In 1998 I witnessed the dramatic effects of a domestic dispute. I was present during parts of a funeral process in which a husband, his wife and his lover were central participants. The man was dead and as a significant part of the funeral process the closest family underwent certain purification rituals (cf. Schapera 1994:163ff.). What was special with the performance of this specific purification ritual was that in addition to the participation of the wife and their two children, his lover too, together with her two children participated in the ritual. Basically the ritual involves different steps that are meant to lead the participants out of the impure (hot) state that results from the death of a person that one is closely linked to. Traditionally, the rules for who should take part in the purification ritual were fairly straight-forward; it was those who had a socially accepted sexual relationship with the deceased as well as the offspring (Schapera 1966:310ff.). However, as informal, but not necessarily secret, sexual liaisons have become increasingly common those responsible for such rituals have a more difficult time deciding who shall take part in the purification ritual. Most love relationships involving married men and/or women are covert liaisons and although few of them are actually secret it is important to be discreet (an ideal that is highly valued among most Batswana). Thus, in situations involving infidelity and deaths—of which there are many—those taking care of the ritual and practical sides of the deaths face a dilemma between living up to the ideal of discretion and following the rules of involving those sexually involved with the deceased. My impression is that discretion usually wins over ideas about blood and sex—that is as long as the lover relationship has been discreet.
Thus, the reason why the lover and the children she had with the deceased man were involved was that he had been indiscreet about the relationship to the point that he had actually told his wife that he intended to take the lover as his second wife. Although groups in Botswana traditionally have valued polygyny, it is today extremely rare for a man to marry more than one woman, and this therefore provoked and distressed the wife. She therefore went to a traditional doctor—a ngaka—and asked him if he could help her. He said that he could give her some ‘magical’ herbs that, if she put them in her husband’s tea, would cause him to lose all interest in his lover. So she did, but the effect was devastating—he died. After a while another traditional doctor established the cause of death. It is not uncommon that witchcraft (boloi)—which this was a clear case of in the eyes of villagers—leads to revenging witchcraft. This did not happen in this case and it seems that the reason for this was that people found that her actions were reasonable and that it had to be treated as an accident. Thus, the family group decided to leave the issue of witchcraft aside and go on with the required purification rituals. In addition (and more untypically), they decided that since the lover was a
Understanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality
significant part of the incident and openly included by the deceased, she and her children should also take part in the rituals.