Tuesday, January 20, 2015


taboo |təˈbo͞o, ta-|
noun ( pl. taboos )
a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
• a practice that is prohibited or restricted in this way: speaking about sex is a taboo in his country.
prohibited or restricted by social custom: sex was a taboo subject.
• designated as sacred and prohibited: the burial ground was seen as a taboo place.
verb ( taboos, tabooing, tabooed |-ˈbo͞od| ) [ with obj. ]
place under such prohibition: traditional societies taboo female handling of food during this period.
ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from Tongan tabu ‘set apart, forbidden’; introduced into English by Captain Cook.

superstition |ˌso͞opərˈstiSHən|
excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings: he dismissed the ghost stories as mere superstition.
• a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief: she touched her locket for luck, a superstition she had had since childhood.
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin superstitio(n-), from super- ‘over’ + stare ‘to stand’ (perhaps from the notion of “standing over” something in awe).

As a child I was fascinated by Setswana taboos, it seemed to me you couldn’t crawl without some adult saying ‘Hei! You can’t do that’. Inevitably you’d ask, chubby cheeked and unaware that for that generation the question ‘ka go reng?’  ie why? did not translate as curiousity but insolence. A wooden spoon would land on your head (though fortunately not in my house, my parents had a no physical discipline policy) or a frown followed by ‘because I said so’ would be a kindness. At some point they would begin, not to explain but, to say the magic phrase ‘ka gore ke moila’ ie ‘because it is taboo’.

A lot of these taboos mainly told women and girls what not to do. They were rather gender specific.

Here is a list of taboos one had to navigate through. I will not provide explanations or supposed consequences to the actions because in asking why of my nannies, they one by one said – you guessed it – because it is taboo. Which isn’t of course an answer. I know what a few supposedly lead to but the rest you can find out for yourself.

One school of thought is that it doesn’t really matter what the consequence supposedly was but rather that fear be instilled in the curious child for their own safety.

For example

A girl cannot take a bath at night.

Say what! Perhaps because bathrooms where you are from have within your lifetime, maybe always, been attached to the rest of the house this is a non-starter for you. Stop frowning and imagine that there is a large compound, easily accessible by anyone wandering by. In it there are various free standing mud huts at a distance from each other. You cook in one, sleep in one and take a bath in or behind another one. It is dark, your daughter is off by herself at a distance taking a bath - one assumes naked, you are sitting in another hut near an open fire talking loudly, she is not of age or actually if she is still in your house even if she is of age is likely not married, there are boys wandering around the village. Your response may still be ‘what! I can take a bath whenever I want!’ It is possible that for a whole generation of mothers and fathers their variation on curfew and child security was ‘taking baths at night is taboo’.

This doesn’t explain away any/all of them but the thinking is that they were used as a way to enforce caution or good manners or prevent some societally undesirable consequence such as teenage/unwed pregnancy. Or given the context of when these were adhered to and the prevailing gender based power imbalances and practicality of that era - you can’t very well make dinner late if you ‘have’ to be home before the sun sets.

Let us begin with a few examples

You cannot walk backwards.

Pregnant women should not eat eggs.

A widow cannot enter a cattle pen/kraal.

You cannot sweep at night.

Never place a pot at the centre of a house/room.

You cannot bury the deceased with his head facing east.

A girl cannot eat food directly from a pot (or she wont get married, I remember this one ).

You cannot stand at (within the doorframe of) a door at night.

Unmarried or divorced women cannot give advice (as is traditionally part of the wedding ritual) to a soon to be wed woman… oh oh I might be in trouble here.

Men are not to wear hats indoors.

Salt and water cannot be brought into the house at night.

Women cannot sit on a dikgole* chair.  (*a traditional chair made of wood and coarse rope).

You cannot wear only one shoe.

No whistling indoors.

Once the umbilical cord stump has fallen off, baby’s first hair should be completely shaved off.

A woman who has had a miscarriage (the taboo includes but does not name abortions, which are by the by illegal in Botswana) should keep to herself/home and stay away from young children

Women cannot enter the tribal administration centre (kgotla) wearing pants.

A woman should not leap over an open fire.

For my own reasons I’m happy to stick to some of these. For one, I can safely say never once have I felt the compulsion to walk about with one stiletto or leap over an open fire, so we are good on a few of these. But it is of course my choice, I do not live in a time when I would have felt (entirely) bound by these ‘rules’.

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