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University of Botswana History Department
"El Negro of Banyoles"
El Negro: further comments from the press
Coverage of the impending repatriation of "El Negro" was limited in scope until the weekend before. The only prior announcements of the repatriation were in Gaborone's Mmegi/ The Reporter, which had been consistently following the issue over the previous six months (29 Sept.2000 p.2 "El Negro to be made national hero" by Leshwiti Tutwane), and in the government-owned Gaborone Daily News/ Dikgang tsa Gompieno. But public consciousness was raised by a series of radio programmes, hosted by Monica Mpusu, over Radio Botswana during the extended holiday weekend that followed Independence Day on September 30th.
The actual arrival of the body in its box at Seretse Khama Airport in Gaborone on Wednesday October 4th was widely covered by the international, regional, national, and local press. The front page of the Johannesburg Star the next day featured a colour photo captioned " 'El Negro' arrives back home to a proper burial'. The lead story beneath, however, confusingly referred to him as a 'Bushman'. (Oct.5 p.1 'Botswana welcomes return of Bushman's body used as colonial exhibit'). The same newspaper the day before had carried a SAPA-DPA story merely referring to him as a warrior (Oct 4 p.11: "Mummified warrior ro be given dignified burial on African soil: the body that was stuffed and put on show as a tourist curiosity"). The Star the next day reported the "Final rest for ancient African warrior" as a brief news flash from Sapa-AFP, while an editorial hailed the repatriation as "a positive step" that must lead to the return by the French government of the body of Sara Baartman who died in 1814 (Oct 6, pp.2 & 11). The Johannesburg City Press (Oct 8 p.2) carried a fuller Sapa-AFP story under the headline "Warrior home in Africa after 170 years".
Meanwhile the Gaborone Botswana Guardian of October 6 reported "Joy, sorrow greet El Negro's arrival", and told of people's shock and horror on seeing that the body on view had been reduced to just a clean skull. Mmegi/The Reporter (Oct. 6 p.1: "Controversy sees El Negro to his grave") carried a front-page photo of some of the thousands who flocked to see the body overnight on October 4th-5th lying in state in the Civic Centre, only to see a bare skull in a box. An editorial stressed that El Negro was being buried rather than permanently exhibited in Botswana out of African respect for the dead (p.14). The Francistown Voice (Oct.6 pp.1 & 2: "Home at last" by Victoria Massimo), like editorials in other Botswana newspapers and The Star, put in a special word of thanks to Dr Alphonse Arcelin whose years of effort, at great personal sacrifice, resulted in the repatriation of"El Negro".
Comments from the public continued to appear in the newspapers for two weeks after the re-burial. Gaborone's Mmegi Monitor of October 10th (p.4) carried an interview with Dr. Arcelin, "ready to soldier on". An article below echoed the words of the presiding minister at the funeral: "Lord take from our hearts the anger we feel at what has been done to this body." A special feature in the Botswana Guardian (Oct.13, pp.10 & 12), by Lekoko Kenosi, referred to "Our collective wrong". Spain had humiliated the human remains as a "nigger" on display but can Africans claim to be free of delusions of superiority and racial/ ethnic prejudice? Mmegi/The Reporter (Oct. 13, p.16) carried a comment by Busiswe Mosiieman claiming "A Cape Town museum displays stuffed humans" [referring to plaster-casts in the South African Museum]. A letter written to the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian (Oct.13, p.29), which assumed the body was that of a "Bushman", condemned the hypocrisy of Botswana, because live rather than dead "Bushmen" are treated with contempt "on my friend's ranch in Botswana".
Mmegi Monitor of October 17th was full of comments. Modirwa Kekwaletse (p.7) told how El Negro was the buzz-word at a wedding in Serowe. People were asking did not the child (ngwana) have any relatives to bury him. "El Negro" has also become, at least for the time being, a common nickname among young people. The columnist Sentinel Motlhokomedi in (p.14) wanted a stadium or a road named after El Negro. Sandy Grant on the next page objected to the body having been publicly displayed: was our curiosity somehow more justified that the Spanish we condemn as degrading? The Gaborone Botswana Gazette of October 25th carried two further comments. An e-mail from B.R. Lekabe demanded a full apology from Spain to Botswana. Gustin Bantu objected to the National Museum of Botswana displaying the sitting skeleton of a woman from the archaeological site at Toutswe a thousand years ago. The Gaborone Sunday Tribune of October 29th carried a photo of a strangely dressed man whom students had dubbed "El Negro" (p.1)
The contents of the Spanish press are as yet unknown to us, but the most graphic reporting in English was by Rachel Swarms of the New York Times, which was quoted at length in the Botswana Guardian. This is how she described the overnight "lying in state" of El Negro.
...as the blazing afternoon faded into moonlit night, hundreds of people waited for hours to view the remains and to try, somehow, to right the wrongs of history by paying respect to a stolen ancestor and a wandering soul.
Construction workers stood in line with drills in their hands. Mothers carried groceries and babies. There were businessmen in suits, students in baseball caps and old women leaning on canes. Some sang the national anthem and waved flowers. But when it came time to see him, most people walked solemnly in single file and peered quietly through a tiny glass window in the polished coffin.
There lay his remains, though all that could be seen through the glass was a skull with empty eye sockets and broken teeth.
But Didimalang Keakopa Bukha, a nurse, did not flinch. Instead, she struggled to recognize the lines of his cheekbones and the breadth of his brow. "He has got a small forehead like me," said Mrs. Bukha, 44, her voice breaking. "This part of southern Africa where they say he is from, I have kin there. And when I saw him, I saw a person. Not a skull -- a human being.
"I felt like crying because of the belief that he might be related to me. And it makes you wonder, how many people have been stolen like this?"
Swarms quoted Tickey Pule, the director of the Botswana National Museum, saying she sees the return of El Negro as "a stepping-stone toward the repatriation" of many other remains back to Africa: Pule added: "This is our past. These remains and artifacts are part of Africa. Our history is incomplete when it is [over] there."
Then there was the funeral itself:
Soldiers in white gloves carried the coffin and serenaded it with their bugles. And the crowd sang mournful hymns, their voices rising and falling in the morning still.
In a speech, the foreign minister, Lt. Gen. Mompati Merafhe, summed up a continent's sentiments: "Today, 170 years later, we are gathered here not only to re-enter the body in African soil where it likely belongs, but also to cleanse that act of desecration, restore the dignity of a common ancestor, to appease the spirits of Africa and, above all, to correct a wrong which has no statute of limitations."
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Copyright © 2000 Neil Parsons
Last updated 13 November 2000