Friday, May 30, 2014

mors veniet unicuique nostrum

He comes for us all, our old friend death. He is fed in with the first breast milk. He is a suitor most loyal to his cause, keeps his promise eternally. at 530am before a cup of coffee while waiting for a flight (no, that is not the title of an attempted-poem rather it is the state of the poet so pardon what you will).

At best faith offers that you will transition to a better place, perhaps that you will return as something or someone else, and if the Greek philosophers are proven wise you may find yourself in the Elysian Fields, for those who wish war upon themselves even after death Odin's Valhalla may be the best option for even witch doctors say you may be returned after you die but die you must, and the lawyers fond of finding ways out say their silver tongues are tied that taxes as a consequence of living are as inevitable as death thereby admitting that death is death, even that most flamboyant of writers, Wilde, gives Dorian a way out of his deal with the devil. On this we all agree, the exit clause is non-negotiable: it matters not how laden or hungered the path, how we tinker with the in-between for as we have come and so we must leave.

In Botswana mourning is an extravagant ritual, and it begins at the point of bereavement and plateaus for at least a year after the fact.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H Auden

So now you are dead and what kept you, having left, dictates that your flesh must go the way of all things. The earth from whom your clay was stolen demands it be returned to her. Some say you walk all your days toward your death. That you wake one morning suddenly eager to travel only to never return. That when the time comes clay recognizes clay.
But here we keep you frozen, for a week at least, even if death will not wait his party must. It will not be held until the weekend and even then early in the morning. Some bury immediately or soon after, a small percentage cremate, and even though the clear majority of Batswana identify as christian, tradition holds strong for certain ceremonies. Here christianity moulds itself around the local practices, the pastor will attend the wake at the home of the deceased, prayers will be held and on the last night a vigil kept. In a small sense as a Motswana the masses will likely gather twice in your name - for your wedding and for your funeral.

Money is spent on flour, and time on making bread and tea. If like me, you crave quiet when your heart hurts you will not find it then. They will come in their hoards, with their well meaning hands and sing for you. It is a wonderful example of communal function that others will walk towards rather than away from you when you have fallen at some slippery place.

Animals die, people pass away. We say swa to mean die, we say tlhokafetse to mean the same but for a person. I'm not certain of the words etymology but to tlhoka is to search for something and be unable to find it or simply to be without the thing (you want/need/seek) and so the dead are in a sense looked for but can never be found. It is considered impolite, crude to say one is dead.

I'm told that not all cultures dictate staying at the gravesite for the entire throwing of sand on the coffin until its covered. In Botswana we stay. We sing Setswana funeral hymns and sometimes regular gospel songs. I don't think anyone cares whether you were christian they sing their idea of comfort and what they wish your departed spirit.

"Funerals used to be conducted shortly after death but now the use of mortuaries has enabled funerals to be postponed. Thus, the expectations in terms of attendance, quality of coffin, and level of hospitality have escalated, and many more people can be notified and material resources assembled. Funerals have become one of the main venues for the expression of cultural, time, and resource commitment, both on the part of the aggrieved family and those attending, who are expected to work at the funeral and who expect to be fed."

Although some Batswana worked in the South African mines or went elsewhere for work or school, up until 1966 the majority of citizens lived in or very near where they were born. Informing relatives of  death was probably as simple as wailing from the courtyard of your mud hut. Now we are scattered around the world, a large number of students study abroad, even locally the main university is in the capital city which is no one's 'home village' and even more students go there to study and never leave  as the major jobs are in the city. If like me your home village is 9 hours away from where you work and live it takes time to apply for leave and gather sufficient resources to travel for the burial. And you cannot just turn up empty handed on the weekend, you must take time off (depending on how close a relative the deceased is) to help with meals for the daily evening prayers.

I've heard that some people (possibly only men) are buried in the cattle kraal. Children/small babies are sometimes buried under the family home. One tribe very close to the city buries their dead in the corner of the compound they live in. Some aggrieved families break open the bedroom floor to bury the husband there.

I do not know who digs graves elsewhere but here the hyenas do it. No, no not real hyenas it is what the grave diggers are called - not all the time only when a man, yes only men may dig, assumes the role of digging a grave is he then called a hyena. Phiri is the word, (plurals are mainly determined by adding or changing a prefix in the setswana language so phiri (sing.) diphiri (plural) ). This digging can only be done late at night in preparation for the burial. 

"When I first came here I was a bit surprised at how unemotional Batswana are at funerals, but now I realise it is not a lack of emotion, it's just the way here. My husband hates to see people emotional at funerals, he ridcules them even and believes they make the entire thing more difficult for everyone else. Last weekend we were at a relative's funeral. The oldest son was moving around laughing and joking with people, even at the gravesite, but I know him very well and know he was very close to his mother who we were burying. Maybe it was maleness, maybe it was Setswana-ness (actually Kalanga-ness) but it was odd, and for me and even more heartbreaking." Motswana born and raised elsewhere.

Batswana are quite stoic at funerals, pragmatic even. Is there enough bread for the guests, who is keeping watch over the comfort (financial donation) book, have the children been bathed, are the funeral programs ready, have the uncles arrived etc. Also, many folks will spend the last night with the body in the house, after all you will likely bury on a Saturday morning before the mortuary is even open. A certain level of stoicism is required of one who must spend a night in the same room or house with the corpse of their beloved. The great themes are universal but we do not interpret them in the same ways, in Zambia I'm told there are mourners who weep, nay wail inconsolably, throwing themselves on the floor and rolling around. This is their way, I suspect you would be chastised here for manifesting grief in this way.

Having just said how practical we all are I asked a successful local lawyer whether Batswana have a culture of writing wills. She capitalized her adamant "no" with multiple exclamations for effect. It gets messy, you read about it all the time; uncles taking property from the children, wives loosing homes or land to in-laws, the quality of life for the bereaved family can often alter for the worst, shockingly fast, especially where the deceased is male and possibly the only breadwinner *what a strange word*.

I've been reliably informed that my last name in iKalanga (my tribal, not the national, language) means black. The proper word for the color black is tema for an object, ntema to describe a person, dema I'm told means a specific shade of black, one that is particularly opaque, dark; as one elder put it 'black that would be worn when in mourning'.

A widow wears black for up to a year: black headkerchief, dress, shoulder scarf all day, everyday. The bereaved children have their hair shaved off completely and a tiny little piece of black cloth pinned daily to their clothes.

If the couple is married traditionally there will often be a ceremony to cut the (spiritual) cord that binds the living spouse (read wife) to her deceased. She cannot (must not) engage in sexual relations with another man until this time has passed and she has been ritually cleansed.

Windows at the deceased's home were covered in (open fire) ash.

Traditional doctors were often buried in the dead of night, in the very very early hours.

We used to bury people covered in cow hide, likely from the just slaughtered cow which would be had for the post burial lunch, in place of coffins.

The capital was created in 1965/66 in time for independence, before then we did not have  a city within our borders. Long story. So the city has developed structurally on the basis of some sort of plan while culturally it is a volatile melting pot. Folks come from every nook and cranny, every town and village to make a life in the city. They bring with them the sum total of their experiences, expectations and values and norms and all this cooks under the Botswana sun to produce all sorts of individuals and sub-cultures that tend to share a few markers - little time for traditional niceties, preoccupation with money and status and employment and when this meets the fairly national cultural expectations you get some exciting happenings.

We now bury in coffins, although some folks with lots of cattle still cover the coffin with fresh cow hide.

In the city some young people have what they call an "after-tears". This is a party, often with lots of alcohol so I'm told, to send off the departed. I think the young do it only for those who die young. What is young? Perhaps you are as young as you feel and therefore act, a 50 year old who lived for clubbing will likely get a send off such as this.

I've heard of some people pouring liquor over the grave only once, which since I'm not grapevine-central, suggests that this happens. This, I think, is borrowed from certain American music videos mainly produced in the 90s.

Small groups of people dress up in short dresses and stilettos as opposed to long skirts and flat shoes to be able to run around offering assistance.

Funeral meals are sometimes catered instead of relatives and friends staying up all night to cook for hundreds of people. Although this is still considered by and large as ...ehem unusual and posh, where the young have money and "no" time, out sourcing is king.

Women spend tens of thousands on their hair in the city so I'm not sure there will be much shaving of hair allowed by my generation.

Children are now often allowed to stay in the home of the deceased - their home, before they were sent off to be with relatives until after the funeral. Now too they may see the face of the departed if the coffin is left open during the early morning 'viewing of the deceased'. I have looked upon a corpse only once and felt something not there anymore, I would not wish it upon a child but we seek closure in different ways perhaps...

What I know we won't allow for sure, for the most part, is seantlo (it translates to the thing that goes to a house) which is when a woman dies and her widower takes her sibling as a replacement wife. I think only a few tribes ever practiced this. Perhaps the idea was that an aunt would best take care of her sister's children? That the Snow-White-step-mum scenario could be avoided. I haven't a clue but if this is the song thats playing I'm afraid sir that I'm not available to dance.

A fellow writer points out to me, when she first moved here we used to cover the burial mound with stones and now we put steel frames with all sorts of ornamental designs on them. It is not required but it is often expected, Batswana respond splendidly to unspoken status challenges. "...when I first came here in 1989, the standard finishing off of a grave was to pile it with stones. And then there was the Financial Assistance Programme and everyone started welding and sewing businesses. The welders began making those little cages. They caught on and then they added little roofs with shade cloth ceilings."

Often a year after the burial, family members return to place a tombstone and flowers over the now settled grave.

Once when I was still too young to see the dead I went to my home village (I was born and raised in the capital city) to visit with family and one day I overheard the elders talking. It was as they say at the hour of the cow horn -so early one can only see the horns of the cows? your guess is as good as mine but it means a time earlier than dawn, said elders were going about the business of dressing for the funeral of a fellow village elder.
"Take your umbrella."
"Oh yes it is bound to rain, the heavens will surely send this particular elder off the proper way."
Although it was so dark all you could see were cow horns :-) above the morning mist, for the purposes of relaying this story I will say there was at this point not a cloud in the sky. It didn't rain that day, it poured.

Caveat: Of course I'm generalizing, wrapping up 2 million people's choices and decisions and conditioning and cultures into a neat little blog entry. Each tribe has variations on the theme of sending-off and each family keeps and discards what it chooses, also as a city tenderfoot I must acknowledge that there are things I simply do not know but I hope you now see a little into my worlds within the home of a country that is Botswana.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Lentswe (lints'we) is the Setswana word for voice, read differently (lints-wear) it means stone. Where was I when people were studying phonetics (though the same could be said of punctuation class)? I don't know why language works the way it does, why stone and voice might find themselves sharing space in a world of endless - are they infinite?- possible combinations of alphabets but there are men and women whose voices may as well be stones for how well they poleax with this, our first instrument. And even then, with some speakers its the very sound of their voice, with others its the pitch and inflections, accents, clarity (I'm preoccupied with hearing clearly and easily when someone speaks, if their intention is communication) and at best it is all this and more.

I went the other day to a multi-media reading and was distracted by the imagery and music of it all so I instinctively closed my eyes to listen. I also do this when people whisper/don't project adequately across a room but to leave the illusion of politeness intact I only squint and compensate by leaning in. I trust my ear to read people and situations well, of course all my other senses complement this - hair standing on back of neck, eyes seeing a micro expression beneath some thin social veneer etc Theres no magic to this, children are brilliant at it. Our ears are quite experienced if only we would listen to them - I presume they helped immeasurably when as a children most of us had to acquire languages.
They are also a great editing tool. I read everything out loud, before I abandon it to its public fate, to check for musicality and grammar and consistency of the narrator's textual voice, to see if I'm putting on airs - my accent often shifts to try and accommodate this false/other voice - and I can better manage text this way.

But having said that, I also leave the room if I have to hear my own voice on a recording. Obviously you were not meant to hear yourself outside of… yourself/realtime because its quite disconcerting for me to listen to playback of my own voice; misplaced inflections, unheard of things happening with pronunciation cue chalkboard-cringe.

Anyway I love that word lentswe and today I'm doing a quickie list of some of my favorite film voices. I'm quite fickle hearted and so this list grows and morphs with each wardrobe change.

Peter Cullen is amazing. I loved Transformers as a child and was ever so happy (story lines up for debate) when they brought him back as a voice in the movies. Optimus Prime and Iron Hide are hands down my absolute favorite voices in the series.

Sir David Attenborough's voice is inalienable from my childhood Sundays,  I loved dinosaurs and wild animals, and its as calming to me as a lullaby to hear the familiarity of his voice across time and borders. The sound of someone who loves something; sometimes people call it passion if they can also see it in your face.

James Earl Jones. I say Mufasa and raise you Darth Vader and you say what?

Lennie James, I didn't really pay attention until Colombiana and then walla!(Voila!), not unlike hearing Kevin Spacey in House of Cards … bear with me here, its a bit like listening to a (good) Bollywood OST I love that stuff partly because no one in my immediate environment has that particular musical lilt to their speech.

Tom Hiddlestone is growing on me but we'll give him a few decades to shake hands with his tribesmen - Jeremy Irons (the man who killed Mufasa) or Cumberbatch et al before we commit entirely ;-). He did do a wonderful Darwin voice over for the Galapagos documentary I caught on Danish television recently.

Denzel Washington, calmly deliberate half rasp anyone? Also that laugh.

Tom Wilkinson and Sir Anthony Hopkins are good ones for a speech and I do so want to give Sean "Jamesh" Connery a list of words beginning with S to see what happens. What will he do when faced with 'sea' and 'she'?

Paul Robeson - I'm cheating here because I've never really heard him speak at length but as a kid I watched the 1936 movie Showboat (TNT + father who is 4 decades older) and never forgot his Ol' Man River so since its-my-list-I-can-fudge-it if I want to.

Henry Cele as Shaka Zulu, mainly for sentimental reasons. I still remember that other cat trying to feed Shaka some philosophical reasoning and Shaka is on some blood! If you decide to watch the videos online do library/google the historical facts afterward just to gain some context.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


How was your meal?
Great thank you. Its not a lie, they do a mean tagliatelle with poached salmon here. Here being Cafe Central in Cologne
Good. She stops. Excuse me are you the girl on the poster?
I smile both at the use of the word girl and the idea of being recognized from a poster. I say yes and quickly turn away, not to dismiss but because I've never known how to take a compliment and sometimes you don't have to be Cal Lightman to smell kindness coming. She sneaks one in anyway and I mumble something vaguely appropriate.

Auden says in his Museum of fine arts that -

"In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

And around me the important business of speaking goes on, as it should, a falling plate finds success in time for me to respond to Ben Okri who stops by to say hi. Chirikure Chirikure is on my right discussing the just ended Zimbabwean HIFA festival for which he curates the poetry/spoken word program, South African publisher Vonani Bila expounds on the circumstance of having dreadlocks when taking your passport photo and then facing immigration officials without said dreadlocks, a moderator is chatting with Austrian based Congolese poet Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Indra Russouw is speaking on Oliver Jordan's work (she's just been to lunch near his exhibition) and I joke about how un-abstract his portrait of Pablo Picasso is… behind us still more poets and moderators arriving.

Last night having been to a screening of Peter Kruger's 'N The reason of madness' together a bunch of us sat up talking, having forgotten to eat all day I ordered lamb shank half an hour before midnight and am asked to expound on its merit we agree hunger is a better chef than judge, beds eventually necessitated by the tyranny of human design.

We shan't be getting lost at this festival one poet says, our rooms are above the bar so we'll be fine. Laughter finds us on our feet.

There is a reason to this madness (hours of flight time, loved ones left behind, upended working hours) we are of course here to share words and experiences and to meet each other miles away from the borders which name us neighbors. We do work, for example on this very afternoon Nii Ayikwei Parkes is at one of the high schools running a workshop, there'll be a few more by various poets and readings and panels each evening and at the opening tonight the poets will be accompanied by German jazz drummer Baby Sommer.

Out of the corner of my eye - German words masquerading as a street sign say one way street, a boy who is that if I'm a girl, walks towards us and behind him is the same sky I left in Copenhagen, falling upwards into its familiar blue and white.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I was in Sweden last week reading at the Teater Brunnsgatan Fyra. My second time in Stockholm, and again only for one night. I had to be back in Denmark for a reading at a festival the next day and couldn't stay to do the city justice so I basically got off the plane, bought junk food (delayed flight equals excuse to eat indiscriminately), met my ride which the Botswana Embassy in Stockholm so kindly provided, checked into the hotel, slipped out for a couple of hours to walk about, swung back for a quick shower, picked up copies of my chapbook, got on stage, and then armed with both new and old friends as well as my trusty back pack and camera found the Artist's bar and met Stockholm by night. Give or take stops during which we tried to sweet talk restaurant staff into feeding us after the kitchens closed, we walked until the wee hours of the morning. All very civilized I assure you.

Stockholm being equal parts water, parkland and urban space is about right, I think I read that on a brochure somewhere. The truth is it was time I got to know this country a little bit more than anything Roxette and Abba might have unwittingly passed on in my childhood.

A peeing booth. Men only. Right next to busy thoroughfare. 

So me and rye bread we are not friends but the Swedes had better luck than the Danes getting me to eat some

At the theatre

This I think must be what I look like at 1am at least through the eyes of the illustrator who inked this

We were not alone
Definitely a few people out on joyrides though I kept hearing country music as opposed to …something else?

Off to bed

Friday, May 9, 2014

LOCAL HISTORY OF EARTHQUAKES/EARTH TREMORS - what they don't teach you in standard 4

Facebook note import - May 9, 2014 at 10:43am

UPDATE: Magnitude 6.5, less than 2 km from Sojwe, Botswana on 3/01/17. Felt all over Botswana, SA, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

So I woke up (in Copenhagen) this morning to news that people back home had risen to rousing feelings of 'the earth moving' 'what sounded like a loud truck' 'a little something' …Batswana have quite a natural turn of phrase. It turns out people at least as far out as Mmopane and Mahalapye and definitely the capital city had felt…something move beneath their feet. So I thought I'd do a little recap of past happenings that are on record somewhere…I'm no seismologist, I'm afraid you'll have to dig around elsewhere for more meat on the bones. It sounds like it was an earth tremor, we are much more Facebook/cyber aware now and that means we communicate a bit more often, quickly and widely about happenings which is probably why this feels like a first.

The stats sourced from Map data ©2014 AfriGIS (Pty) Ltd, Google Imagery ©2014 NASA, TerraMetrics/ -I'm assuming these are on the Richter scale:

 I took this pic in Maun which keeps popping up on this list of hotspots 
5 years ago 4.0 magnitude, 10 km depth
Maun, North-West, Botswana

8 years ago 3.8 magnitude, 13 km depth
Maun, North-West, Botswana

12 years ago 4.5 magnitude, 10 km depth
Mahalapye, Central, Botswana

19 years ago 3.9 magnitude, 10 km depth Molepolole, Kweneng

21 years ago 3.8 magnitude, 33 km depth
Mahalapye, Central, Botswana

24 years ago 3.3 magnitude, 10 km depth
Ramotswa, South-East, Botswana

In Setswana an earthquake is called thoromo ya lefatshe which translates to "the shaking of the earth" - basically does what it says on the box but who the Charles! is Richter and where the pumpkin patch does he fall between a centimeter and a kilogram?

Any excuse to learn something new; BBC says 'There are thousands of earthquakes across the Earth each day. Most are too small to be detected without monitoring equipment, but some are powerful enough to destroy a city.'
Sounds like so far no damage has been reported, thank whatever gods lay claim to your soul but when is an earthquake an earthquake? Beyond the shaking of the ground I don't know but wikipedia probably does - seismological agencies haven't yet registered todays and someone posited it might be mining induced/related so…you tell me.

UPDATE: It turns out it was 3.0 on the Richter scale, there was no damage reported and as the closest mine is 250km away, it is unlikely it was fracking but some still posit that fracking might have something to do with it.