Academic journal article Africa

The Widow in Blue: Blood and the Morality of Remembering in Botswana's Time of AIDS

Academic journal article Africa

The Widow in Blue: Blood and the Morality of Remembering in Botswana's Time of AIDS

Article excerpt


Popular talk and silence about AIDS in Botswana have been shaped by survivors' efforts to manage the ways in which they remember relationships arising from procreation. The emotional force of death induces the immediately bereaved and wider communities of survivors to recollect who has shared blood with whom through sexual intercourse. Such acts of remembering may have decisive repercussions on relations of kinship, marriage and mutual support. For Batswana, 'remembering' is a form of acting as well as feeling, possessing a capacity to shape moral conduct for the long term. In the context of death, local debates about what and how to remember reflect contested endeavours to make relations based on blood persist beyond a person's passing. Focusing on a particular set of local perspectives on the morality of remembering, the article shows that members of an Apostolic church in Gaborone encourage one another to remember in a manner reflecting distinctive methods of maintaining relations of kinship and care.


La discussion et le silence populaires autour du SIDA au Botswana ont ete faconnes par les tentatives des survivants de gerer la facon dont ils se souviennent des relations decoulant de la procreation. La force emotionnelle de la mort pousse les recemment endeuilles et les communautes plus larges de survivants a se souvenir de ceux qui ont pu echanger du sang lors de relations sexuelles. Ces actes de souvenir peuvent avoir des repercussions decisives pour les relations de parente, de mariage et de soutien mutuel. Pour les Batswana, l' << acte de se souvenir >> est une forme d'interpretation et de sentiment, capable de faconner la conduite morale sur le long terme. Dans le contexte de la mort, les debats locaux sur l'objet et le mode du souvenir refletent des tentatives contestees de faire persister des relations basees sur le sang au-dela du deces de la personne. Centre sur un ensemble specifique de conceptions locales de la moralite du souvenir, l'article montre que les membres d'une eglise apostolique de Gaborone s'encouragent mutuellement a se souvenir d'une facon qui reflete des methodes distinctives de maintien des relations de parente et de soin.


One of the most immediately visible indications of the scope of the current AIDS pandemic in Botswana is the large number of women dressed in mourning for their deceased husbands. In Old Naledi, a high-density neighbourhood of Gaborone, many women are wearing black--full-length black dresses, black shoulder throws and black headscarves. The mourning attire of widowers is less conspicuous, consisting of hats and pieces of black cloth pinned to the shirt. The affines of the bereaved spouse provide these clothes out of recognition that his or her 'blood' (madi) has been rendered 'hot' (mogote) or 'dirty' (leswe). Wives and husbands are said to be 'of one blood' by virtue of the fact that they have had sexual intercourse and borne or begotten children, so that the death of one spouse makes the blood of the other 'hot'. Anyone who has sex with a widow or widower during the year-long period of mourning will likely be infected with his or her 'hot blood' and thus contract the often-fatal illness of boswagadi. Women often complain that their mourning attire is extremely burdensome, since it prevents them from taking part in many common acts of sociality, such as shaking hands or playing with children. In particular, women say that a black dress 'frightens' people away from them by 'reminding' everyone of their husband's death.

In this paper, I consider how social experiences of death cause Batswana to remember and re-evaluate who has shared blood with whom, and in the process to assess the nature and causes of fatal disease. AIDS is widely regarded as a disease of the blood, transmitted especially by so-called 'promiscuous' women. Because saying that a person is sick or has died of AIDS usually amounts to an accusation of 'promiscuity', few Batswana have made open declarations that they are HIV-positive. …

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