by Gothataone Moeng
Issue #269 • September 17th, 2020•Buy Now!
In the year she was mourning her husband, Phetso Sediba faced, every time she left her house, a series of small wonders at the stubborn unchanging ways of the world. Some days the group of boys that met at the culvert across from her house surprised her, that they would still gather there, mornings before school and evenings before heading home, to smoke and talk loudly and jostle at each other, only falling silent when she walked past. The jacaranda trees in her neighbors’ yards still grew their wild purple blooms, their trunks home to the blue-headed lizards whose bobbing Phetso felt mocked by sometimes, and other times pitied by. Other days it was the primary school girls who astonished her, in their little gray skirts and heavy matching stockings, their shiny faces, their backpacks beating an unending rhythm on their backs, still trotting past her gate without seeing her.
Even here, under an acacia tree in the center of the Kgale View office complex, when Phetso had braved people’s swiveling stares and their tapering conversations to join the queue to the vendor she ate lunch from sometimes, even here, a wonder.
Gothataone Moeng was born in Serowe, Botswana. She was a 2018-2020 Stegner Fellow in Fiction. Her writing has also received fellowships and support from Tin House, where she was a 2019 Summer Workshop scholar, and from A Public Space, where she was a 2016 Emerging Writer Fellow. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space and the Oxford American, amongst others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Mississippi.
Karen Friedman on Small Wonders
In June, a friend texted me that her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother had died. Amid the family’s sadness, there was one bit of relief: New Jersey had just loosened the restrictions on gatherings and they would be allowed to have a small wake with timed entries and a socially distanced funeral service. The family felt lucky.
Rituals are a framework. Stand here. Say these words. There is comfort through the connection to those who have performed the same rites in generations before us. But what happens when tradition feels like a facsimile of the sacred or when it is simply not enough to usher in the promised peace and wholeness?
In our latest issue, “Small Wonders” by Gothataone Moeng, we are introduced to Phetso Sediba, a young widow from Botswana, who for a nearly a year has worn the same midnight-blue dress, cape, and veil every time she leaves the home she once shared with her husband, Leungo. It is a form of penance, of remembrance, but also a warning to others who believe the old superstitions about bad luck following the widow. Phetso has sought shelter in her widow’s clothes, using them as shorthand to keep others at bay while she mourns the loss of Leungo and the life she imagined they’d have together. She is an anomaly, because of her youth as well as her desire to adhere to traditions that others have let go. As Phetso nears the prescribed end of her mourning period, she struggles, unsure of what the traditions have meant and whether she is ready to meet the world without their protection.
We accepted Gothataone’s story before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19 or knew how much our lives were about to change. Still, it feels particularly well suited to a time when grief can no longer take its familiar shape, when we must rely on Zoom shivas and Livestreamed funerals. It is now, sadly, easy for us to understand how precarious our traditions actually are, how dependent on our willingness to believe in their meaning. And yet, I feel compelled to insist that this particular story ends on a note of hope—uncertain, but there. Just as Phetso waits to reenter the world, so we too will face what comes on the other side of grief.
I couldn’t be more delighted to introduce Gothataone Moeng to our One Story family and hope you love “Small Wonders” as much as we do. Please check out our Q&A for more information about how this story came into being.
Q&A by Karen Friedman
As a writer from Botswana, one of the areas of interest for me is how, post-independence, rapid urbanization due to the discovery of diamonds in the country, and the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s to the early 2000s, have altered what had been lifelong cultural traditions and rituals. In my observation, over the last couple of decades, one of those radical changes is in the way people mourn. The idea of communal mourning and the very humane traditional systems that were put in place to adjust bereaved people into a life without the deceased person became unsustainable because of how many people were dying during the height of the epidemic, and also untenable because of migration to urban areas for jobs. I was thinking about how these ways of communal mourning and the care of the bereaved provide necessary solace, but how there is also a kind of inflexibility to the idea of delineating a timeframe to mourning, which doesn’t seem to take into consideration the individual process of grieving.
It has actually been kind of strange revising this story at this time, with the Covid-19 pandemic, since so many people are unable to properly bury and mourn the people lost due to the virus.
I think that the distance I got from being away from Botswana for extended periods of time has occasionally offered me the gift of clarity, just in terms of how to approach certain subject matters, and has, at times, made me bolder in terms of what I would write about. Being home, I have sometimes felt hesitant to write about certain subjects, and I am relieved of that hesitation when I am away. In terms of challenges, I mean, let’s face it, Botswana is not one of the sexy African countries. A lot of people I have met in the U.S. didn’t know that the country Botswana existed until they met me. I am just saying, good luck to me trying to sell a book of small and quiet stories about ordinary people in Botswana, LOL!