In what has become a reoccurring theme of these columns over the months I have explored with you the importance of recognising the traditional wisdom of the past and adapting it to the modern situation. For whilst times may change, basic human values such as truth, love, peace and righteousness, do not.
If Vision 2016 is to become a reality it must embrace a united ambition. One generation imposing its beliefs on another and insisting that things were better in the old days can only be divisive.
Let me take you to this week’s customary court scenario to illustrate how hypocrisy and double standards can distort basic values in the name of culture.
The man who showed up at the customary court bottled up with defiant anger and frustration, looked older than his years. Had it not been for the insistence of a cousin he would have gladly taken out his anger in a physical confrontation rather than bring the matter to the arbitration of the court.
Taking a deep breath Tholo began his story. He told how he had recently lost the love of his life Sametsi, a young girl he had met some 12 years back. They had quickly formed a bond since both had lost their parents as children under the age of 10.
He emphasized the point of being orphaned, explaining how they had learnt to be independent during those difficult and trying times.
When Tholo met Sametsi, she already had a two-year-old daughter. The couple settled in a small, remote village and developed basic farming projects that gave them financial freedom. They lived happily together, adding two more children to their family before disaster struck.
Sadly Sametsi was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although Tholo had notified their extended family, he alone faced the monster that was slowly destroying the one person that had given his life meaning. Sametsi eventually succumbed to the merciless killer two years later.
Just a day after his beloved’s passing on, Tholo was amazed at the number of people who drove to find them in the remote village where they had settled. Initially he thought relatives had come to show their support and sympathy, but soon found out that the extended family had other interests.
They had not even set a date for burial when relatives started speculating on who would take care of Sametsi’s children – a development that made Tholo very angry. The relatives had also raised an argument about where she would be laid to rest, but Tholo firmly pointed out that Sametsi had request to be buried in the village where they had settled.
Immediately after the burial, the cultural meeting to discuss phatlalatso (distribution) was called. Tholo said he was utterly shocked and irritated to hear uncles and aunts speaking about how they would return to deal with Sametsi’s things – even including the children under the list of ‘things’ to be distributed.
This insensitive discussion made Tholo furious, but before he misbehaved, his cousin suggested they seek advice from the Customary Court.
On the appointed day, the two families assembled and it was evident that tempers were running high.
Tholo went over the family history. He pointed out that they had chosen to live together without doing all the cultural rituals because of the way they were treated by their families as orphaned individuals. Secondly Sametsi felt that nobody deserved to enjoy lobola since her parents were no longer alive.
The comments provoked an immediate response from the family members spearheaded by a visibly agitated Uncle Pheto.
Uncle Pheto: How much did you pay for my niece?
Tholo: I paid nothing as she was an orphan and I was not charged.
Uncle Pheto: Did you think my niece was a gift from your gods? (badimo)
Tholo: I do not understand
Uncle Pheto: You will soon understand my language. If Sametsi was your wife why did you refuse to wear the black cloth?
Tholo: Sametsi and I did not belong to that culture. Why do you want to take my children from me?
Pheto: Monna ga wa nyala, gaona bana ok. (You are not married and you have no children)
Uncle Pheto maintained that Tholo had disappeared with their child and abused her till she died a lonely person in a remote village. It was his contention that Sametsi worked very hard to generate wealth for Tholo, who now seemed content to inherit Sametsi’s children and her estate. He insisted that the customary court should implement a judgement based on Setswana culture and tradition by releasing the children to them and dividing the estate.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
The points to consider are that Tholo is a father who has bonded with his children and uprooting them could amount not only to harassment but a serious violation of children’s rights.
Tholo was a sober and responsible person whose character was pushed into early maturity by loosing his parents prematurely.
Tholo and Sametsi had not done patlo (the asking) or paid any lobola but they were well established as a family, far from their relatives.
Uncle Pheto had a cultural point in that unmarried men do suffer prejudice when it comes to enjoying parental rights.
Uncle Pheto did not care about the bond that Tholo had with his children nor did he care for what would be in the best interest of the children, to him the interest of culture came first.
With all talk of gender equality, has society considered the prejudice men suffer merely because of an accident of nature that denies them the opportunity to conceive? Naturally if Tholo had died first, Sametsi would be considered the only person to enjoy custody.
It is also worth mentioning that traditionally lobola was not just payment for a wife, but also the cattle were kept as some kind of insurance for the woman. In the event that her marriage did not work, her parents would assist her to start a new life, or in the event that the couple ran into financial problems, the parents of the woman would be able to assist them.
The court asked Pheto what he intended to do with the children since they had lost both grandmothers, and he simply said the Council would assist.
In resolving the matter it was seen as inappropriate to take children from the one parent, whom they were holding onto, just to satisfy the demands of culture. Thereupon Uncle Pheto angrily stormed out of court promising not to rest until he got custody of Sametsi’s children.
In the end Tholo asked the uncles to charge him so that he would be able to change the surnames of his children, which was at that time was their late mother’s. It was a solution that gave the relatives their metaphorical ‘pound of flesh,’ whilst their father held onto the real ‘thing.’