Mr. Eltnolep teaches integrated science and has been working at Kumakwane Secondary School for 9 years. Nine years makes Mr. Eltnolep the longest serving member of the teaching or administrative staff at our school. A decade at one site is incredibly rare since the Botswana education system requires teachers to transfer schools every 5 years or so. Some slip through the cracks like Mr. Eltnolep but most serve in 8 – 9 different schools during their teaching careers. This transfer system does wonders for making people Wholly Unattached to their school community and you can imagine the effect it has on the Often-Distant-And-Disrupted-Family-Unit. Transfers. Solitude. Loneliness. Promiscuity. HIV/AIDS. These things collide.
So Mr. Eltnolep is in my office flashing his bright white smile and convincing me to stop by the table tennis practice this afternoon. I have heard that our team placed top in the district and, yes, I’d love to see them play.
Mr. Eltnolep speaks in a booming voice that seems misplaced on his wispy frame. He is always laughing and I enjoy his easy nature. He doesn’t make me feel like a deer.
We talk about table tennis and the weather and the weekend but when I realize he’s wanting to chat for a while longer I start asking Report Questions. He doesn’t realize I’m researching and so is incredibly honest and forthcoming.
I choose the subject that no one will talk about. The subject that turned my boisterous host family into stone when I mentioned it. The subject that people avoid in churches and hospitals. The subject that knots my stomach a thousand times and yet simultaneously piques my fascination.
I ask him about Witchcraft.
Of course I don’t s a y witchcraft. I start with something simple. I start with the roots.
Mr. Eltnolep scowls a bit at the term: Ancestor Worship.
We call it African Traditional Religion.
Oh. Ok. Sorry.
I start a follow-up question but he predicts the theme and launches into an explanation without my lead…
The thing is, the missionaries brought Christ and modernity. Before that it was only African Traditional Religion. And yes, we believe in the power of our ancestors. They are the link to our gods. They speak for us. In traditional religion you can’t just go talking with the gods yourself. You must have an intermediary.
So, ancestors sound kind of like the Catholic saints.
Right, exactly. But the thing is, the missionaries taught us there was only Jesus Christ and that our traditional religious beliefs were wrong. We craved modernity and wanted to be seen as progressive so we accepted their religion. But we are still Africans. Today we’re all proclaiming Christianity but the African Traditional Religion still definitely exists.
Do you know people who still practice it?
African Traditional Religion is our roots, Bontle -- our culture. Most people practice both religions. I’d say close to 95% of Batswana who call themselves Christian also practice traditional worship. They just don’t talk about it.
I’ve started taking notes.
He laughs a little as he says this and I look up from my paper. He looks embarrassed. He laughs again. I smile and tell him he is the first person who has been willing to talk with me about this subject. His shoulders drop a bit.
I’m impatient for more. I ask him about ancestor powers, traditional medicine, witch doctors, religious customs, herbal healing, etc etc. Mr. Eltnolep speaks perfect English and describes the details well. We talk for 30 minutes and somewhere along the way he forgets his nervous laugh completely.
Until I ask about child sacrifice.
The question hangs in the air for a very long time and Mr. Eltnolep looks away from me before answering.
Well yes. He says to his feet. Yes, these things happen.
There is a heavy silence where I swallow too loudly.
It hasn’t always been this way, he continues. It’s happening more now.
You see, the western medicine came in with the missionaries too. Over time, western medicine began replacing traditional medicine altogether. Eventually things like traditional religion and traditional healers became kind of…well… taboo. Primitive. In many villages the traditional doctors began to lose the respect of their communities. And the business.
He pauses so I can catch up with my notes. I’ve stopped being furtive and he’s stopped being embarrassed. It seems that my fascination may even be encouraging him.
And so as their trade began losing popularity traditional healers went to greater lengths to convince people of their power. And to obtain power. And so they started these things which are very bad. And they do happen. Sometimes you’ll hear them in the newspaper. They do happen.
His eyes look heavy. He rubs his mustache.
I am writing furiously and with a deep scowl:
But the kgosi. Doesn’t the kgosi disapprove?
Even the kgosi believes in African Traditional Religion. Bontle, it is our custom. There are probably 9 or 10 traditional healers even in Kumakwane. Not all of them do these things. Actually very few. But it does happen.
And the kgosi says nothing?
Mr. Eltnolep thinks for a minute.
Yes, sometimes they are called by the kgosi. When there is a missing person all the traditional healers will be called to the kgotla.
We read of these things in text books and novels. We learn about them and they sit in us and stay there. We hear about them from a colleague and they become more real. Not quite real but closer to real. That thing inside of us gets heavier.
And, one day, out of no where… that Thing becomes all too real, all too fast.
We’re hiking a mountain in Thamaga and it’s 8 in the morning. The peak is made of giant round boulders stacked on top of one another like children’s toys or abstract art. Some of the boulders have made a cave and we slip into the shadows there where our echoes whisper and the light grows dim.
As my eyes adjust I see them. Candles and egg shells and pieces of bone. We touch these things and they silence our echoes. When Lee turns over the bone she finds it covered long, deep etchings. From a knife. she says.
I hold the pieces of bone for a very long time. I pray that I am wrong.