Two weeks ago a friend of mine, named Thumesang invited me to his home in Lobatse, to attend the unveiling of three tombstones of family members who had passed away between 1999 and 2003. When he initially asked me, I thought the family member was some distant relative, however the night before we left, he told me the memorial was for his grandfather, who had basically raised him.
After an extremely busy Friday, two other international students and I headed to the station to catch the last bus of the night to the village of Lobatse. After an interesting conversation on the bus, Thumesang greeted us at the bus stop, where he introduced us to two of his cousins. Then he drove us to his home, and we were greeted by a multitude of people. We walked through the gates and saw many people sitting on chairs on the patio. We then walked into the small but bustling house and squeezed through various rooms until we came to the room of his grandmother. She was lying on the bed, and we briefly introduced ourselves. As we roamed the house, we were introduced to many cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers etc. His family was unlike any I have seen. Everyone was delighted to meet us and extremely kind. After touring the house, we went to the backyard where the food was being prepared. There were two separate areas set up for cooking meat. One was designated for the men and one for the women. In line, the women’s section came first, so we met more relatives and talked briefly, trying to learn more Setswana words and promising to help prepare food. We continued to the men’s section where meat was the sole food being prepared. The meat is cooked in giant cauldrons over an open fire with bones still attached. In addition, a separate cauldron is used to cook Serobe. This is basically the entire gastro-intestinal tract of the cow sliced up and salted, despite my hesitation it was actually very tasty. After continuing to meet people, we helped the ladies cut cabbage in preparation for coleslaw. After some time here, Thumesang brought me back to the men’s section. I helped slice up the Serobe using basically a large scissors. I took turns between several other men slicing the intestines and stomach into small pieces. At various intervals, I would see someone open the cauldron and stir it with a large stick. This is basically a staff with a Y shaped at the end to turn the meat. The meat is packed tightly in the cauldron, so the stirrer must dig the stick deep into the pot and turn over the many large portions of meat. After some time, a lady walked around with a large bucket and a pitcher of water for everyone to wash their hands. After this, a meal was served to everyone, made up of a large portion of pap (as usual), a slice of beef and serobe. As is the traditional custom, we all ate with our hands. Fortunately, the consistency of pap allows you to form it into a sort of spoon, which makes eating with your hands much easier, though I was still laughed at for using two hands.
Eventually the night led us into the kitchen where tea and biscuits were being served. My friends and I all sat around the table and talked to several ladies for some time. The hour was drawing towards midnight, and while I wasn’t ready for bed, I began to wonder if the house would ever wind down enough for people to sleep. My doubts were validated, during these events they really don’t sleep. “No time for sleep,” we were told. Many of the family members spend the entire night preparing for the morning ceremonies. Eventually, Thumesang drove us around the village in a van, and when we returned we passed out for a couple of hours in the van. Thumesang, who had not slept a wink, awoke us around 5:30am. Services were planned to begin at 6am. We arose in the dark and prepared for the day. We were served coffee and biscuits for breakfast, and the services began before we were ready. We were not the only ones unprepared however; the house and backyard were bustling with commotion the entire morning. Although nearly everyday in Botswana has been exceedingly hot, this morning in Lobatse was the opposite; too cold for even us Americans, all of who come from areas with bitter winters, to even be comfortable. In addition, the services were spoken nearly completely in Setswana, with the occasional English word slipping in. Several family members stood up to speak about the lives of the three people who were being commemorated today.
After all the speakers had their turn, people began to process to the cemetery. We caught a ride with a friendly man, who is married an aunt of Thumesang. As we drove through Lobatse in the light, we realized the beauty of the landscape. The town is set at the bottom of several major hills. These large hills surround the town, and parts of the town itself are built into smaller slopes. The cemetery is built at the base of one of the large hills. Most of the graves have an iron cage built above it with an awning structure on top. In addition, the weeds grow freely throughout most of the cemetery, making it hard to traverse. We began at the tombstone of the grandfather. Hymns were sung, prayers sent forth, and inspirational psalm verses read. After all had had their turn, the crowd processed around the tombstone to view the newly installed work. I would guess that around 100 people were present at the cemetery. After circling the stone, the line moved to the next tombstone to be unveiled, which was that of the daughter of the grandfather. During the prayers, a woman began crying as she was placing flowers on the grave. The life of this woman had been taken much too young. We followed the same procedure to the other side of the cemetery for the unveiling of the brother’s stone. Finally, after all the prayers had been said and songs were raised to ‘Modimo’ the people began to disperse and head back to the house for the feast. Since our ride was down the street from our exit of the cemetery, we had to walk along the road for some distance before getting into our pickup. As we were walking, nothing short of 10 different cars stopped to make sure we had a ride to the house – a simple, yet shining example of the kindness we were shown.Finally, we arrived back at the house, where tables were set up in the street, and chairs lined the sides of the road into the patio of the house. We assisted in serving ‘ginger beer’ which is a traditional juice. Eventually, we were able to serve ourselves food, a not so easy task in a line full of hungry hands thrusting their plates at the servers. We were able to finally push ourselves through and claim our food. We then sat down and feasted. Pap, cabbage, beets, squash, potatoes, and seswaa (basically ground beef, with small bits of bone that are ground in with the beef). Throughout our meal, various people stopped to introduce themselves and ask about our stay in Botswana. After our meal, we continued to socialize until finally the same kind man who drove us to the cemetery offered us a ride back to Gaborone, allowing us to avoid the bus. We accepted, and after many good-byes and ‘Go Siame’s’ (Setswana for good-bye) we were on our way back to the city. Our exposure to another traditional ceremony in Botswana had ended as quickly as it began.
(Note: All pictures taken by Dina Fico)