I went to a funeral this morning. It was for a 15 year old boy named Bofelo. He had attended Mochudi Teen Club in 2010, but hadn’t been coming recently. I’ve been working with Teen Club since June of 2011 and never met him, but went to represent Stepping Stones International and Mochudi Teen Club.
At 7:25 am, my co-worker Thato, and the SSI driver, Kgori, picked me up in the Stepping Stones combi. I knew Botswana culture would have me wear a long skirt, a top that covered my shoulders, and a shawl to wrap around me. I used the long winter scarf a friend gave me, that can also function as a wrap. The morning was sunny, but cool and breezy.
We drove to the home of the boy, where there was a large gathering of youth and adults. In Botswana, the body of the deceased is kept in the coffin in the home overnight before the funeral, and the families pray and hold a vigil. The casket was placed in the funeral car, and we followed a caravan of cars and trucks to the cemetery. Kgori stopped and we filled our combi with anyone needing a ride. The beds of the pick up trucks in front of us were crammed with as many people as they could hold, probably 15 or 20 each. Many people walked the long road up the hill to the graveyard. There must have been 200 people there.
When we arrived, everyone gathered around the grave site, and the casket was placed over the hole in the ground, just like we do in US. Two older women dressed in dark burgundy choir robes led some prayers and singing. The first song was to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but even with my limited Setswana I don’t think the lyrics were the same. before the coffin was lowered into the grave, a colorful bed blanket was placed on top of the coffin, to make the deceased feel comforted Thato told me. Several of the teenagers in the crowd wailed in sobs as the casket was lowered. Women dabbed tears from their eyes. Bofelo’s little brother, a boy of about 10 years, looked on with wide eyes and an expression of disbelief, as his grandmother pulled him close in to her. All of the youth were then escorted away from the graveside area to wait near the cars and trucks. Next, one of the grave workers scooped up loose dirt in a shovel and motioned for family and close friends to come and throw a handful on the grave. Thato told me this is done to allow them to tell the deceased that he is loved and will be missed. Then all the men attendees helped with shovelling dirt to fill the hole. The men also went out in to the bush and brought back large rocks, which were first placed on the perimeter of the grave, then the rectangle was filled in with rocks, which were eventually piled high over the grave. There was more singing of hymns in Setswana as this took place. An old gentleman in ragged clothes was dancing near the graveside as this occurred. I don’t think he was part of the ceremony, just dancing as he felt led to do. After a final prayer by the church women, the group dispersed.
We went back to the home of the boy, where Kgori told me the family would announce to the crowd the cause of Bofelo’s death. The women went to one area of the yard, and the men in another, and we were asked to sit down. Some had chairs, some sat on the ground. They said he had been sick a long time. At the end, he had sores in his mouth and throat that eventually caused his death. Thato, Khoury & I left after this to head on to Stepping Stones to start the work day, a little after 9am. However, the rest of the crowd stayed for food and fellowship at the family’s home.
Bofelo died of HIV/AIDS. He was born with it in 1996. His mother died years ago, also from HIV/AIDS. She passed it on to him, because anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), that prevent transmission from mother to child, did not become widely available until 2001 in Botswana. There is a whole generation of children like Bofelo, who were born with HIV. Most have lost one or both of their parents to this evil virus. They are lucky enough to have access to ARVs now. Previously, most children born with HIV didn’t live past the age of five.
But living with HIV is a challenge. Once a person starts ARVs, taking them correctly on a twice daily basis is a lifetime commitment. The drugs save your life, but may bring side effects like headaches, diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, depression, and changes in body fat distribution. If you don’t take them faithfully every day, the virus can mutate and become resistant to the drugs. Your immune system can become vulnerable again, you can pick up an opportunistic infection, and end up in a life threatening situation. Quite a heavy burden for anyone. Give that burden to a child, wow. Give it to a teenager…..
Add on top, the stigma associated with HIV. Even though, most everyone in Botswana is affected by HIV in some way, it is not openly discussed in a personal way. Everyone knows it exists, can spout facts about it, be employed in jobs that are a result of it, but few people openly admit they live with it. Sometimes two people in the same family have it, take ARVs for it, and neither one openly acknowledges it to the other. If a teenager is one of the ones caught in that scenario, the feelings of isolation can be overwhelming.
Bofelo died of HIV/AIDS. His family reported he died of sores in his mouth. There is lots of work yet to be done in Botswana.