In Botswana, HIV/AIDS is never far from people's thoughts, but life continues.
By Nanny L. Murrell
From January through June 2003, I was a Fulbright scholar in the Republic of Botswana, a landlocked nation in southern Africa occupied for nearly two millennia by hunter-gatherers and ruled as a British “protectorate” from 1885 until independence in 1966. Mostly desert and about the size of Texas, Botswana has a population today of about 1.6 million, mainly Tswana people who arrived in the past 300 years. An estimated 38 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive, one of the highest rates of infection in Africa.
Shortly after my arrival, I attended a baby shower with about forty women of varying ages. The pregnant honoree wore a loose blouse that opened to show her belly with a magic marker drawing of a baby. A condom filled with ground meat resembling a penis was hanging from a gold chain around her neck. It was the focus of lots of laughter and talk. From her earrings hung condoms filled with milk. It was absolutely the funniest and most provocative get-up I've ever seen. My only regret was that I didn't bring my camera.
“Once you're married you don't have to use a condom,” one of the women blithely advised the honoree. But a guest more knowledgeable about public health firmly disagreed. “Oh no,” Dr. Esther Seloilwe said emphatically. “You still need a condom even if you're married.”
My teaching and research Fulbright award at the University of Botswana in Gaborone (population 100,000) involved teaching master's students who were already registered nurses and midwives with at least two years of practice.
This work fulfilled a dream of many years. In the late 1960s, I had discovered the writings of Bessie Head and fell in love with her descriptions of Botswana. A South African exile born in 1937, Head lived and wrote in Botswana until her death at age 49 in 1986. When she died, I was living with my three children and working in Malawi, a neighboring country. So when I came to Botswana in 2003, I carried with me memories of her life and her writings.
There were deep human connections as well. Dr. Naomi Seboni, a University of Botswana faculty member, and I had been doctoral students together at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the late 1980s. By the time I applied for the Fulbright, another former UCSF doctoral student, Dr. Seloilwe (who attended the baby shower described earlier), had become department chair at the Faculty of Nursing Education, University of Botswana. These friendships, professional and personal from the United States, made my stay in Gaborone profoundly meaningful.
The second week I was in Botswana, I attended a wedding at which Dr. Seloilwe, as the bride's maternal aunt, played a pivotal role. Weddings in Botswana are a merging of families and form the basis of the couple's life together.
Botswana is cattle country. In addition to diamonds, which were discovered after independence, beef is a major commodity. “Lobola,” a dowry, is a critical part of the marriage negotiations. Cattle, or money in place of cattle, are given to the family of the bride by the groom's family. These arrangements help form a bond between the two families. Cattle are very, very important, not just in marriage but also in life. One of my friends described how her father used to just sit at the cattle post and watch his cattle. He knew each one individually and instantly.
The day of my first Botswana wedding was hot, with temperatures similar to the most intense Galveston summers but dry rather than humid, and without the relief provided by air-conditioning. There were actually two weddings—both for the same couple. First was the bride's family's ceremony; the groom's family's ceremony occurred the following week. The couple could not live together until both ceremonies were completed.
The first ceremony took place in a church, followed by a reception held outside under a large covered tent. The second was under a tent, and it included the groom's reception. There was much food, as well as choreographed dancing by the wedding parties at both events. In the end, guests, including me, joined in the dancing.
Before the wedding, the bride met with women in the family who instructed her on the ways and practices of a wife: “Take care of your husband.” “Don't argue if he comes home late.” Many North American women might disdain such advice, though I suspect many U.S. men would love it. Similar meetings and counsel occurred for the groom, with elder men describing the husband's role.
Central to all this activity was one theme: combining the two families. Family is extremely important in Botswana and throughout Africa, and the extended family is part of one's identity, past, present, and future. Part of who you are is inextricably intertwined with your family. I have been to many weddings in the United States, but I have never witnessed family unions and consolidations as awesome and moving as those I experienced in Botswana, where families and family relationships form the base of life. At yet another wedding, I was told every person's exact relationship: ”This is Kamotso Ntseane, the aunt of my sister's husband.”
Years ago my mother once told me, “Hurry and get dressed. We're going to be late for the funeral.”
“Mom,” I said, “It's a wedding.”
“Funerals, weddings, they're all the same,” she said. In fact, there are some similarities between such events in Botswana as well as in the United States.
“You all party a lot,” I told Dr. Naomi Seboni, a friend and colleague.
“We party together and we cry together,” she said.
Another colleague's brother had recently died of AIDS, and he was just 38, almost the same age as my daughter. I hadn't known him in life, but I honored him in death.
The morning was really cold as my colleague, Dr. Motshedisi Sabone, and I drove to Mochudi, a southeast Botswana village an hour from Gaborone. The deceased, Duncan Kagiso Mogwe, was born in Zambia. He finished high school in Francistown, Botswana, and completed a welding course in Gaborone. He was a writer and graphic artist, worked for various newspaper companies and insurance brokers, and left a son and grieving family.
Following tradition, the entire funeral was held at the graveside. The service was conducted in Tswana, with translation to English for those like myself who didn't speak the language. There were more than fifty people present in love and support; in Botswana it is expected that you attend the funerals of family and friends, unless you are critically ill.
A bit of macabre humor occurred with the attempt to lower the coffin into the grave. Mr. Mogwe was a tall man, and it turned out the grave that had been dug for him was not long enough. Some mourners took off their jackets and jumped back in the grave, manned shovels and quickly enlarged the site. The coffin was lowered again. One of my friends, alluding to my height (six feet), whispered, “They'll have to measure well for you.”
Nanny L. Murrell is a midwife and associate professor of nursing at UTMB. The Fulbright Scholar Program, sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, sends approximately eight hundred academics and professionals to lecture and study in approximately one hundred and forty countries worldwide.