Speaking from his quarantine venue the first time he suffered such fate, President Mokgweetsi Masisi used a classic Setswana word that one rarely hears nowadays – serubing.
The root, serubi, means a pen for the young of goats and sheep – kids and lambs respectively – and –ng is the typical place-name suffix in Setswana. The serubi was a little way from the main pen for the goats and sheep – in archaeological terms, this would be a super-structure and sub-structure type of arrangement.
When the mothers are let out to pasture, the young remain behind in the serubi for two reasons: to motivate them to return in the late afternoon as well as to prevent the young from suckling milk that the family also needed for evening tea. After Masisi, the other prominent political figure to use that word was Tonota MP, Pono Moatlhodi. The latter was explaining away his decision to fatefully and recklessly break quarantine against unambiguous health advice of the Director of Health Services.
Not since the nkoborwane debacle have politicians franchised a classic Setswana word into public consciousness via Btv. Nowadays, all you ever hear is “serubing this”, “serubing that”, “serubing that and the other”, even from people whose Setswana is typically limited to pula and thebe. However, even as the use of the word suffuses the public airwaves, it is clear that not everybody understands what it actually means and how it can be used in reference to the current lockdown. Its use among local honorary westerners strongly suggests that they think it must be a French word for the State House II guest wing where Masisi would have been quarantined the first time. After all, the president is himself a native of Botswana’s first Francophone zone – Extension 5, Gaborone – and has tied himself in knots when he has attempted to use classic Setswana. (Ever since he became president in April 2018, Masisi has never occupied State House I and an opposition MP has had to ask a minister whether it was true that a voodoo spell has indeed been cast on the usual presidential residence.)
There are certain protocols that are observed with the kids and lambs that are penned in the serubi. One is that they are properly fed and watered the entire time that they are in this veritable prison. If not, young animals that would otherwise have been resigned to their fate and consoling themselves by helping themselves to provisions in the pen will certainly attempt to escape because otherwise they would die of hunger and thirst.
Granted, serubi is perhaps the best Setswana word to describe the lockdown but the latter’s conditions differ markedly from those of the serubi. When an “imminent lockdown” was announced, some rushed to hoard groceries but were advised by government officials that it was unnecessary to do so, that the food supply chain would not be adversely affected and that they would be allowed to nip down to the nearest store and replenish their food supplies. The result was that some people didn’t hoard groceries.
It has now become clear that such assurances were false. While people could initially go to the nearest store to buy groceries, they now have to get a local-travel permit that is extremely difficult to obtain. In Lobatse, only 10 permits per ward are issued a day and each ward has hundreds of households. Where one gets lucky and obtains the permit, they will certainly find empty supermarket shelves, especially in the fresh-produce sections. That necessitates having to scour the whole town or village for the desperately needed supplies and makes social distancing near impossible.
To be fair to it, the government has initiated a food distribution programme but some beneficiaries are not too happy with. On Wednesday, Sunday Standard reposted a video of a woman in the Okavango Sub-district remonstrating with local government officials for stinting her ration. The woman is complaining that while other households were given meat, she was given marotse – melons. Others are complaining that their supplies have long run out and that they are starving. Incidents of food thefts have been reported in some areas and down the road, some may break quarantine in order to beg for food.
If this situation remains unchanged, the government would be risking the onset of a slew of law enforcement and more public health challenges whose curves it cannot flatten. The solution is a quite simple one: officials should demonstrate that they are under no illusion that serubi is a French word for the State House II guest wing by doing what herdboys do when they pen kids and lambs in a serubi.