In Botswana there seems to be an illusion created by the practices around marriage. Many believe that marriage must be done in three parts beginning withpatlo (asking for a wife) followed by the payment oflobolaand then completion of the process at the District Commissioners’ Office. There are many women out there whose marriage process has gone up to lobola but they have no customary marriage certificate, thus making their status open to interpretation.
Let me share with you Eve’s unpleasant experience as an illustration of what I am talking about. The lady in question defied all protocol about mourning and came to the kgotlafollowing her husband’s burial the previous day.
Eve related her story with amazing strength and confidence given the trauma she had gone through. She said the betrayal her in-laws had subjected her to had numbed the pain and sense of loss of her husband Pheko.
Eve and Pheko had gone through patlo, bogadi and kgoroso. In addition Pheko had acquired a piece of land a few metres from his parents home and built his own home. According to Eve theirs was an ideal marriage that had produced two kids with a third due to arrive in three months.
Pheko had died tragically following a short illness.
Naturally family and friends assembled at Eve and Pheko’s residence with Eve abandoning the comfort of her bedroom to follow the ritual of lying down in the sitting room on a mattress (go ribama).Lately this ritual is understood to confirm that one is not only the chief mourner but also the recognized beneficiary.
On the third day following Pheko’s death, the family decided to go and consult Pheko’s employers and find out what financial support they were likely to receive. At the offices where Pheko worked, the uncles enquired as to whether Phekohad declared himself as married, but sadly for poor Eve her husband had not done that. Eve did not know the implication of this enquiry but was soon to find out.
As they prepared to return to the village Pheko’s uncle discreetly called Eve, informing her that on the drive back to the village Pheko’s mother would occupy the front seat with another elderly woman who would support her as she was now (molwetse) the chief mourner. Eve was instructed to sit at the back.
A typical African woman never asks questions when elders speak, but naturally Eve’s mind worked overtime trying to undo the puzzle of the game her in-laws were playing. She had not been able to imagine what awaited her when they arrived at the village.
Thanks to the convenience of modern technology, the uncles had phoned relatives instructing them to move all symbols of mourning -including the fire, the mattress, the pots, to Eve’s mother in law’s place as she was going to be the chief mourner, explaining to all and sundry that Pheko had not put Eve’s name down as his wife. Eve was given orders to undo the headgear that goes under the chin to symbolise(bolwetse) and her mother in law adjusted her headgear to reflect her new role with regard to the death of Pheko.
Naturally the shocked villagers simply murmured their disapproval but beyond that none had the courage to ‘rock the boat.’ Their murmuring was of no help to Eve and her two kids, and to add insult to injury the wording of the programme did not even acknowledge Eve and her children.
All this set up the stage for Pheko’s mother to claim the terminal benefits.
Eve desperately needed to be heard and assisted in unravelling the legitimacy of her years of customary marriage. The court pleaded with Eve to allow relatives a reasonable time for mourning, and then three weeks later the families came in for reconciliation against a very tense atmosphere.
Pheko’s family argued that they have been dragged to court toosoon after the official mourning period, but for Eve the case was a matter of urgency. She had now been ordered to take her personal belongings and return to her village of origin because the house of the deceased had to be locked for a period of mourning.
Eve led the discussion in a steady and clear voice, but the anger welling up within her could not be concealed. By the time she rested her case there was little doubt that she had suffered a gross injustice.
The Pheko family requested that they be given a moment to consult among themselves, and this was granted. Upon return the family spokesperson to everyone’s surprise announced their admission of wrong doing on the following points:
a) That Pheko and Eve were married customarily and had even moved from the parents’ home to build a home for themselves. They even admitted that Eve had harvested much of the grass that was used in the building.
b) They admitted that they took advantage of the fact that Eve’s omang and the birth certificate of the kids reflected Eve’s maiden name.
c) They admitted being misled by someone who fuelled their otherwise dormant greed to inform Pheko’s employer that Eve was just “a glorified girl friend.”
d) That upon drawing the funeral programme they had to maintain the lie in order to achieve their main objective, namely to take the terminal benefits.
This apology angered Eve’s relatives who had already concluded that Pheko’s parents deserved to be beaten right there at the kgotla.
Eve wanted nothing but justice – not necessarily to be recognized as Pheko’s widow, but recognition of her own personal investment in building a home she was now not at liberty to occupy. The highjacking of the burial arrangementalso meant that Pheko’s account was closed and money had been taken, some of which was Eve’s from selling the goats she got as presents from her parents.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
The points to be considered were that Pheko’s customary marriage was complete.
Pheko had even moved his family to demonstrate his commitment to marriage.
The apology offered by Pheko’s family did not restore Eve’s dignity, neither did it compensate for the time wasted in building a home she had been evicted from, nor did it replace the stolen finances.
The apology did not withdraw insults and remarks that in-laws have a tendency to make when they enjoy group power.
Pheko’s uncles requested that they be given time to go home and work out a plan to heal and restore everything that Eve had lost in the whole, sorry saga.
The lessons to be learnt from Eve’s story is that in order to bring to an end the abuse of women and children, individuals who have chosen customary marriage must insist on getting a certificate from the kgotla. In the event of the death of a spouse, acting swiftly to reduce loss does not necessarily minimize conflict, which has become a regular feature at most funerals.
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