Death in a Church of Life: Moral Passion during Botswana's Time of AIDS

Death in a Church of Life: Moral Passion during Botswana's Time of AIDS

by Frederick Klaits

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520945845
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/08/2010
Series: Anthropology of Christianity , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Frederick Klaits, a cultural anthropologist, teaches in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.

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Death in a Church of Life

Moral Passion During Botswana's Time of Aids

By Frederick Klaits


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94584-5


Whose Child?

IN JUNE 1995, I was chatting with a senior woman member of the Baitshepi Church about the ubiquitous public health messages on billboards and the radio warning people about the spread of AIDS. At the time, a common slogan was "AIDS—It is Your Problem Too—Use a Condom." During the period 1997–2000, such messages stressed sexual abstinence and monogamy as well: "Avoiding AIDS is as Easy as Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomise." By 2005, prevention slogans had disappeared from most billboards, replaced by exhortations to "Know Your Status." The church member said to me in 1995, "I don't understand why so much fuss is being made about AIDS. There are many sexually transmitted diseases [malwetsi a dikobo, literally, illnesses of the blankets], like syphilis and gonorrhea, but you don't hear much about them."

I said that this was probably because syphilis and gonorrhea could be treated effectively, but AIDS was fatal. She replied simply, "Oh, I didn't realize that."

As I became better acquainted with the range of issues involved in talk and silence about HIV/AIDS, I began to suspect that my friend had understood quite well from public health messages that AIDS was an almost inevitably fatal disease, as it remained for the vast majority of Botswana's citizens until 2002, when the government began to make antiretroviral medications (ARVs) available free of charge to adults on a national basis. She had, however, not wanted to speak about it as such.

In popular media reports about AIDS in Africa, it is commonly pointed out that the disease continues to be highly stigmatized. In Botswana during the late 1990s, there was widespread reluctance to be tested for HIV, although many thousands of people went to clinics every year to be treated for other sexually transmitted diseases. Yet people rarely attributed a particular illness to HIV or AIDS in casual conversation during the period 1993–2000, a situation that (as I discuss in chapter 5) had changed in significant respects by 2005. Reflecting on this state of affairs became, for me, a point of departure for a broader inquiry into local understandings of how feelings and acts of love influence the sentiments and physical well-being of other people.

This chapter discusses how Batswana imagine, reevaluate, and try to shape one another's sentiments in the context of illness and death, and explores how such processes have affected talk about AIDS. For Batswana, the question of what to say and what not to say about sickness is in many respects an issue of sentiment. Expressing care and love for the ill helps to alleviate suffering, while scorn and jealousy (lefufa) worsen it. The spoken word is one of the most important of the many forms through which these sentiments affect the well-being of others. For instance, praying aloud for the sick is an act of love with a capacity to heal, and to stimulate love in turn on the part of hearers. By contrast, if you hear jealous words spoken against you, you may fall ill, and if you are already sick, you may "give up" (go itlhoboga) and die. Saying openly that a person's illness is incurable, and that death is imminent, is a very hurtful act. In discussing the nature and causes of illness, people must consider the potential impact of speech and hearing upon others' well-being, and upon the qualities of their relationships with them over the long term.

More publicly perhaps than any other occasion, death forces people to evaluate relations of care, love, scorn, and jealousy. At funerals, the multiple commitments of the deceased to others—kin, church and burial society members, work colleagues, the broader community—are publicly recognized in a variety of ways, even as burial in a particular place defines the permanent "home" (legae) of the dead with specific people. There is an imperative to attend funerals in order to "show love" (go bontsha lerato) by participating in the work of death. At the same time, death provokes painful sentiments of sorrow, fear, and blame. On many occasions, the very nature of the sentiments expressed is a matter of controversy. In the instance I describe in this chapter, one group of participants celebrated the Christian faith of the deceased even as another articulated loss and blame.

In expressing such sentiments, those who take part in funerals reflect on the issue of who has loved and cared for whom, and who is thus to be considered a parent, child, or other kin, in relation to whom. Because death tends to call into question the nature of kinship and many other ties, participants at funerals must consider carefully what they do and say—about, among other things, the nature of fatal illness—so as to manage the social consequences of their sentiments and to guard against or otherwise come to terms with the possibility that relations will be permanently upset. Particularly disruptive are hints that a person's death has been caused either by "promiscuous" sexuality (boaka) or witchcraft. Such talk may put survivors at odds with one another for years, making them feel that another person's ill will or irresponsibility is the cause of their bereavement. On the other hand, the communal involvement demanded by funerals may induce even those who suspect one another of culpability to manage their differences in order to participate in the endeavor of showing love.

Such imperatives to manage one's own and other people's sentiments in the context of death crucially shape popular talk and silence about AIDS. The manner in which MmaMaipelo spoke about AIDS at funerals, as well as to members of her church in less public situations, reflected the capacity of severe illness and death to concentrate people's attention on how others feel toward them, on how they may wish them to feel, and on the methods they should use to influence their sentiments. MmaMaipelo's method of fostering love in the time of AIDS rested on a determined agnosticism about the role of human agency in causing sickness—though not about its role in alleviating or worsening suffering through nursing care—derived from the conviction that accusations of promiscuity or witchcraft give rise to jealousy. Death, she insisted, is entirely in God's hands, not in the hands of witches. In putting faith in God, people should adopt specific methods for "giving up" (go itlhoboga) before and after a death, as well as for "thinking about" or "remembering" (go gopola) their own and others' past sentiments and actions. These methods center on putting love into words in a manner that leads people to reimagine their kinship and other relations to one another in particular ways. This chapter locates MmaMaipelo's stance within broader personalizing discourses of care in Botswana, showing that within particular situations—church contexts, medical settings, and funerals—people have considered how to speak about sickness by imagining how talk about sexually transmitted and fatal illness would affect relations of care. This is illustrated by the death in 1997 of a young woman member of the Baitshepi Church named Tebogo.


"Poverty in the midst of plenty" is Ørnulf Gulbrandsen's (1994) apt description of Botswana's contemporary situation. Since independence in 1966, Botswana has experienced tremendous economic growth, driven for the most part by diamond mining, upon which government revenues are heavily dependent. In addition, Botswana exports large quantities of beef to the Europe an Union. Unlike those of many African countries, Botswana's government has not squandered its wealth in widespread corruption and violent contests for power (see Samatar's account [1999] celebrating this accomplishment). The government, a liberal democracy, has not been forced to take out substantial international loans under structural adjustment. Since independence, a single political party (the Botswana Democratic Party) has ruled the country, but opposition parties hold many seats in Parliament.

Economic growth in Botswana has created an educated middle class, something that was virtually non ex is tent thirty years ago, but at the same time, it has led to consolidation of agricultural resources and deepening inequalities (K. Good 1999). For example, Jacqueline Solway (1998) shows how the commercialization of cattle production in the western Kweneng district since the 1970s has brought about a decline in the mafisa cattle-loaning system, whereby laborers would acquire means to build up herds of their own. To an increasing extent, wealthy herders frame the terms of rights to grazing land, as well as rights to water cattle at boreholes (Peters 1994), albeit in ways that sometimes extend communal access to land and water (Gulbrandsen 1990; R. Werbner 1993). Formal education has become an avenue to upward mobility for many citizens of Botswana in recent de cades, but in numerous instances, it has also had the effect of making experiences of inequality more cutting. Unless children are sent to expensive private English- medium primary schools, they are taught mainly in Setswana, the majority language, until standard 4, when teaching shifts entirely into En glish. Students often have difficulty with this transition (Botswana Government 1993:112) and fail their secondary school examinations. Many of my friends in Old Naledi express deep personal shame over having failed, and thus having had to enter the labor force at a disadvantage.

For Batswana, efforts to make ends meet have long hinged on migration. Most of the country's population is concentrated in the eastern portion, which receives more rain than the Kalahari Desert to the west (see map 1). During precolonial times, people depended on a combination of rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism, and cattle were the primary form of wealth. An idealized settlement pattern among Batswana has involved moving seasonally between centralized villages (metse); settlements at fields (masimo) where sorghum, maize, and other crops are cultivated; and cattle posts (meraka) where herders stay. A number of villages, such as Molepolole, Mochudi, and Kanye, now have populations in the tens of thousands. During precolonial times, such villages were the capitals of polities (merafe) ruled by kings (dikgosi), who were subsequently incorporated as "chiefs" of their respective "tribes" under the British policy of indirect rule. In in de pen dent Botswana, the largest villages are the capitals of their respective districts, where the dikgosi continue to hold great authority. The fields and cattle posts tend to be far away from the villages and cities, so that people spend hours travelling by bus, donkey cart, and foot between them. This idealized settlement pattern has provided rationales for land use and reform policies (see R. Werbner 1993) that in the context of a diversity of local arrangements have been imposed coercively at times, especially upon historically subjugated San minority groups (Hitchcock 2006).

Immense transformations arose from the heavy engagement of Batswana in labor migration, which intensified dramatically in the early twentieth century, when South African mines and other industries began recruiting workers from throughout the subcontinent. Employment for cash wages was scarce in Botswana, known in the colonial era as the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Thus in the early 1940s, as many as 40 percent of young men were absent from some parts of the Protectorate at any given time, working in South Africa or in the British military (Schapera 1947:195). The majority of migrants were men, although substantial numbers of women became paid domestic workers. In some areas of the Protectorate, dikgosi tried to prevent women from leaving, forcing them to take over agrarian production and restricting their access to cash.

Further transformations occurred immediately before independence in the 1960s, when urban areas began to expand within Botswana, and in the late 1970s, when the apartheid authorities in South Africa curtailed labor migration from Botswana. Nowadays, most wage work is to be found in Botswana's cities. Yet given the shortage of urban housing and the uncertainties of employment, those living in urban areas continue to feel the importance of maintaining a rural base, in particular by building houses for their parents.

In many parts of Africa, a range of transformations in agrarian produc tion—cash-cropping, wage work, land dispossession, concentration of assets—has made it both more difficult and more essential for people to rely on the labor and support of kin (Berry 1993). In Botswana, migration for wage work has had a broad impact on relations of marriage, parenthood, and siblinghood. Whereas in precolonial times, sons were dependent on fathers for productive assets, especially cattle for bridewealth (bogadi), labor migration quickly gave rise to dependence on cash, to which young men had the most immediate access. Gulbrandsen's research (1994) in the southeastern Ngwaketse region of Botswana shows that labor migration makes agrarian production viable, since remittances are used to purchase cattle and hire labor, and yet constrains accumulation, because family labor is often scarce during peak times of the agricultural cycle. Small-scale farming and herding thus depend on cash from wage labor, to which young men have privileged access. While women have long earned cash from informal enterprises such as beer brewing and trading, and currently participate in wage labor to a far greater extent than in the past, the earnings of women outside the salaried class tend to be lower and less predictable than men's. In 1993–94, 62.4 percent of men in urban areas aged fifteen to sixty-four, but only 39.2 percent of women, were wage earners (Botswana Government 1995:35).

For these reasons, as Anne Griffiths notes (1997:223), ties of support among women tend to be "most effective when incorporated within a network that also operates in association with men," who retain greater access to cash, land, and cattle. Even so, many women forgo official marriage, managing their house holds in relative poverty or prosperity with the help of unmarried brothers, sisters, and daughters and sons. Women expect to marry only after they give birth to their first child, if at all. It is almost unheard of for a marriage to be celebrated in the absence of children. Out of ninety- six children under the age of fifteen whom I surveyed in Old Naledi in 1998, only ten had parents who were officially married at the time of their births, and none of these ten was an eldest sibling.

In this book, I use the term "spouses" to refer to the partners in any recognized relationship, whether or not marriage has officially taken place. This usage reflects local practice. The terms for husband (monna) and wife (mosadi) are ambiguous, because they also mean "man" and "woman" and are often used in reference to unmarried partners. Marriage is conceived of as a process, starting as sexual relations between lovers (dinyatsi). Men must care for their lovers by giving them money and gifts, or the relationship will come to an early end. If men maintain and increase such care after the birth of a child, the relationship may eventually culminate in marriage. By giving bridewealth in the form of cattle or cash to his wife's parents upon marriage, a man is legally recognized as the father of the woman's children, and in most cases also becomes the legal own er of his wife's property (Molokomme 1987). Bridewealth payments are often understood as a form of thanks by a husband to his in-laws for caring for his wife during her childhood (Schapera 1938:138).

During the colonial period, the extended absence of men on labor contracts led to a dramatic lengthening of the marriage process (Comaroff and Roberts 1977). Men would retire from labor migration only around the age of forty, at which point they would complete exchanges of bridewealth and set up their own house holds in rural communities. The fact that men channel much of their earnings from wage work to the support of their parents and unmarried sisters continues to discourage most men from marrying before they are forty, and many women from marrying at all (Gulbrandsen 1986). Thus, gender inequality in access to resources accounts in large part for men's and women's interests in delaying marriage.

In explaining women's reluctance to marry, a number of scholars (Schapera 1941; Gulbrandsen 1994; Helle-Valle 1999) have indicated the frustration and jealousy experienced by many married women, who are unable to take lovers because they tend to be under their in-laws' surveillance, even as their husbands are free to sleep around, devoting substantial resources to their own lovers. By contrast, unmarried women are often able to provide for themselves and their children by keeping or rejecting lovers as they choose (see Guyer 1994). As I discuss in chapter 3, "protecting oneself" by sleeping with multiple partners may be a way of compensating for the emotional shortcomings of recognized relationships. Given the frustrations associated with marriage, women rely heavily on their children's care. Women unable to bear children are both pitied and held in contempt (Upton 1999). In many cases, the sisters of infertile women "give" them children (go fa bana) to raise, so that in later years they will have children to look after them.


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Table of Contents


NOTES, 305,
INDEX, 343,

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