‘When two elephants fight, the grass suffers,’ is an African truism I have seen played out in many situations at the kgotla.
The proverb goes on to say, ‘When the same two elephants make love, the grass also suffers,’ andyou will see the truth of thisin the details of this week’s story.
Over the years I have gathered overwhelming evidence that the majority of single mothers do not easily yield to the idea that fathers are equal shareholders in the affairs of their children.
The belief is based on the number of fathers who failed to willingly demonstrate their commitment to love, support and nurture their children.
Now where willingness ends the Affiliation Act is in place to force fathers to support.
But the traditional practice, which used to label the single fathers “danger” (kotsi), has laid a foundation that is not user friendly in modern times.
In the past culture used to demand that men should pay damages and disappear from the scene of the crime.
Now confronted by modern practices like the recently introduced Children’s Act, deep rooted cultural practices have come face to face with the issue of human rights.
As I share with you Mothusi’s story, you will appreciate that society has some work to do to ensure that the ‘grass beneath the feet’ is free of social landmines thatmight just detonate in its face.
Mothusi showed up at the kgotla one hot afternoon and it was not so easy to tell whether his sweaty face was as a result of the aggressive Botswana heat or the fire that burned within.
After greeting, Mothusi pulled out a nicely folded piece of paper from his inner pocket and adjusted himself on the chair.
He then proceeded to read out like a charge sheet the litany of what he described as gross injustice from Lorato, the mother of his child, and her family.
• Nine months after her birth Lorato’s family have continually denied him the right to see his baby.
• Without consultation Lorato’s sister, who lives outside Botswana,has now taken the child.
• Lorato’s family have made it clear that they do not want any financial support from him since he might use that as an argument for seeing the child.
• Lorato’s family have refused to meet with a delegation from Mothusi’s family who had been asked to discuss some cultural aspects of the issue.
It was clear that this was not an issue Mothusi and Lorato could sort out alone.
My call to Lorato’s father, initially warmly received, quickly changed when I mentioned the name of Mothusi.
His first reaction was to rush over to the kgotla to ‘sort the young man out’ there and then.
However I politely convinced him to agree to a later date, pleading with him to bring some relatives as custom dictated.
Lorato’s dad arrived in style in terms of both his elegance and his mode of transport, and from the onset made it clear that he did not want to pay any attention to cultural protocol.
He had no intention of ‘giving his mouth to Mothusi, as the Setswana expression goes (a motima molomo), but politely requested to state his case.
In marked contrast to Mothisi’s piece of folded paper, Lorato’s dad pulled out his Ipad and started clapping on it as if dictating a letter to his secretary.
These were the points he wished to make:
• This guy has messed up my daughter’s life by making her a university drop out.
• I refused to charge him damages and I do not want his money and support.
• I refused to talk to his parents and even today I shall not have a discussion with them.
• My daughter must return to school and I have asked the sister to help with the child.
• Although my daughter is over 21 she is still a child and I am in charge of her affairs.
• I will not be forced to acknowledge Mothusi as anything to my grandchild.
• That man ‘has a lesson to learn’ was his concluding submission.
His concluding submission that Mothusi ‘has a lesson to learn’ produced an emotionalresponse from the young man.
But the significance of his mumbledreply that came out somewhere between a whisper and a plea for mercy, got lost in the process.
Instead Lorato’s father made it clear that only when his daughter had graduated and moved out of his house might the prospect of Mothusiseeing the child become an issue.
The fight between the two elephants was now not so much the battle between Mothusi and his child’s grandfather, but the collision between ‘ngwaoboswa’ (our culture, our heritage) and the reality of modern practice.
Lorato’s dad despite his polished politeness is typical of many who have outgrown cultural practices, choosing only those aspects of tradition they wish to uphold as and when it pleases.
Mothusi’s unconvincing threat that he would see his lawyer was met with mocked sincerity and the smiling sarcasm that wished the young man ‘good luck.’
As the two men trooped out of my office I was left only with a sense of sadness that I could not help the warring factions resolve their issue.
Reflecting on Lorato’s dad’s parting words, I would be the first to agree that luck, either good or bad, appears to play a significant part in our lives.
But should a child’s destiny be left merely to chance?
The conflict between tradition and modernity will not go away, but if wrangling lawyers are to replace the conciliatory role of the kgotla, let us at least introduce the option of a family court.
Here the body of legislation that deals with the rights of the child can at least have the benefit of human hearts to interpret them, provide counselling to those in conflict, and ensure that the best interests of the child are protected.
As the two elephants collide a cloud of dust arises which makes it difficult to know the truth.
Let me conclude by offering for your consideration a quote from the renowned 19th Century journalist Herbert Agar who said – “The truth that makes men free is the one they prefer not to know.”
Over to you!