeral of Richard Maponya, a black tycoon, had a gold blade. One can state with certainty that once life goes back to normal after the discovery of a COVID-19 vaccine, gold-blade spades will be used at some Gaborone burials. 

Increasingly nowadays, one hears astonishing language that expresses an acultural attitude towards the dead: called to the podium, some speakers say that they are “celebrating the life” of the dead person. Going back centuries, there is no evidence of any Botswana culture “celebrating the life” of a dead person. Celebrating the life of a dead person is western and is always expressed in English – contriving a Setswana translation would sound ridiculous because Batswana mourn the dead, not celebrate their life.

 Interestingly, if Batswana had kept funerals cultural, no one would get an opportunity to dabble in politics or offend others at a funeral. According to Culture Botswana 2.0, an indigenous culture-oriented Facebook page, no speeches were made at a Tswana funeral in the past and only one person (an elderly female relative) got to address the deceased. The page quotes Charles John Andersson, a Swedish explorer who visited Ngamiland in 1852 and subsequently published a travelogue called “Lake Ngami.” According to Andersson, after a deceased person was buried, a large bowl of water, with an infusion of bulbs, was brought forward. The mourners washed their hands and the upper part of their feet with this infusion (called mosimama in Setswana) as they shouted “Pùla! Pùla!”

He adds: “An old woman, probably a relative, will then bring the weapons of the deceased (bow, arrows, war-axe, and spears); also grain and garden-seeds of various kinds; and even the bone of an old pack-ox, with other things. They finally address the grave, saying, ‘These are all your articles.’ The things are then taken away, and bowls of water are poured on the grave, when all retire, the women wailing ‘Iyoo! Iyoo! Iyoo!’ with some doleful dirge, sorrowing without hope.”

Then 1885 happened and 135 years later, funerals have become culturally unrecognisable.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.