Funerals: Botswana Culture (Setswana)


Funerals: Botswana Culture (Setswana)
Batswana, the natives of Botswana, just like all people of the world, do attach great value to life, and they also believe in the concept of ‘life after death. Therefore, they believe their dead will go to a better place when they pass on. For this reason, the Batswana give great respect to their dead, and funerals can take a whole week before the actual burial. There are, however, important albeit minor differences where the deceased is a toddler, as outlined in the discussion below.

However, it is essential to note that the process of funerals is basically the same across all ethnic groups. The procedure  typically follows the following steps:

  • Go Thuba Loso (Death announcement): due to the fact that Batswana people have very strong family ties or relations, death announcements are seen as very delicate, requiring excellent communication skills. Culturally, emphasis is given to informing the closest family members first so that they do not hear about the death from strangers or neighbors in the streets. Traditionally, the uncle to the deceased was required to travel from house to house to inform immediate relatives (a younger relative who could run fast was considered where there was a greater distance to cover). He did not have to tell each extended family member but instead told the ‘head’ of each household, who would then tell his wife, children, and neighbors. The word would then spread from there. One of the family elders was also tasked with informing the headman/chief of the ward, who would immediately call a meeting to tell everyone the bad news.
  • However, most communication is done through the telephone and social media in today’s world. However, it is considered morally wrong to post about death on social media before core family members have been informed.

In the event that the deceased is less than six months old, the announcement is only made to close family members. For this age group, the mourning period is only 24 hours. The rest of the community members will hear the news, but only the elderly can attend the funeral.

  • Phutlhego (Gathering): as soon as the sad news has been broken, extended family members, friends, and neighbors will start gathering at the deceased’s home/house to offer their condolences. Offering condolences does not only mean coming in to console those who lost a loved one but also contributing something (physically or financially). The contributions enable the family to give their loved one a dignified funeral. 
  • Duties and responsibilities are spread across community members who work hand in hand with family members.

 For example, the older women will immediately send out young girls to collect soil for them to renovate the houses in the yard. Young, able-bodied men are expected to each bring a log of wood for the fire to cook, while others will bring calabashes full of sorghum and maize for the mourners to eat during the week and on the day of the burial. This gathering of family, friends, and neighbors forms an integral part of a successful Setswana funeral. Everybody from the youngest to the oldest community members know their duties and responsibilities when there is a death in their neighborhood. 

  • Merapelo (Prayers): From the very first day of tatolo, members of the public, with the guidance of a pastor or traditional healer (depending on the particular family’s religious convictions), will gather at the deceased’s yard for prayers. The prayers are conducted at sunrise, then later in the evening, just before sunset. The purpose of the prayers is to pray to God to welcome the deceased, console and comfort the grieving, and give them moral support. The prayers also prepare the deceased’s family for the impending burial to cushion them from the shock of witnessing the actual process of burying their loved one. Overall, the prayers also reflect Batswana’s belief that there is life after death and must be prepared for in the current life. The prayers will go on every day until the day after the burial.
  • Diphiri (The Grave Diggers): as stated at the beginning of the text, Batswana traditionally have a culture of ‘specialization and division of labor’ during community activities (and a funeral is considered one of those). Diphiri (literally translated to hyenas), therefore, refers to young men between 18 and 35 (strictly unmarried) who are expected to avail themselves to prepare the final “resting place” (grave). Note that any young man of the stated age who doesn’t show up for diphiri will get a few lashes as punishment for failing to perform their community duties. The punishment is usually meted out in the form of corporal punishment after the funeral at the Kgotla (a gathering place for men). 

The grave is dug the day before the burial and has to be done at night such that it is found ready on the morning of the funeral. The diphiri also has to have a leader, usually an elderly unmarried man, whose main duty is to supervise the younger men to make sure they dig the right size (as per the coffin) and the correct depth. The leader of diphiri will usually go to the graveyard earlier with a family member, who will show them the proposed site for the grave, mark the ground then go back to the village to pick up his team.

Before going for their mission, diphiri have to delegate one or two age mates who will remain in the yard to prepare diphiri (in this context, it refers to a meal to be given to the gravediggers when they come back). As soon as they come back to the village, the diphiri have to stay outside the yard, where a bath of water mixed with the mosimama herb will be availed for them to wash their face, hands, and feet. This herb is believed to have powers to ‘wash away bad luck. After the ‘bath,’ the diphiri’s leader will leave his team outside and go to the kgotla, where the community elders will be waiting to announce how the preparation of the “final home” went. He has to kneel, facing the uncles of the deceased, and announce: “We have successfully prepared the final resting place for our loved one,” upon which the eldest uncle will rise, shake his hand, and permit him to call in his team for the feast prepared for them. Note here that it is only at this point that women can be called to the kgotla to deliver tea and bread to the diphiri, but they are not allowed to partake in the feast. Even those men who did not go to the graveyard are not allowed to eat anything.  

NB: the meat cooked for them is specifically taken from along the backbone of the cow slaughtered for the funeral. It is believed that the cow’s backbone is important in getting the men strong and upright to continue preparing other final resting places. The parts of a cow carry profound meanings In the Setswana culture.

  • Tebelelo- Night Virgil: typically, on the Friday (afternoon) before the weekend, the deceased’s family, with the help of friends and community members, will go to the mortuary to collect the corpse and coffin then get ready for the burial the following morning. They will take the corpse home, where there will be daily prayers. On the same day, they will announce the master of ceremonies who will run people through the burial program, which will start the same night with Tebelelo (night vigil).
  • Tebelelo is a night of prayer, counselling, encouragement, and a source of moral support to the deceased’s family. Tebelelo is also believed to serve as a way of ‘taking the deceased halfway’ to their afterlife through song and prayer. It is a form of goodbye and a way to celebrate the deceased’s life. It is typically led by a group of pastors who take turns in preaching and counselling. Depending on different ethnicities, the night vigil can stop after midnight or go on until the early morning hours. It is also a common feature of the tebelelo to have a casual chat about the deceased, sharing their jokes and remembering other light moments shared with the deceased. Note, however, that the master of ceremonies does not participate in the tebelelo because they have to wake up before everybody starts the day’s proceedings.
  • Go Bula Lekesi- Opening the Coffin: the Batswana treat their dead with great respect, and during the tebelelo, the coffin is placed inside the deceased’s house. On the morning of the burial, the family should open the coffin before sunrise for the final viewing of the deceased’s body. The body viewing usually takes an hour to two. The coffin can only be opened by malome (uncle; mother’s brother) because malome is considered the ‘head/lead’ in anybody’s life in the Setswana culture and tradition. He leads all the proceedings, be it at a wedding or funeral- therefore, he is the one to open the casket to the public. The head of the cow that is slaughtered to be eaten after burial is reserved for him as a sign and honor to him for playing the role of the ‘head’ in his nephew/niece’s life.
  • Pono ya moswi- viewing of the corpse: as soon as malome opens the casket, close family members will line up to see their loved one for the last time. After family, everybody follows and says their goodbyes. The casket will be open for at most two hours, after which malome will come again to close the lid and get ready for the actual burial. Note, however, that it is considered taboo for the coffin to be reopened after malome has closed it. The only exception is given to children of the deceased in case any one of them arrives after the lid has been closed. Even in this exception, the reopening is done by malome, but this time away from the public gaze.
  • Phitlho- Burial: After malome has closed the coffin, the pastors will take over the proceedings. The pastors are in charge from the closing of the coffin to the ceremony at the burial site. Members of the community will follow the hearse in single files to the burial site, where upon arrival, they will read condolence messages and well wishes for the deceased in their next life. It is usually the case that since most Batswana are Christians, as the coffin is lowered into the grave, hymns are sung until the process is completed.
  • The issue of specialization and division of labor can also be seen here because as soon as all the prayers and reading of messages are done, all able-bodied young men will take turns shoveling in the soil to cover the grave. Some will line up in a conveyer belt format to deliver stones to secure the grave. As soon as the grave is done and the tombstone is erected, malome will be called in again to reveal the deceased’s name on the tombstone. For some ethnic groups, this is a “final announcement of death’ (Tatolo ka malome), and it is done at the graveyard. The announcement at this stage is also believed to be a way of getting the family to accept the death of their loved one finally.
  • Phatlalatso kwa Lapeng- Thanking and dispersing: as soon as the burial is complete, the mourners and well-wishers will return to the deceased’s yard to be officially thanked for helping/supporting the family in difficult times. The thanking is done on two fronts as described below:
    • Men: In the Setswana culture, men usually meet in the kgotla, and it is where they discuss related issues and even mete out punishment to those that break the law or set regulations. As soon as everybody returns to the funeral home, the men will gather and wait for one of the community leaders, as designated by malome, to come and thank the village men on behalf of the deceased’s family. Like diphiri, everybody must wash in the mosimama bath to get rid of bad luck before getting into the homestead. The ‘thanking and dispersing’ is usually reserved for the ward headman or counsellor, who usually uses the opportunity to give community announcements and address other issues concerning men in the community or village. During this time, the young men who did not jon diphiri the previous night are punished for their indiscipline.
    • Women: just like men in the community, women also gather in the lelwapana (inside the yard in front of the house), where rakgadi (the deceased father’s sister) takes the responsibility of thanking the ladies of the community for the support they gave the family. It is important to note that community elders communicate lessons learned and areas that may need improvement during these meetings.

As soon as the phatlalatso is done, the ladies will start serving the cereal (grain foods) while the young men focus on serving the meat, and the whole community feasts as they chat about the deceased in a light moment.

  •  Mourning Period and Symbols: Batswana are very considerate people, especially those who have suffered the loss of their loved ones. For that reason, there is a mourning grace period for close family members.
    • Married people– When a wife or husband loses a partner, the Batswana community supports them in the healing process. There are measures taken to make sure they are treated with care. If a wife (motlholagadi) loses a husband, she will be dressed in black from head to toe. The attire is meant firstly for men to know that she is unavailable for one year after the husband’s death. It is also done to signify to members of society that the person is still mourning and, therefore, should be assisted where and when she needs their support or help. The husband who loses a wife (moswagadi) is afforded the same support.
    • Children and close family members: children who lost a parent are expected to shave off their heads immediately after the funeral. Batswana also believe most bad luck is carried with the hair. The children and other family members are also given a black cloth to pin on their clothing in a visible area so that members of society realize from a distance that they are in mourning. The pinned black cloth reminds the public to treat them with the necessary care and be considerate.

The mourning period for a Motswana is generally an entire year. After one year, the family will gather again to distribute inheritance amongst the children. The deceased’s clothes are distributed to the different family members to remember their lost one.