Funeral rituals of the Tswana people in South Africa
The Batswana (The People of Tswana) is one of the eleven linguistic groups in South Africa. They belong to the Sotho group of Africans who originally came from West and Central Africa and settled in South Africa ± 200–500 CE (A.D.). Opposed to them are the Nguni group – inter alia the Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi people, who migrated from the Great Lakes region of Central/South-East Africa ± 000-1400 CE (A.D.). (White Europeans settled in South Africa since 1652 (A.D.))
The pink/lilac colour (North-West) in the map below shows the region(s) where the majority of the Batswana in South Africa live. North of this colour is a country called Botswana, the motherland of another 1,7 million Batswana.
Eleven Linguistic Groups in South Africa (Census 2011)
Population statistics (Census 2014)
Africans - 43 333 700 (80,2%)
Coloured - 4 771 500 (8,8%)
Indian/Asian - 1 341 900 (2,5%)
White - 4 554 800 (8,4%)
Total population - 54 002 000
Funeral Rituals of the Tswana People
Living in the North West province of South Africa, I am especially interested in the traditions of the Batswana.
My friends who are not living in South Africa must keep in mind that the majority of Africans still live in townships - the towns that were formed during the Apartheids regime (1948-1994) for Africans, next to towns that were formed for only-whites. However, many Africans, and in the North West Province mostly Batswana, are now living in the suburbs of the previous-for-only-white towns and cities. Peacefully, I must emphasize. Until a traditional African funeral knocks all Whites in the vicinity into a state of confusion.
The cause of CONFUSION is IGNORANCE, and the behavior of a confused person is unpredictable and more often negative than positive.
Yes, it is a shame: Africans in South Africa know the ins and outs of Western traditions, while too many Westerners have no idea why and how Africans practice theirs.
This hub is about the funeral traditions of the Batswana. Except for a few minor differences, the funeral rituals of all African groups in South Africa are more or less the same.
What happens when a Motswana dies?
When a member of the Batswana (a Motswana) dies, their body goes to the funeral parlor of their choice. During my travels through Lesotho and Botswana, and through poor towns in South Africa, I have noticed that funeral parlors are the most thriving businesses. Because Africans have the highest respect for their dead, the relatives of a person who have died will leave no stone unturned to pay respect to the deceased
I have to emphasize the convictions of Africans about death with the following explanation: While Christians believe that the way to God the Creator is through Jesus Christ and/or the Virgin Mary, and while Muslims believe the true medium is Mohammed, all Africans believe that their ancestors are in direct contact with God. The Batswana’s name for God is Modimo. Even while the majority of Africans were Christianized since the arrival of Western Culture, they still believe that their deceased beloveds are where they belong – at Home with Modimo. Just like Christians believe that their deceased beloveds are in Heaven with God.
The deceased awaits their burial in the funeral parlor sometimes for almost two weeks, as relatives have to come from far and near to participate in the pre-burial proceedings. The burial is usually on a Saturday or Sunday, but when somebody dies on a Tuesday or later in the week, the first coming Saturday/Sunday will not be chosen for the burial. Pre-burial proceedings start at least five days before the burial.
What to do with all the funeral goers?
During the pre-burial proceedings, relatives gather at the home of the deceased. They eat and drink and talk (quite loudly), as always. No television or radio will be turned on, but singing is allowed. (Africans in South Africa love singing and dancing. They have, even more than the Welshmen, strong and beautiful voices and a natural talent to sing harmony.) Yes, Africans talk loud. “Where there is whispering, there is lying,” is not merely a proverb, but a rule in their culture.
They drink coffee, tea and cold drinks. Ginger tea is a favourite among the Batswana. Alcoholic drinks are not to be taken at the home of the deceased. Slipping away to have an alcoholic drink elsewhere, is a clear sign of disrespect.
Every evening a religious sermon is held by the clergyman of the deceased at the home of the deceased. On the last evening, when the deceased spends their last night in their room at home, the sermon is longer. In the past this last sermon could last the entire night.
Relatives who live in the vicinity, leave after the sermon to sleep in their own homes. For the rest a tent has to be erected. This tent could be an enormous marques tent that blocks the street in front of the house, forcing neighbors to change their route from A-Z. Even in winter, the people sleep on the ground, wrapped in their favorite blanket.
A tent has to be erected for all relatives to sleep in
The funeral goers have to eat!
All food is cooked in large cast iron pots on open fire.
During the week beef, mutton or chicken, bought at a butchery, is served with a variety of staple food -
- Mealie pap – a stiff porridge made of maize meal (grounded mealies),
- Sour porridge (Ting) - a soft porridge made with grounded sorghum and allowed to go sour,
- Samp - (pounded mealies),
- Pot-bread - bread baked inside a cast iron pot in/on a smoldering fire,
- Bread - bought at a bakery.
A vegetable stew made of cabbage, potatoes and onions is very popular among the Batswana, while the Shangaan people love to replace the cabbage with spinach. A great variety of nutritious weed can be used in the place of spinach. These kind of stews give flavor to the staple food.
Desserts, cake, or any kind of sweets are seldom if ever on the menu. Wealthy families may offer their guests fresh fruit, like bananas, apples and oranges, after the meal.
Food on the day of the burial
Friday afternoon, or Saturday afternoon - if the burial is on the Sunday - a cow is slaughtered for this special occasion. The meat is cooked in salted water in cast iron pots on open fires. No spices and herbs will be added.
The cooking of this meat has to begin at about 3:00AM, as the burial will be in the morning at about 8:00AM. Naturally nobody sleeps during the last night before the burial. (The Nguni people may start later, as their burials are normally scheduled for the afternoon.) .
Slaughtering the cow at the home of the deceased while the deceased is at home in their room, is important, as the spirit of the cow is believed to protect the family against evil spirits. The men do the slaughtering and cutting of the meat, while the women wash and cook the meat.
If the deceased is a man the cow has to be a male; if the deceased is a woman the cow has to be a female.
In the past the deceased was buried in the hide of the cow, but nowadays the hide may be used to cover the corpse inside the casket, or it may be sold.
When the funeral goers return from the grave, before any food is served, they have to wash their hands in a mixture of cold water and grated aloe.
The room of the deceased
On the first day after a person has died, all the furniture is taken out of their room. Only a mattress stays on the floor. All the clothes of the deceased are lumped together in a bed sheet and placed in the corner of the room, next to a burning candle.
The mattress is for the woman who has to keep the spirit of the deceased company. This woman is always an elderly member of the family - a sister of the deceased, or the oldest daughter - if the daughter is considered to be old enough for this important task. This woman may only leave the room to go to the toilet. Her food and water are served in the room. She choses two dresses to wear during her stay in the room. On the day of the burial she wears a black or navy dress with a matching kerchief that covers her entire head. She is the one who demonstrates the grief of the entire family.
On the day before the burial the deceased is brought home to spend their last hours in their room, inside their casket. All members of the family get the opportunity to spend some time with the deceased. The woman on the mattress remains a silent presence.
After a religious sermon in the church of the deceased, the burial takes place in the local cemetery. In the process to the grave, women cry loud and persistently. Whether the loud crying was originally meant to invite all ancestors to attend the burial, or to scare away all evil spirits, is no longer clear.
Cremation is not a likely option. If one or another reason has left the relatives with no other choice, a special cleansing ritual will have to be performed to ensure a happy and peaceful life in the world of the ancestors. In the far past, before Western laws had put and end to this, people were buried next to their homes, or, depending on their position, next to the cattle kraal of the clan.
There may be a lot of crying, singing and dancing at the grave,
After the burial most of the relatives leave. Only the core family stays at the home of the deceased until after another important ritual.
The morning after the burial, before sunrise, the hair of the spouse of the deceased is cut or only trimmed. The heads of the children are shaved. Then each member, from the oldest to the youngest, stand in line, naked, to be bathed in a basin big enough to stand in. In the basin is cold water mixed with the slaughtered cow’s gall, the contents of its intestine and the itching substance of a wild plant known as Sebabetswana. After the bath clothes have to be put on without drying the skins, and no bathing is allowed for the rest of the day.
The bathing is done by the oldest brother of the deceased. Three months later he has to return to repeat this ritual, but then the gall and intestines of a sheep or a goat will be used instead of a cow's. The meat are to be cooked and eaten as usual.
The purpose of both rituals is to keep evil spirits away from the core family while they mourn the death of the deceased.
The clothes and belongings of the deceased
The morning after the funeral, after the bathing, the clothes, blanket(s) and all the belongings of the deceased are dumped in cold water mixed with grated aloe. The wet clothes are thrown on the bare ground and all members of the core family may chose what they want.
The personal crockery of the deceased, as well as their favorite blanket, automatically go to the oldest brother of the deceased. With this he also receives money – R500, R1000, or R1500, to buy the goat/sheep for the second bathing.
Are rituals senseless?
When we learn about the rituals practiced by other cultures, we tend to classify them as ridiculous. Yet, our own rituals, whether religious, social (etiquette), or personal, seem to be just as ridiculous.
Like policies and procedures, rituals were created to satisfy our primordial human need of order, routine and discipline.
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn't have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
Funeral Service of the late Joseph Dumako
Joseph Dumako was a well-known musician and composer in South Africa. Gospel music was his favourite genre. He was involved in the forming of gospel choirs during the 1980's and 1990's. He died in July 2011.
More about Zulu traditions in South Africa by Sirius Centauri
- When Culture and Civilization Collide: South Africa’s So – called Outdated Traditions
A futuristic look at ancient advance. Journeying back to godhead even as African tradition shatters under the weight of civilization. Documenting 3 traditions that still uphold the concept of Ubuntu.
© 2015 Martie Coetser