Month: February 2016

Funeral Customs- A Cultural Comparison

We’ve never really given much thought to funeral customs. When you think about it, though, it is one ritual that even though you may not be practicing the religion you grew up with, chances are the funerals you are used to, reflect that religion. They certainly do for us- Teresa grew up Jewish and Gary, Methodist. It seems as though funerals, more than any other rite, have maintained strong elements from that faith’s history. Take the Jewish custom of burying within 24 hours then sitting shiva for 7 days (receiving visitors and saying prayers). The reason is simple. bodies deteriorate quickly in the desert and since Jews don’t believe in embalming (traditionally that is), it was important to bury the body quickly. The next week is then set aside for remembrance, prayers for whatever comes after, and support for the bereaved family.

OK- so why this topic and why now? This past weekend we had the opportunity to experience the one part of the traditional Botswana funeral that we had not experienced in our two previous funeral experiences. And, what we found most interesting are the differences from what we are both used to. Basically, the process is the exact opposite of the Jewish custom even though the environment is as hot and dry as the original Palestine.  We also learned that customs vary by tribe and therefore by region. This most recent funeral was someone from Gary’s school. The school provided a bus for about 40 of us to travel 9 hours (north of Francistown on the Zimbabwe border) each way (in 100 degrees without air conditioning we might add). We went up Saturday and home on Sunday, but more of that to come.

So, here is what we have learned is the custom:

When a person dies, the body is taken to a funeral home where it remains until the night before the burial. Burials are usually on Saturday or Sunday.  Typically, there is about a week between the death and the burial (although in 2 funerals this past weekend the person died on Monday or Tuesday and the burial was on Sunday. Yes, we had two funerals in one day but more on that later). Gary’s school head’s father died in December and in that case there were about 10 days between the death and the burial since family members were coming from very far away (the granddaughter of the deceased was in England). Why is this time important? Well, every day before the burial, there are two prayer services- one in the early morning and one in the early evening. And, anyone and everyone in the village is welcome at either, both, all, some. This means feeding everyone each time- this is often just phaphata (bread) and tea but it adds up and it is tiring for the family! Luckily the tradition of extended families helps  There are brown tents and chairs to rent (white tents for weddings). Not sure where all the plates and cups come from but rarely is plastic (or foam) used.

Then, on the night before the funeral the body of the deceased arrives during the evening service. The coffin is usually kept in the sitting room where the family stays with it. Everyone else is outside. After the prayers (it is now about 6:30) there is a break until 9 pm when the overnight vigil begins.  At the one this last weekend the family sat vigil until midnight then family and friends were expected to take over. Our group was given an unused house to rest in- women in one room, men in another. We brought our camping mats and rested (slept) from about 9 to 2. Then we both happened to wake up and went over to where the vigil was. Not sure who was inside but outside a large group of about 100 were praying and singing. As we rested, you could hear the singing throughout the night. Since we didn’t understand the prayers we only lasted about an hour. (Turns out that wasn’t totally our fault- most of the prayers were in Kalanga which is a local language. Not that Setswana would have made a huge difference but still….). We rested again until 4 then everyone was getting up to bathe and get ready for the burial. This is a good place to mention that dress for funerals is very proscribed. Women wear dresses below the knee and cover head with a kerchief and shoulders with a shawl or large scarf- no matter how hot it is! Men wear long sleeves with a vest or a coat that would cover long or short sleeves.

By 5:30 2-300 people had gathered. More prayers and a funeral service with eulogies and all. This included an interesting section where the card were read out loud from all the flowers that were to be placed on the grave (most of them were plastic). Since several of these were in English, we finally understood something- if we could hear it.  At some point the family all went in the house to view the deceased, then the open coffin was brought out and everyone filed past. We have been told that the reason for this is so that everyone knows the right person is in the coffin and that they are truly dead. Around 7 am we all loaded up in various vehicles and went to the cemetery. By now there must have been about 400 people and there was another burial going on right next to ours. We couldn’t hear or see much but there was a grave already dug (no backhoes in sight) and after more prayers in Kalanga, or so we were told, several people began filling in the grave by hand. All during this rather long process the singing continued.

Graves in Botswana usually include a canopy made of a mesh type material- like a heavy duty screen- and attached to a metal frame. There is a metal plate with the deceased’s birth, death and burial date on it. In glancing at some of the other graves, it brought home the severity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 2000’s. Many people between 20-35 so one can only assume the cause of death.

After the burial, everyone goes back to the house where the younger women have been preparing food all night over an open fire. (Teresa asked about helping but was told that older women don’t cook or serve but sometimes get to clean the pots- luckily the bus had to go before she got to enjoy that chore). So at about 8:30 in the morning you get served a meal of phaletshe (  from corn and pretty flavorless but looks like cream of rice or grits that have been sitting for a while ),or bogobe (from sorghum like cream of wheat but thicker and no salt), samp (from corn but round and semi-soft and also pretty flavorless), seswaa (national dish made of pounded beef- bones and all), and cabbage. Everything has a smoky flavor due to being cooked in iron pots over open fires. The best part is the drink that is traditionally served made of ginger, hot water, sugar and possibly lemon.

When someone dies, the service and burial are almost always in their home village. In the three we have attended thus far, one was in Gabane, one in a village about an hour from Gaborone and this last one 9 hours away. Gary talked about this in his most recent blog entry- government workers- teachers, doctors, nurses, pilots, wildlife officials- are all at the mercy of the government in terms of placement and families are quite often separated. It is not uncommon for dad to be one place, mom another and the kids with a grandparent or other relative.  Gabane is a growing bedroom community to Gabs so there are more and more people from other places who come to live in Gabane and go to school or work in Gabs since the rent is less expensive.

Our problem this weekend was that the brother of Teresa’s counterpart’s partner, died on Tuesday. Since we went to the funeral up north, we went to the Friday night prayer service for the Gabane funeral and this was considered sufficient in terms of paying respect. In December we went with a group from Gary’s school to one of the evening prayer services and then decided to go back for the burial but we had to do it by public transportation and arrived in time for the meal and missed the rest. Meal was exactly the same though. So, we thought we should take advantage of the opportunity and experience the vigil and burial (and Gary did know the deceased who by the way was only 31 with a girlfriend and two children- he died of hypertension and complications from diabetes!)

No one ever seems to mention cremation. We need to ask about that. Since many religions prohibit it, it is possible that it is not an accepted practice.  One teacher said he only knew of two places that cremated in the country so obviously is not a common occurrence.

This week we get to go to a wedding on Thursday. We’ve only been to one of those so far so will be nice to enjoy the happier occasion. We do have to say that the music at all these events is just amazing. Come visit and I am sure we can find a wedding and/or funeral for you to experience. All are open to everyone- no invitations are needed.



A Day in the Education System: Part 2

This is part two of my story about the education system, however be warned my knowledge changes daily so I may contradict myself as I learn more over the next year and a half (can’t even say two years anymore).  I am going to give you a bit more background for all of this to make better sense.  Teresa is writing about the funeral we went to which is an important segue into the point I want to make about everyone having a home village.  This is a very solid and important part of the culture here.  People are always referring to “my home village”.   Everyone has a home village and in the past, generations lived there on a single compound that usually had 2-4 houses depending on size and longevity of the family.  Most of the housing in the villages is still like this.  In the city which is pretty much Gabarone the houses are beginning to look like Phoenix, red tile roofs, stucco walls and block walls around the subdivision although in this case there are block walls around each house.  I think this is partly security and partly tradition because many of the compounds have block walls with the poorer families having simple fences but almost all compounds are fenced.  Part of the reason for this in the villages is to keep the cows, goats and donkeys out.

Since independence (1966) and an influx of money from the discovery of diamonds in 67, the government has put clinics in most villages and schools either close to or in every village,  They have also paved roads and put in a great deal of infrastructure (except our village which only has one paved road) .  Long way to go but they have done more in the last 50 years than most countries have done it 2-3 times as much time.  They have moved from a 3rd world to a 2nd world status in less than 50 years.  In the past, some people would go to work in the mines in South Africa or other places and mom and kids would stay home in the village.  Mines have become more industrialized so that is happening less.  Probably the biggest employer is the government.  They manage the clinics, schools and have other government offices all over the country.  The government assigns a teaching position according to where it is needed, if you want a job you move, sometimes to another part of the country that speaks a different language but you have now left your home village and thus begins the fracturing of the family culture that has been so solid for so many years.  There is some resentment, of course, to having to leave your family or uproot them and move them to a new village.

In the last few years the government decided that the teachers should be treated like other government employees and work 7:30-4:30 with vacation time.  Now teachers do not get time off during school breaks, a little over 3 months all together just like home.  A month in July and a little more in December then 2 weeks in April and a week at the end of September.  They are supposed to sign in and be at the school if they are not taking official leave.  They do get a fair amount, I think about 40 days. The teachers resent this and have reacted by not wanting to work extra for after school activities or on weekends.  They also (some of them) take it as a sign that it is ok if they miss classes.

There is no substitution system here so if a teacher is sick or gone to training or anything then the class often does not get a teacher.  Sometimes, and the plan is that somebody would fill in, but it doesn’t seem to happen very often.  The students are used to it and do self study.  They also have an hour of self study in the morning from 6:50-7:50 when the first period starts.  Eight periods later school is over at 1:40 and they get an hour lunch and then have self study for 2 hours until 4:40.  Then there are the extra-curricular activities such as clubs and sports.  That is the general day. However the first 3 months I was here the kids were sent home after lunch or sometimes before because of the lack of water.

In the past Gabane has had adequate water with it going off for a while on a weekly basis but more on than off.  Since last August it has been more off than on and for the most part it was on a few hours maybe a day every 8-11 days.  Since Christmas it has gone back to old schedule and it goes off for a day or so every 3-5 days so not too bad if you have any storage system at all.  They renovated the school and put in all flush toilets taking out the old pit latrines which would seem like a good idea but the school doesn’t have enough water to manage 450 kids using flush toilets so they go home in the afternoons.  (Villages that traditionally don’t have water have pit latrines so it is not as much of a problem.)

Hopefully that will stop now because I basically get to do my activities and clubs dealing with HIV in the afternoons, difficult to do with no students.  Currently the students are still going home a couple of times a week because of a lack of funds to buy lunch and they can’t stay if they are not fed.  New fiscal year starts in April so hopefully that will change as well.  My school, if I haven’t said before, is a junior secondary school Forms 1, 2 & 3. (grades 8, 9 & 10) and they did not do well in terms of passing students. They only passed 63% on to senior secondary (grades 11 &12).  In a ten school district we came in # 9 in one area and # 10 in quantity failing.  If you don’t pass you simply do not go on and you are out of school although there are some vocational programs but I am not sure just how that works yet.  So anyway there is no where to go but up. Hopefully, I can do something to help out and improve the rate of passing.

I can’t even begin to describe all of the reasons that there are for the failure rate.  Certainly the lack of teacher contact is big, missing classes and leaving the kids to self study with a teacher walking around the campus and looking in the rooms to make sure nobody is killing anybody else. However, actual studying is left to the kids choice and the teachers don’t seem to get the connection or at least don’t want to.  They say they need the time but they are only in the classrooms about half of the time during the morning academics so they have, on average, 4 hours free time every day.  There are a lot of meetings, there must be 20-30 committees to be on and it is pretty much mandatory and most people sign up for 2-3 or more committees.  Lots of paperwork and all of the kids take notes in a different notebook for each class.  Most of them don’t have text and if a class does there never seem to be enough to go around.  All of these notebooks are graded and not only for content but for proper English and grammar ( I would so fail here).

One of my big projects is to set up tutoring for the kids who are failing or close to it.  I have started with Form 2 (9th grade) and plan to have tutoring sessions for about 40 students which is not all of them but I am assuming some of them won’t come anyway.  Needless to say I will have to have some teacher volunteers to help so will let you know if that works out.  At this point I am trying to get some sort of rough assessment and then decide on how to divide them up into small groups.  This seems like a no brainer that at this age, heck at any age self study is great for the motivated and ambitious student but for those that really don’t care, have poor self esteem and don’t really see a value in an education because nobody else in the family has one, it is pretty much useless.  Very similar to back home but I think one difference is expectation.  I think we expect more, not want more, but the expectation comes across and students just do the work because it is what they do.  Not so here, education is new.  Most of the parents have been to school but few of the grandparents went very far in school.

Traditionally an agricultural society and people still miss school when it is time to plant and harvest.  Full time academic subject is agriculture. I have learned so much sitting in on these classes.  The final test where I referred to above that failed 37% is state made.  All students in the country get the same comprehensive test and I know that they had to have missed some classes because of a teacher being absent.  Of course they are supposed to make up any missed information but there isn’t enough time to cover the material you are supposed to cover anyway.  And that being said I am now one of the bad guys.  I was given 2 classes to teach in guidance and counseling.  It took two weeks to get the assignment as I got form 1 students and the first week is orientation and then they have to sign up for options and schedules are finally handed out.  They have computers but don’t use them to do scheduling yet.  I then had to go to Peace Corps training for 3 weeks, could have been 4 but I opted out of the last week to get back.  Started my class and second time it was cancelled because of school elections.  We are now half way through the term, I am on week 2 of the syllabus and I am having my second session with each of the classes this week.

They also have a 6 day week for revolving subjects so instead of my class on every Wednesday it is on day 4 which of course is different each week.  I find it very confusing and haven’t gotten a very clear explanation for doing it this way,  But “it is the way it is done”.  Besides teaching the classes and setting up the tutoring program I am also going to start groups called GrassRootsSoccer.  This is basically a high energy class using soccer strategies and ideas to talk about HIV.  I just selected my first group today and will be able to start when I get the parent letters back. It is being translated into Setswana, so as soon as that gets done I will send them out.  Tomorrow I am also substituting for another teacher because she has to go to the doctor.  I am a little worried that I am going to be inundated with requests to cover classes.  Enough, probably too much but there is more so stay tuned.

Are we having fun yet?

In response to a recent post, a friend asked if we are having FUN yet. We were going to answer then decided it might make a good blog post. Yes, it’s been a while- we’ve been at Peace Corps training for 3 weeks which we can’t really say was much fun. The AC, swimming pool and 3 buffet meals per day were all very nice- we do admit.  Actually we did the two weeks of required IST then each did another week- Gary did Grass Roots Soccer and Teresa did Gender which included three different “techniques”/programs to address gender and issues of gender based violence. We were at different hotels and due to computer complications (too much to write here) poor Gary had no computer for this week and the captions did not work on the tv- he did read about 3 books though. We also had several days of Setswana classes punctuated by another LPI (language proficiency interview). Last time Gary was sick. This time Teresa spilled water on her computer just before she went in so was a bit preoccupied. No results yet.  Definitely NOT FUN!

Teresa also ran a trivia contest during one of the evenings while at training. It was so much fun, she did it another night and has been asked to do it again at the upcoming All Volunteer Conference in April. Could be a new part time career when she gets home!

Gary’s Grass Roots Soccer was lots of FUN. This is a program that uses soccer as a medium for discussion about HIV/AIDS and Gender issues.  It was actually one of the best trainings he ever attended and has a great reputation. He will be implementing it at his school along with a Botswana counterpart starting very soon.

One of the three programs Teresa learned about is called Kings Pack and that one morning was lots of FUN too. The other 4.5 days- not so much. Kings Pack is a large backpack full of recreational equipment- parachutes, jump rope, hoola hoop, cricket bat, and lots more. The idea is that kids don’t play enough and play is good for them. Also included is the gender slant whereby many of the games can also be used as a launchpad for discussion of gender related issues. One of the biggest contributors to HIV/AIDS in Botswana is young girls having sexual relationships with older men who often have multiple concurrent partners.  The girls get “stuff” like cell phones or even more basic things like food in return for sex. Not good.  Another powerful program is In Her Shoes which follows the stories of ten women/girls who have experienced some form of gender violence. The stories are true and the exercise is like a walking Choose Your Own Adventure story. You make choices for your “person”- you walk in her shoes and experience the consequences of her various choices. Very powerful and must be used with care.  Teresa’s counterpart is a teacher at Gary’s school and we are still figuring out how we are going to implement the various programs.

So, back to FUN. We are busy planning some trips which will be FUN. The first is over Easter when we are going to the Makgadikgadi Pans- wildlife, baobab trees, birds. Second is July- so far no one says they are coming to visit so we are starting to plan for ourselves. We contacted one reasonably priced outfit and they are almost filled up for July- major tourist season and not so bloody hot. We will be going to Moremi Gorge on a 3 day two night camping trip including time on a Mokoro (traditional canoe type vessel). We also hope to go to the Tsodilo Hills where there are ancient rock paintings. Hard to get to and may involve renting a car for a day- kind of scary but we’re ready!

We now have access to Netflix and since we were at 3 weeks of training, we have lots of data to use this month so that could count as FUN- just watched the first season of Grace and Frankie. Teresa still gets great enjoyment watching the chickens, donkeys, goats and cows who are always around. We also saw The Reverent while at training in Gabs.

We are officially off lock-down so our time is more our own. We are going to visit another PCV in Kanye in a couple of weeks who is having a housewarming- she had to change sites. It will be fun to see another village. We also met an young woman from Tennessee who is teaching at a school in Gaborone and living in a dorm. She and her friends are going to come to dinner weekend after next. This is probably more socializing than we did in 6 years in Santa Cruz!

Just thought of our most FUN game. We call it whack-a-mole. It’s really whack a termite. After it rains, at dark, the termites come flying in, attracted by the light. If we don’t close all open doors and windows in time, we can literally have the floor covered with them. That’s when the FUN begins. We each take a fly swatter and see who can whack the most. This picture shows you a very small sample of what it looks like. We have the floor completely covered. Last night’s score was tied at about 16 each.


There is also our ongoing tournament for Yahtzee, Phase 10 and Pass the Pigs. We count games won as well as points and at the end of two years we will see how it turns out. So far Gary is winning Pass the Pigs, Teresa is ahead on Phase 10 and we are pretty close to tied for Yahtzee.

The bottom line is life is life and it goes on pretty much at a routine pace punctuated by moments of FUN no matter where you are. We are pretty well settled in and now that our community integration is over (never really over but the formal part is) we are working hard at getting projects started, grants written, etc- basically- work is work wherever you are but in this case we have the added element of working in a culture very different from what we are accustomed to.

Life is good- we are healthy, have our basic needs met and are definitely enjoying a simpler life with a much less intense pace (at least for Teresa) than in the past. The days fly by and before you know it we will be home working at retirement.