Quite often a decision based on culture does not take into account the relevance, practicality or the possible consequences. It is our Setswana culture that “kgomo e nyalwakanamane” meaning that in marriage, the mother and child should be taken as a package. It is a fair practice since it does not separate a child from the mother because of marriage. Let me share with you a story about Chabo that exposes the other side of the coin.
Our client at the customary court was MmaChabo who was locked in a bitter and painful battle for custody of her grandchildren hardly a month after her daughter’s burial.
MMA CHABO’S STORY
The case history was that her late daughter Chabo had two sons when she married Mothusi five years back. Chabo’s children Wabo and Nlisi were 5 and 7 years respectively at the time of their mother’s marriage to Mothusi. All was well until the untimely and tragic death of Chabo. MmaChabo travelled 650km to Mothusi’s village to bury her daughter.
Three days after the burial, MmaChabo was preparing to return to her village when it dawned on her for the first time that her grandsons had not just lost their mum, but the only blood contact they had in that remote village.
The children were quite aware that they had been dragged into the lives of Chabo and Mothusi as the offspring of a different union.
They had previously lived with MmaChabo whom they called “mme,” while Chabo worked far from home.
When MmaChabo was preparing to leave, Wabo and Nlisi approached her tearfully and asked “Nkuku a o tlatla gore tsaya fare tswaladikwele,” meaning, ‘Grandma will you come and take us when we close for the holidays?’
To this their dad Mothusi sharply and assertively responded,“Ga le ye koobannarotlhe re yamorakeng,” meaning,‘You will not be going anywhere since we are all going to the cattle post.’ At that point reality hit MmaChaboand let her wondering how she should tackle the issue of getting Mothusi to release the children he had culturally adopted.
In bringing the matter to the kgotla it was explained that the customary court preferred to take the reconciliation route by bringing all parties together with their arguments, and encouraging them to work out mutually agreeablesolutions to their problems.
In court MmaChabo presented her case and in the process blamed her brothers “bomalommatsone” who were “borraditsela” in the marriage negotiations. In conclusion she pleaded that all people there gathered should appreciate that she was the only “ blood relative,” and as such should be given custody of the two boys. She carefully avoided makingany reference to three-year-old Sethunya who was born to Chabo and Mothusi.
Mothusi requested MmaChabo to answer the following questions:
Question: How much was Chabo’slobola?
Answer: Uncle Jack said we charged you 6 cattle at P4 000 a beast.
Question: How much did you charge me to marry the children?
Answer (after an embarrassed cough to clear his voice, Uncle Jack responded) For the children we charged you two beasts at P4 000 each.
Question: When you take the children will you return my two beasts?
Answer (long silence, then another man at the back speaks for the first time and calls out,“Bogadigabokebo boa” (Lobola is not refundable).
Mothusi spoke very briefly – giving an account of how he had culturally adopedWabo and Nlisi and had loved and nurtured the boys for five years.
He pleaded with the court not to take the boys away from their little sister who may never even know them because of the distance between their villages.
Mothusi hated to have these children shared like pieces of furniture just because of unfounded fears and insecurities.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
The points to consider are that MmaChabo suddenly realizes that the uncles who negotiated her daughter’s marriage also set a different price for the children. Mothers generally are not involved with issues of patlo (the asking for a wife) – especially single mothers.
Is MmaChabo an innocent victim of gender imbalance or just another opportunist who wants to win from both sides of the coin?
Does Mothusi’s paying for the children override the request of their grandma to have custody?
Why is MmaChabo not asking for the three-year-old as well? And why does she doubt Mothusi’s ability to hold the family together without Chabo?
Does Mothusi mean well in his desire to be left with all the children or is he simply rubbing in the fact that he was made to pay two cattle for adopting them?
The customary court involved the social welfare officer who interviewed Wabo and Nlisi and her report clearly indicated that the boys would be happy to be with MmaChabo. The report further quoted them as not being afraid or worried to be separated from their three-year-old sister.
There is a desperate need to interrogate our cultural practices and identify what should not be carried forward into the future. Yes it is true that “ngwaoboswa” meaning – our culture is our heritage, but if uncles are spokespersons one wonders if they represent the aspirations of women and children at all levels of the marriage negotiations.
The solution involves all concerned being able to see beyond the point of pocketing lobola so that our actions will be seen to protect not only the man who pays lobola, but the rights of the children who get adopted without consultation.
In my experience it has become apparent that at the centre of almost every conflict is the desire to control, assert power and ultimately to win the day. This selfish ambition has made individuals fail to recognise the universal law to,‘love your neighbour as yourself.’
In the end Mothusi yielded to MmaChabo’s request because of the Social Welfare Officer’s report, but insisted that they should maintain his surname and be allowed to visit their three-year-old sister twice a year.
Thereafter the matter was laid to rest.