Omuketsile and her best friend sit in my living room sipping coffee and looking at magazines. I’ve asked them to come so I can see how Omuketsile is doing after her mum’s death. We all know this but the girls giggle and chit chat for a full hour before they get quiet. I think we’re all nervous.
Omuketsile is fine.
Her family is fine.
Yes, she’s been sleeping.
Yes, her grandmother is taking care of them.
Yes, her brother and sister are at home.
The brother is working.
Grandma is not.
The sister is on maternity leave.
The brother is a delivery man in Gabs.
Yes, she worries a little about the money and food.
Yes, she’d like me to help her register as an orphan at the kgotla.
Omuketsile, like most children in Botswana, does not have a father. Men in Botswana die young from AIDS or get transferred away from their partners to teach in rural villages or work in the country’s diamond and coal mines. Thousands of Motswana men also work in South Africa’s gold mines where their salary is paid in the “strong rand” —just enough for trip a home once each month. or season.
Some men opt to live what I’ve come to understand as the Mostwana Dream: an agricultural life. Men who work as farmers remain close to their partners but most do not make enough money to pay their bride’s lebola (dowry). Traditionally, Motswana fathers demand their daughter’s lebola at than 10 cows. Nowadays, men who opt to pay lebola in cash can be asked to shell out as much as 20,000 Pula (over $3,000).
If a man does managed to get over the dowry hurdle the couple then must pay for a wedding and a feast large enough to feed their entire village. If the couple happens to be from different villages, they must host two separate wedding celebrations. Both celebrations are judged by the variety, quantity and quality of meat offered. The bride changes into a minimum of three elaborate gown in the course of her wedding day.
Marriages still take place in Botswana but are rivaled by the growing popularity of co-habitation. In the 2003 WHO report on domestic violence, Botswana was the only country where statistics were listed not only for married and single women, but also for co-habitating women. To have missed this group would have greatly under-represented the nation’s female population.
Cohabitation offers a neat alternative for the enormous expense of marriage but rarely results in long term, monogamous relationships. Most couples separate after a short time due to work transfers or infidelity.
In Botswana’s social circles men praise one another for sleeping around while women pile into the churches waiting for a “good man” to come along and love them like they deserve. Every day I get petitioned by women begging me to find them an “American-Man-Who-Knows-How-To-Treat-Women” and we shake our heads together and laugh at How Men Are and pretend this is all a trivial matter and not the crumbling foundation of their nation’s families, economy and healthy.
In PCV circles we blame patriarchy and economics and dowry and ceremony and promiscuity and government and AIDS and sex. We wrap it up in theories and rue the administration and rally for change. And we pity little girls who don’t know enough to feel sorry for themselves.
Next week the government will begin delivering Omuketsile a monthly food basket and paying for her school fees and uniform.
Next week the government will also transfer hundreds of workers away from their families.
One step forward, two steps back.