This tendency of women changing their hairstyles so regularly led to me having great difficulties in placing people I’d previously met. When I started lecturing at TCE I used hairstyle as one way of memorising the names of my students and colleagues. The strategy was doomed from the first week as a student who had closed cropped hair on a Monday might have flowing locks by the weekend. Someone in Southern Africa makes a very good living in selling hair extensions I can tell you.
The Salon had great warmth about it and I was very happy to be part of the scene. I quickly became acquainted with many new people who visited the Salon for a haircut, styling or to visit the Boutique which was integrated into the Salon. It was in this context that I got to know Boipelo. She was the youngest of the stylists and a beautiful and vibrant young woman. When I met her first she was only twenty years old but was already an experienced and talented hairdresser. Boipelo was very popular with all the clients in the Salon. She was one of the girls; always happy go lucky and enjoying the atmosphere of a workplace full of friends. She was also very popular with the men. I’m sure that this was partly because of her physical beauty but also was due to her warmth and sense of fun. Boipelo had a figure that women all over the world would envy and an unblemished complexion. She had one modelling competitions and this would not surprise anyone who met her as she moved with grace and elegance. Boipelo also dressed immaculately and took great pride in her appearance. She had a real zest for life. Boipelo was very well mannered and would always greet me ‘Hello Uncle, how are you?’ whenever I turned up at the Salon. One would always notice if she wasn’t at work on a given day as although the place would still be busy and the atmosphere lively a certain sparkle would be missing.
Boipelo was living a very small dwelling consisting of a modest bedroom, the smallest kitchen and bathroom imaginable. Boipelo stayed in the most modest of places because she wanted to save the bulk of her wages in order to support her family who lived in a small village about 100KM’s south of Francistown. When we visited her the first time we found her sister with her looking after her. Boipelo was weak and certainly looked frail but was still full of hope. She talked about returning to work and about how bored she was stuck in the house all day. The second time we visited we found her alone but she reassured us that she was okay and was being well looked after by family members and friends. She was rather weak but still optimistic. As the weeks passed by Boipelo began to regain her strength and it wasn’t that long before she was back at work. Once she was back at work I have to admit it wasn’t long before I’d forgotten all about her illness. She was back to her usual self; full of the joys of life and living life to the full. In retrospect she probably was a little more subdued at times and she wasn’t going out after work as often as previously but at the time I, like most others in the Salon environment, didn’t think much about it. She had been sick, she had undergone a period of convalescence and she was in the process of regaining her full strength. At least that was the way it seemed. Within a few months of her returning to work though Boipelo was once again taking time off work. In fact she stopped going into work altogether. We heard through the grapevine that she was having a break from work and that she planned to return to work after a few months. I have to admit that I never questioned this scenario. After all Boipelo was a twenty year old girl who wanted a break from work and a time to relax. It didn’t seem that unusual to me. Furthermore, the girls in the Salon had heard that Boipelo had been partying at the Orapa Beer Festival and was back enjoying her social life. Good luck to her I thought.
Nevertheless the reality of the situation was somewhat different. By November 2002 Boipelo was admitted to Nyambgabwe Hospital in Francistown. Nyambgabwe Hospital isn’t like any other hospital I’d ever visited before. Having been born and raised in the UK I think of hospitals as places where sick people go by and large to get better. The situation at Nyambgabwe is somewhat different though. It is a place where many people go to die.
2nd December happens to be my birthday as well as Boipelo’s so when the phone rang at the crack of dawn I thought little of it believing it to be one of my parents or my brother calling to wish me a Happy Birthday. In fact I was ready to tell them off for calling me at such an ungodly hour. However, when I answered the phone all I heard was sobbing on the other end of the phone. I didn’t need to be told what I’d already realised – that Boipelo had died – in the early hours of the morning on the day of her 21st birthday.
When I talk of the ‘funeral’ and the ‘burial’ I am refering to two overlapping but seperate things. The funeral in Botswana refers to the whole period of mourning that comes with someone’s death. From the time someone passes away friends and family will gather at the ‘funeral house’ in order to support each other in a time of sorrow. This period of time does not end with the burial of the deceased either. The ‘late’ are mourned for a period of time that is partly dependant upon their age. The more elderly the deceased is then the longer period of time they are mourned. I was quite surprised at first to learn that infants are not mourned for nearly as long a period as the elderly. I am informed that this is because they have died in innocent and thus will be received instantly by God upon their death.
As the ‘funeral’ lasts for at least a few weeks it is an incredibly costly time for many families. All those who visit a ‘funeral house’ will expect to be fed. This is the case as, especially before the burial, many mourners will stay overnight at the funeral house in order to pray with and support the immeadiate family of the deceased.
The ‘burial itself is also a costly business. A family does not only have to cover the costs of the morgue, coffin and undertaker but also is expected to feed all the mourners who have attended the burial. These numbers are often large as a whole village will attend a burial. In the past when funerals were much less frequent this did not cause families such financial burden but in these times of HIV/AIDS the whole process of the funeral and burial can causea massive financial burden for the family.
Boipelo’s family were particually poor and thus the financial support provided by her workmates and especially her boss were invaluable.
I was quite shocked when I first saw Boipelo’s home. It was a very basic structure. Her family home was barely two rooms and this housed her parents and her siblings. Within the yard there was evidence of a small building project. The foundations had been laid for what I later found out was to be an extra couple of rooms for the family. One of the great tragedies of Boipelo’s death was that this project would never be completed. Her parents and her siblings lived in desparate poverty but Boipelo would send money to her family from her earnings at the Salon. With this money the family were trying to improve their living conditions. Unfortunately Boipelo’s elder siblings were not working and what little money they ever had they squandered on alcohol. Boipelo gave hope to her parents as she could ensure that her two younger siblings would at least grow up in a better physical environment than she did. That hope more or less died with Boipelo.
From that time onwards I noticed many examples of unfinished housing structures around Botswana. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed so many young people like Boipelo. Young people, who had a sense of responsibility and wanted to ensure that their families were provided for, cut short in the prime of life.
I vividly remember that after the body viewing a guy I knew quite well (Sonny, a South African guy, who had travelled more than 1000km’s to pay his respects and to offer the funeral party the use of his ‘combie’ for transport to and from the cemetry) commented that she looked so ‘healthy’ in her coffin. He was right as well. Boipelo looked immacualte. Her beauty not tarnished even though she had breathed her last breath in this world.
The most striking thing about Sonny’s comment was that Sonny himself was HIV positive. I remember thinking that he off all people must have suspected that Boipelo had died of an AIDS related illness but his comment suggested otherwise. On reflection I’m sure that most people at the funeral knew exactly what had taken the life of this beautiful twenty one year old but all were content in the conspiracy of silence that haunts HIV/AIDS affected Africa.
Outside the compound their were many younger people hanging around next to where the mourners had parked their cars. A group of guys were at drinking a few beers and chatting using the back of one of the ‘bakkies’ as a bar. It struck me that the younger Batswana did not participate in the traditional funeral practices as much as their parents and grandparents but still considered it important to be at the funeral house the night before the burial to pay their respects to their departed friend who lay at peace inside her family home.
After greeting Boipelo’s parents and the elders of the family I took my leave and joined some of the guys outside the compound. It seemed irreverent to drink alcohol in the eyesight of those at prayer but no one around the cars appeared to be too concerned. Gradually over the next few hours more people arrived at the funeral house. The staff and several clients of the Salon arrived and soon joined us in a beer or two. ‘It’s what Boipelo would have wanted!’ That amused me as I knew that back in England people would say exactly the same thing!
After chatting and passing the time for a few hours the younger crowd began to wane and we all took the chance to rest our eyes in our cars for a short time before the burial service would begin.
The burial service began when a few elderly gentlemen, dressed in suits that used to only see the light of day for one or two funerals a year, took up a position next to the coffin. I’m unsure which church the men were from - there are so many different churches across Southern Africa. I barely understood a word of Setswana but I had the impression that the service was on the African traditional side of Christianity. The Bible was certainly used but in the context of traditional beliefs. There are many churches across Botswana that have modified the Christianity imposed upon Africans by the white missionaries to ensure that the traditions and customs of the community are integrated into Christianity.
After some prayers a few friends and family members of Boipelo came forward to say a few words about the deceased. I rember her tearful employer speaking in a most touching way about her employee - but she had evidently not just lost an employee and a colleague but a beloved friend. The service at the homestead ended with body viewing. Mourners walked slowly passed Boipelo’s coffin gazing upon her as she lay in peace. Some mourners were barely able to contain their grief, some women even had to be carried away to a place in the shade. Boipelo looked beautiful. Her unblemished complexion and immaculately tidy hair in place. There was even a faint smile upon her lips. As Sonny said she looked too well to have died!
At the cemetry I noticed at least 2 other burials taking place. This was an unsurprising sight even in a relatively small village. Burials never always took place on Saturday in Botswana and there would always be many taking place at the same time. As we walked to the place where Boipelo’s grave had been dug I couldn’t help ntice the countless white crosses that stood mute in the ground. Each cross would have a name and a date on it. The vast majority of the crosses were for young people who had died in their late teens or early years of adulthood. It was quite rare to see the grave of an elderly person.
This is the legacy of HIV/AIDS. Parents and grandparents burying their children. And this was not just the case in this cemetry but all over Botswana ... and Zimbabwe... and Zambia... and South Africa ... in fact all over Sub-Saharan Africa. The implications of this is something I will return to in a later post.
Once Boipelo was in her grave the family members shovelled the first earth onto her coffin. The noise of the earth impacting on the wood of the casket led to further outpourings of grief. Soon the process of burying Boipelo intensified. The male memebers of the funeral party took it in turns to shovel the earth into the grave - I was quite surprised to see that the mourners buried the body themselves as in my own county it is a task that is usually left to the undertakers. The process of shifting earth onto the grave continued until a mound of at least a metre in height was above the grave.
The burial ended with the family placing flowers on the grave before all filed away in silence.
The idea of feeding the mourners is something that is rooted in tradition. Unfortunately because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic the financial burden on some families is overwhelming. The costs of the morgue, undertaker, coffin etc are unavoidable but the custom of feeding the mourners is something that the people of Botswana, and neighbouring countries, perhaps need to address.
One gets the impression that a significant minority of mourners attend funerals in order to ensure that they are well fed. I guess this is understandable in those villages, like Boipelo’s, that are blighted by poverty, but there are no winners with the current situation. All families are affected by the pandemic. All families are burying their children. All families are suffering not only with their loss but with the associated financial burden of saying goodbye to their children.
Weeks after Boipelo’s death I spoke to a doctor friend of mine. He confirmed that Boipelo had been treated for HIV but that she had not adhered to the strick regime of taking her Anti-retrovirals. Apparently as her health seemingly improved she returned to her party-girl lifestyle and gave up on her treatment. She was young and reckless in that sense but I too was fearless in my youth. I drove my car too fast, I took risks and did things that were potentially life threatening. Most people would say the same. Boipelo took the risk of not taking her pills. She didn’t live to tell her story though....