Monday, April 27, 2015

Mourning a Mosotho

As I returned from my trip to Maseru a few weeks ago, one of my favorite grandmothers and neighbor came out to greet me. She immediately told me that “Ntate Mooli, o hlokahetse.” This translates to Ntate Mooli, he is gone but still needed. It is the local way of saying someone has passed away. Even as she told me that this wonderfully welcoming old man and neighbor of mine had died in my absence, a parade of boys and men were carrying things like a radio and television out of his widow's hut to store somewhere else.

Over the past two weeks, I did not see his widow once as culture dictates the widow sit idle on the floor in the house until the burial occurs. Neighbors, friends, and other family members do everything for the widow. As a result, I saw many other women outside her hut; cooking, washing, and just visiting.

This past Thursday morning, the burial preparations began in earnest. Early in the morning, over thirty village men gathered to cut trees for all the cooking over the next few days. They rigged a tent over the unfinished house to provide shelter for people cooking as it could not be done in the hut. The women gathered to start cooking for the next few days. When the body was brought from the mortuary, its sealed casket was placed in the hut and the men headed down to dig the grave. Next they put up a tent in the family's yard for the funeral service.

Friday, preparations continued throughout the day. Before dusk, those close to the family joined them for tebelo. Tebelo is an overnight gathering that allows people to share all kinds of thoughts and memories about the deceased. It is the designated time to discuss topics like how the person died and other tough subjects that might cause tears. It goes on until dawn.

The bull was slaughtered at dawn and its meet immediately
used in cooking and feeding people. 
At dawn on Saturday, the men slaughter a cow—a bull if the deceased is male, a heifer if the deceased is female. The meat is used for the funeral meal. Depending on the clan (The Basotho are comprised of a number of clans. My village is mostly the Basia or cat clan), the cow's skin is used differently. Some clans place it over the casket before the dirt to keep their loved one warm in the afterlife. Some treat the hide then place it over the grave later in time. And others treat it then use it in other family ceremonies.

The women immediately begin cooking both a meal for folks there before the service and for the funeral meal. Someone is sent to tell the chief what time the funeral will begin. In this case, Ntate Moojane came by while I was outside with our chief trying to learn what time I should go. He said the funeral would begin at 10, leaving my only thirty minutes to bath and get ready. Thankfully, this is Africa and I did not need to rush.

The women cook the funeral meal (and many other meals)
outside on open fires in large cast iron cookware. When there
is a funeral or party, neighbors share their cookpots
I arrived a little after 10:30 and immediately knew I was too early. I was the only woman already dressed in my Seshoeshoe dress. The women insisted I sit down. They brought me papa, beef, and then motoho (sorghum porridge).

An hour later, I moved to the tent where I was adopted by the Catholic “choir,” most of whom I know from both church and the village. Thankfully, this also meant I knew more than half of the songs we ended up singing so I was not dead-weight as an honorary choir member!

The funeral began with the choir becoming a singing procession from the tent to the hut housing the casket, widow, and her closest family and friends. We followed the two priests, who entered to pray over the casket before sprinkling it with holy water. We filled the tiny hut. After the prayer, we stepped out and lined the path so the casket could be brought through then we continued singing as we followed it back to the tent.

First was the Catholic service then the more traditional accolades and speeches from friends, village officials, and family members. Songs were sung in between each speaker. After three hours, it was time for the burial. Men from the family carried the casket from the family's home to the burial plot, nearly a quarter mile away and down a rugged hillside. The entirety of those in attendance followed; over 150 people by this time.

At the gravesite, those men and boys related to the deceased first place a shovelful of dirt on the grave. The order is set as oldest family to youngest family, however, within each family the youngest goes first and the oldest goes last. After the ceremonial shovels, any and all men and boys add dirt while the women continue singing. Gradually people peel off and return to the house. As they return, each washed their hands in a basin of water. Those that are Christian wash in plain water while the rest wash in water that has chunks of aloe cut into it.

Those of us in the choir bypassed all the basins when we returned, instead walking back into the hut where the widow had resumed her seat on the floor. We prayed for her then returned to the basins to wash. After that we ate the meal, including beef from the cow slaughtered at dawn. Once done eating and visiting, we drifted back to our homes.

On Sunday, the family gathers again to put on mourning or ho roala thapo. Ho roala thapo varies by clan, but it always includes the family kneeling on an animal hide and the cutting of hair. In some clans it is only a patch of hair, in others the entire head is shaved. As with the shoveling of dirt at the gravesite, the older families go first but within each family the order is youngest to oldest.

While in mourning, family members are expected to spend a lot of time at home and to be quieter than usual. After a month or more (depending again on clan), the family regathers to remove mourning or ho rola thapo. This begins with the slaughtering of a sheep. The undigested last meal of the sheep is removed. A small portion is smeared on each article of clothing belonging to the deceased. These clothes are then given out to the family members.

For most of the family, life returns to normal after ho rola thapo. For the female next of kin—be it a widow, mother, or sister—however, the grieving continues until winter arrives. During this time, she stays home, does not raise her voice, and does little to no work depending on the availability of others to complete necessary tasks.


When winter arrives, she returns to her original place (as a married woman, she lives in the village of her husband's family). Once there, a sheep is slaughtered. The bile from the sheep is mixed with water. The woman is shaved of hair and then washed with the mixture by her mother or another elder female in order to remove the curse of death from her family. After she is washed, her family puts her in new cloths. When she returns to her village, she leaves behind the clothes she arrived in as well as all the restrictions of mourning. 

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn