Thursday, May 23, 2024

Of Dingake’s ‘cheap’ coffin and Mogae’s wishes about his own funeral

At the turn of the century, the Botswana Society organised a two-day symposium on “lavish funerals.” The symposium was held at the Botswana National Productivity Centre and then President Festus Mogae was the keynote speaker. Interestingly, what was considered a lavish funeral at that time would today be considered embarrassingly low-budget by lavish-funeral enthusiasts. If nothing else, this is stark evidence that the symposium failed to achieve its main objective.

At the time of the symposium, “lavish” and “funeral” had historically never found themselves within touching distance of each other but Botswana was enjoying the one of the world’s longest economic booms and Africa’s longest. Courtesy of this boom, the Botswana funeral stopped being funereal as the atmospheric design of what was supposed to be a sombre mournful occasion steadily took on ostentatiousness and gaiety. Coffins became more expensive and the menu more colourful and diversified – “casket”, being the more expensive receptacle, entered public lexicon. More and more pages were added to the funeral programme which now included more pictures and transitioned from black and white to full colour and glossy. As the list of speakers increased, some funerals essentially became day-long workshops. The hearses became longer and shinier. Tswanglish began to compete with Setswana. Posh accents of elite-school graduates reading final goodbye messages were weaved into the sound profile of funerals. The local councillor’s public address system was replaced by professional sound systems operated by sound engineers. The traditional role of the Ward Development Committee chairman as emcee was usurped by a manual-work-shunning Gaborone-resident relative who arrived on Friday night and wore ill-fitting, permanently creased, custom-made suits that looked like they had been made with pastry. Naturally, stand-up comedy found its way into eulogies.

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