Death was not common when I was growing up. Nowadays, death is ‘wantonly trending’. Years used to slip by without death stinging someone close and when it did; there were utter silence and solemnness. To be precise, five years after I was born, Ra Sahelo (properly spelt Seagelo) “went to the mines” as many men those days did. They worked at the Western Deep Level in the gold mine of Gauteng. When they went to the mines, they usually left behind mothers and wives with toddlers to bear the burden of child-raising, while they wired money every now and then for upkeep. Some men in those days returned after several years to be reunited with their families, only to find teenagers, and adolescents. Yet others were shocked to notice a few more toddlers running around the homes since they last disappeared. But they had no one to blame ÔÇô gone too long, too late!
But Ra Sahelo as everyone in the village of Maun called him, not that he did not have his full names on his badge reading Gotweng Monnaaletsatsi, was not at Gauteng. He was the patriarch of our clan. He was not my grandfather as in the literal sense, but everyone called him grandfather and there was no exception to the rule. In fact, he was my grandmother’s distant cousin. But back then, we did not have layers of kinship to describe relatives as close or distant, first, second or third. Ra Sahelo was family and we gave him the deference an elderly patriarch commanded. So, one night of August 1978, Ra Sahelo “went to the mines” and it was a dull morning when we woke up. People spoke in hushed voices. It was abnormal. It was weird. It was mysterious. But adults won’t tell us what had happened the previous night for fear that might cast a spell. One-by-one, relatives and neighbours drifted into Mma Thabo’s homestead, which factually belonged to another disciplinarian who is no more, known as Ra Hontahetse, again written as Gontafetse. I just love the way Maunians pronounce written Setswana! It was a half-an-acre plot and in the east and west sides, there stood only two rondavels thatched with grass. The space in between the two huts was enough for us to play football, which was made out of an assortment of things: grocery plastic bags, pieces of cloth and discarded underwear, especially pantyhose. We kicked the ball all day long in the sand, but that morning, we were restrained from our daily hobby.
Children were to be seen and not heard, it was the rule of thumb, so we did not ask questions as to why we were barred from playing. But we heard murmurs that Ra Sahelo had left us if we were within earshot to eavesdrop on those adult conversations, which was practically forbidden and often earned one some thorough lashing. Either they used the expression connoting to have departed (in this case fitting to have gone to the mines as they told all children) or they simply said he disappeared. This colloquialism and euphemism raised suspicions in children with inquisitive minds. Both expressions caused much confusion as they dazzled us, but we knew not dare ask, or the answer was as terse as he went to the mines, period! After all, it was where adult males went. Except one given to argument would say it was the able-bodied males who got a pass with the firm called Wenela whose branded trucks and buses shunted back and forth to return retired miners and load up some new recruits to have a stint at Gauteng, but Ra Sahelo would not fit the bill. So it was with Ra Sahelo and his long journey to the mines of gold, whose return date was not known, apparently. Day-by-day for less than a week, people congregated at Ra Hontahetse’s compound, the local baruti read from the bible and had messages of comfort and healing to the family and relatives, people sang the sort of hymns that typically sounded more like lullabies to send the listener to peaceful sleep. This was a somber occasion that was difficult to explain to children. Days into the mourning period, we got whisked away to another relative’s homestead so we did not see the very end process of how the elderly man who had disappeared to the mines was being sent off.
This memory of Ra Sahelo’s passing is as vivid in my memory as if it happened this morning. That was death, which was uncommon, mysterious; it carried with it dark and heavy clouds that hung over people, causing downpours of tears to roll down the cheeks, sometimes funnily as friends and relatives wept bitterly worse than the mourners. You could tell that people feared death and that it perplexed them so much they cringed at the reality of never seeing one of them.
The next time I had an encounter with death and enough to process and ponder its significance was in 1993. There had never been a season in the history of Botswana that saw high rates of death than the last decade of the twentieth century. While the elderly people died of complications that came with ageing, adolescents and young adults died like flies from “an untold affliction” so much one could have said death was trending in the lingo of social media platforms. My two elder brothers perished during this darkest season. My nephew named Moshe was five years old, when my eldest brother, Ra Tshidi died. A complete departure from the previous generation, the affinity we shared made him comfortable to dare me.
“Malome, why are so many people visiting us these days?”
I did not anticipate that question. I gritted my teeth and looked into the skies for God’s answer, but it was not to be.
“It is because they are interested in some morero,” I quipped.
“What is it?”
“A meeting for adults,” I reasoned.
“If that is so, why is Malome Ra Tshidi not attending?”
At that, I knew I could not escape the interrogation.
“The adults are meeting because of the very uncle. He is not around,” I struggled to simplify.
“What do you mean? I told you that he is not around,” he retorted.
“What I am trying to say is that Malome Ra Tshidi has died. Do you know what is meant to die?”
Moshe shook his head, nonchalantly.
“When someone is born, everyone is happy and there is a celebration. The baby grows into a child, a teenager, young person and an adult and so on and so forth, you get it?”
“Somewhere in between birth and getting old, some people die. When you die, there is grief, sorrow and lots of people cry and weep for you because you will never come back.”
“So, Malome Ra Tshidi will never come back?” Moshe squared into my eyes.
“He will never come back. We will never see him here. We can only meet him in heaven after we die.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. I understand that I will not play on Malome Ra Tshidi’s lap again.”
That was death and its mysteries and confusion, always setting generations on the opposite ends of the spectrum. We mourned for about a week and buried my eldest brother. Somber and damp occasion it was. His coffin was lowered into the empty ground. Men picked up shovels to heap soil into the empty grave. The crowd dispersed after the benediction followed the rites of passage, leaving behind nothing but a heap of sand that stood in the place of a memory of one who lived and belonged to and with the community. Summer came upon us and the rains poured down flattening out the once-heaped sand that symbolized the grave where my own kin was interred, year-by-year, the water dispersed the soil until the whole ground was level, making no trace of where a beloved relative was buried. Six years later, another elder brother succumbed.
From past generations even before I was born, a typical African was born in the village. He was raised by the entire village. When he died, whether far off, the body was transported hundreds of miles back to the village of his ancestors and rites of passage performed before the animal skin embodying the dead person was lowered into the ground. The funeral united the whole village to witness the last rites and for fellow neighbors to pay their last respects. Future generations would be told of a great legend whose landmark they are never able to trace. Suddenly, he is erased from the memories of the living as the graveyard rings with fear, spookiness, eeriness, and mystery for anyone to dare come near. Only stories about who mothered or fathered so-and-so and why we were related got passed down from one generation to the next.
In this quandary of what death had brought about to African communities, a peculiar pair somewhere carved a business niche to shift the paradigm on how we should view death, dying, grief and loss. The Nikolic siblings ÔÇô Lynette Sybil and Milivoje belong to the second-generation of locals to run a funeral business. Few citizens ever succeeded at running a mortuary because of the misconceptions that lingered on the minds of ordinary mortals. “You want us to die so you get rich” type of taglines had been tossed at those who tried their hand at this venture. It had been exaggerated that those operating mortuaries were the first to report at every fatal scene, particularly automobile accidents along our highways to notice some boom in their enterprises. It must be mentally draining to provide a service so critical, yet have everyone spitting scum into your face. Many citizens got discouraged and discontinued, or if they died, children feared the stigma to sustain such business ventures, leading to several of them folding.
The Nikolic pair since launching in 1993, mainly by selling coffins to families that afforded fine wood designed to carry dead bodies, have up to now, not been deterred by the nasty comments along the arduous journey. Thirty years afterwards, what started as a family business of the Nikolic siblings, has transformed how the society views death. The myths about dead people have diminished. Lyn’s Funeral Parlour has demystified loss of human life in ways that are unprecedented, ways that have now become a practice with this once-a-superstitious African society. While it may have been an abomination to anticipate one’s death, people are now scrambling to have funeral coverage, thanks to the introduction of an insurance policy for a dignified burial that has become the lifeblood of the mortuary business, and now replicated by major insurance companies. Lyn’s as a corporation has revolutionized the attitudes towards death in general, making grieving a less painful encounter. Graves are decorated into monuments that give signposts about where loved ones are interred as a family heirloom for generations to come. Not only do people contribute to their dignified burial through monthly premiums, Lyn’s has offered an opportunity to mark one’s grave that entitles a tombstone erected on the ground of a specific address, shifting the village mentality that the dead body should be returned to the village to enjoin the spirits of the ancestors. It’s possible to make a home and be buried where one spent energies eking a living. Now with cemeteries in the mould of Phomolong in the upmarket suburb of the capital city, being launched across the country, basically, one could be buried wherever he chose to have his home, not necessarily where his ancestors originate as has been the custom over generations.
Neatly arranged marquees that come with comfortable armchairs, bottled water, and ice-cold pure juice as well as an assortment of beverages during the proceedings; these make the burial experience light and bearable. It is no wonder today’s funeral is indeed a fashion parade where design labels are worn to match the dignified burial one would have pre-planned for years. For many people, funerals have become meeting points where business contacts are exchanged, deals made just as those meeting at the golf course seal them; much less the opportunity for suitors who catch glimpses of each other behind those dark sunglasses that come in all shapes and forms. While no one would visit the gravesite because of the eeriness associated with the creatures that inhabit the yard, today’s cemetery is like a recreational park with beautiful trees providing serenity to the environment, where visitors can enjoy the birds chirping from the nests.
All these happenings were unheard of in 1999 when my second brother was buried, needless to fathom there would have been hints we would end up here in 1978 when I experienced death inside the family. As a society, we have undergone an evolution in less than fifty years since becoming a nation. Our perceptions on death make for a tale of great inspiration on how culture is dynamic, and a narrative for our future generations to know from whence we have come with this important subject. Unlike my two brothers whose graves have been as hard to locate as the needle in a haystack to erect monuments in their remembrances, generations will be told of me and upon asking; they would successfully trace my burial site ÔÇô they just have to wait for me to “send a signal from down there” for the exact address so they can reach me without the benefit of a GPS. (“My Death Signpost” is a memoir about the evolution of death in a society. This is a preview of the upcoming book).