An African Funeral

Anne’s cell phone rang early in the morning “There has been a change in plans. Mama Susan has passed and her funeral is today. It is important that all the folks associated with the NGO attend to show support for the family in the village. We will meet you at the junction of the Children’s Village at 10:00AM.“ was Geoff Knight’s message. We knew that Mama Susan had struggled with HIV/AIDS and depression.

Her husband had died and they had 9 children!  Overcome with life itself there were times when she succumbed to the oblivion of pombe (bamboo beer). 

The 4 youngest children had been supported, staying in the Children’s Village when both parents were trying to cope. They had rebuilt a crumbling house with kiln -dried bricks and a corrugated metal roof.  The children had been able to return home for a time.  When illness returned Dr. Leena made regular visits. For the last  two visits  Mama Susan had been away working at her shamba(garden) and it was assumed she was stronger. However, a three day old baby was found wrapped in his mother’s kanga and no one had even known Mama Susan was pregnant! Baby Alan, has a heart condition and possible FAS . He is being cared for in the baby house at the Children’s Village along with 4 of his siblings.

We formed a procession.  Geoff and Jenny’ (the on the ground NGO managers)filled their vehicle with passengers, then DR. Leena,, then Anne and Ruth  and last in line the 1976 British Land Rover ambulance driven by Allan Castledine.. Allan has a PHD in bio-chemistry, but best of all, HERE he can seemingly fix anything! Fortunately Allen comes with our new director and book keeper, Birgit !

The huge boxlike ambulance looks like a toy from an ancient mechano set.  Passengers inside fly about bonking their heads and crashing into one another while bouncing over the impossible hard packed dirt roads. All the children beg for a ride in the huge contraption. Everyone speaks of nuts and bolts flying out at will. Alan purchased soft rubber hose to cut up and put beneath the nuts and bolts to try to keep them firmly in place. A huge red cross emblazons each side.  We don’t yet quite know how to anchor sick people when they need transport to the Care and Treatment Centre. 

We drove a long way to the far village of Mwefu. Streams of piki piki (motorcycles) overtook us and passed by. Along a straight stretch we could see two large groups of people. Reaching the first group we could see men constructing a plain wooden coffin. Geoff and Jenny continued on and we followed carefully. Reaching the second group, the vehicles parked and we all disembarked. All the women in the Mufindi area wear modest long kanga skirts, Anne and I followed suit.  A keening, wailing sound reached our ears from a small rust colored brick house. Dr Leena told us Mama Susan’s relatives, friends and children would kneel on the dirt floor beside her body and release their sorrow. An aching sadness resounded throughout.

Time passed and men approached to ask Allan to take the ambulance back to load the coffin. It was delivered solemnly to the house.  Mama Susan’s body was wrapped in a thin white cloth and she was placed in the coffin. The anguished keening sound  of grief multiplied. About 150 villagers followed the procession to an open field. Men and women separated to differing sides. A great red dirt mound was growing. Men of importance in the family and the village leaders all wielding jembes (large hoes) dug the space needed for a coffin. Women sat on the bare ground, seemingly each one caring for a wee babe at breast or peeking out from the wrapped kanga back packs. We sat too. It was astounding to see the support bibis (grandmothers) mothers and young women gave each other caring for the infants. Hot sun poured down on the mourners and there was time to notice the effects of abject poverty within the entire group.  So many shoeless people, feet wrapped in torn rags to cover sores, chiggers and cracked nails. Suddenly, sweat dripping I wanted to pull off my nice fitting North American leather shoes and share.

Men spoke Swahili  “words” from the dirt mound. A collection was taken. It is custom to write your name and the amount of the donation. The average donation was 2,000 shillings (about 97 cents). The money was to pay for the coffin and food for the mourners.

Men and women were sent to differing houses for ugali (maize flour porridge) and spiced beans. We all sat on stools around the periphery of the room leaning against the exposed brick walls. There were no windows so the light was dim and there was a pounded dirt floor. Rough timbered rafters were exposed and many spider webs stretched to the ceiling. It was hard not to think of all the dudus(insects) dwelling in the walls. An envied bati roof (corrugated metal) meant the inhabitants would at least be protected from the coming long rains.

It has been decided that 15 year old Esther will live in the house to prevent claims of inheritance from relatives. She is hoping to attend the two year course at the NGO sponsored sewing school.

There really is nothing ennobling or enabling about stone-age poverty, in my opinion. One finds it is important to be reminded that there is good in the world, and hope too. Sometimes it seems as if we live in a world that pays no more than lip service to social justice. All of you, kind friends who take the time to support us and the African  Book Box Society,  provide tiny points of light.


P.S. I think Anne has written about the same topic---we couldn’t help it!