Botswana’s ecumenical funerals in the making

Richard Werbner

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This study of grassroots ecumenism in Botswana focuses on the funerals in which much interdenominational co-operation and religious rapprochement prevails, even against troubling dissent. Because this accomplishment is relatively exceptional not only in southern Africa but in the continent as a whole, its special history, in a post-colonial shift towards religious tolerance, is examined along with its more enduring socio-cultural basis. The account documents the emergence of a whole shared repertoire of ideas and practices, and a distinctive social space outside any church, for activating grassroots ecumenism in its boundary-crossing, its inclusive relatedness and its opening of belonging in the presence of difference. A simple logic, tied to common-sense assumptions about gender roles, is shown to inform certain parts of this shared repertoire. The analysis of cases from funerals in Tswapong villages in the Central district and in the city discloses how ecumenical and anti-ecumenical tensions are managed, especially by local ministers, while caring mourners try to console the bereaved and maintain amity for the sake of promised salvation for the dead. Given the importance, in the funerals as in public life, of civic ideals, decorum and formality, this analysis also clarifies how public officials conclude, and even regulate, funerals by bringing together their appeals, ecumenical ones to God and civic ones for the upholding of citizenship, of moral interdependence and responsibility in village life. More generally, the argument is that grassroots ecumenism is a boundary-crossing phenomenon of broad interest for comparative analysis of the cultural and social creation of a popular religious movement that looms large in everyday lives and which contributes to the welcome shape of citizenship.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-329
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number2
Early online date10 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Citizenship
  • Moral interdependence
  • Post-colonial turn
  • Religious tolerance
  • Sociability


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