As the battle for the burial of Pitseng Gaoberekwe, an old man from Metsiamanong in the CKGR, drags on to its fourth month, the family’s distress continues. Through their endless grief, the Gaoberekwes are especially worried now about the wrath of the gods on them and their land, for failing to return their son to his homeland in time, writes Mmegi Staffer THALEFANG CHARLES
A man, seated at the back, arms folded and a distant look cuts a lonely figure inside the small courtroom. His name is Smith Moeti, the nephew of the deceased and family spokesperson who has travelled over 1,000km from Metsiamanong in the heart of the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) to Gaborone to hear the matter. Moeti is hoping for the court to end the four-month nightmare of the unending mourning for his departed uncle.
He is the only family member of the deceased present inside the courtroom. Other people in court, some of whom have never been to Metsiamanong, are lawyers in black robes, Attorney General’s Chambers staff, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) director, Kabelo Senyatso in a silver suit, and a couple of journalists. But nothing is going on. It is a continuation of the waiting game.
Moeti is waiting for the family lawyer Nelson Ramaotwana who is reportedly late because he had another case to attend to. And when Ramaotwana finally arrives, the lawyers from both sides move to the chambers. Government is not taking the matter lightly as it has roped in experienced advocate Sidney Pilane to stop the family’s application.
After a few minutes, lawyers emerge from the Chambers with a message that the matter is postponed to the afternoon because there is no court reporter available. Moeti’s face looks, yet again, disappointed, a feeling he has become accustomed to over the past four months.
“The deceased warned us about this before he died,” Moeti says, as he narrates how the nightmare began.
“When the deceased was sick, he was against being taken to Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone, where he died. He foretold us that if he was to die in Gaborone, it would be difficult to return his body to his preferred burial home at Metsiamanong,” explains Moeti.
Hoping for the best, Moeti says the family proceeded to have the old man sent for better healthcare in Gaborone but he sadly died in December. He was 75-years-old. After the passing of Gaoberekwe, the children requested the Gantsi District Council to transport the remains of their departed father to his preferred burial place. And that is when the dispute began because initially, the council refused the family’s request saying he should be buried at New Xade.
The deceased was a beneficiary of the Destitute Programme and the council had built him a house in New Xade. Government is using this as one of the arguments to bury Gaoberekwe at New Xade. The state also argues that the deceased is not on the list of 189 permitted CKGR residents as per an older High Court order nor is he on the CKGR relocation list.
Even after the council eventually acceded to the family’s request to avoid more mortuary costs and follow COVID-19 protocols since the corpse was a positive case, the DWNP stepped in and rejected their application for a permit to enter the park with a dead man. The Department’s position is that nobody is entitled to be buried inside the CKGR.
“The deceased had no title to any portion of the CKGR during his lifetime and is now a corpse without any rights nor entitlements, nor is a corpse capable of possessing land or anything else,” reads an affidavit by DWNP director Senyatso.
And that is how Moeti finds himself alone and saddened inside the Gaborone High Court.
“In our culture, it is sacrilegious to contravene the covenant we had with the departed about their burial. It is a traditional rite,” says Moeti. “We must at all cost follow the dead’s words because the moment they pass they become our ancestors. “The departed are our link to the greater god. So, we have no option but to follow their last words as instructions. Their words are gospel to us. “Right now, nature is not happy that our old man is not home yet. It has been waiting for him. Other ancestors are waiting for him. “This situation might get us sick or hurt us. Our land could be cursed too because the gods would be so angry at us.”
Some of Moeti's fears emanate from a tragedy that befell one of his homeboys who buried his mother against her will at New Xade. He says after the funeral the young man lived hardly three months before he mysteriously died in what is believed to be a punishment by the gods. The family at New Xade and Metsiamanong do not want that to happen to them.
Moeti explains that under their culture a deceased person is normally kept for one night just to make sure that he or she is indeed dead, before the burial. It is unprecedented for Basarwa to keep their dead for months without burial. Since they do not have mortuaries and live far away from the developed world, Moeti says they normally wet the soil with their precious water and then put the corpse in the ground overnight. The following day the departed is buried.
“We are just hopeful that the gods will have mercy on us because it is someone’s else doing. It is not us refusing to bring their child home,” says Moeti.
He says the whole ordeal has been draining so much to the family. The wife to the deceased is out at New Xade still waiting for closure. Moeti feels the people in government are undermining them and their culture just because they are Basarwa.
“There is this contemptuous talk of saying ‘ele gore Mosarwanyana yoo o ithaya a re ke mang?’ (who does this Mosarwa think he is?) that is used against us. “They look lowly at us as if we are not humans like them,” claims Moeti.
As men in black robes return to court in the afternoon, Moeti once again sits alone at the back of the courtroom with distant hope in his eyes. The lawyers once again disappear to the Chambers and minutes later they just pack up to leave.
Ramaotwana moves toward Moeti to update him about what is happening. And that is when Moeti finds out that once again, the wheels of justice are still grinding slowly as the matter is postponed for another nine days because there is no court reporter on duty.
The family's endless grief continues.