Today I was sick. Nothing special, just a cold that I knew was coming. But it made me think about what would happen if I would get really sick here in Africa, what if I would die?
Somehow it was a comforting thought because funerals here in the villages of Malawi are a beautiful affair. Two weeks ago I attended one in a nearby village. I briefly new the woman who died because my counterpart took me to visit the sick and old from her parish a while back. She was a woman in her forties I think. She had five children, among them a set of twins around 12 and an older daughter who already was pregnant. When we visited her she was unable to get up from her mattress on the floor in the adobe brick house. She was so thin that her muscles would not carry her anymore. Her mother told us she had stopped taking her medicine about a year ago. Nobody had to explain what kind of medicine she was talking about, because the way it was said indicated antivirals used to suppress AIDS.
And two weeks later she had died.
Chimwemwe picked me up from my house around ten in the morning. We were in village attire, colored blouses and a colorful wrap as a skirt, called chintenje. We walked alongside the hot and dusty road for about 3km until we turned into the village path that climbed towards the mountains. We walked with many people in festive clothes, all going to the same place. When we arrived there were many people already there. We could hear singing. Chimwemwe ushered me inside taking her shoes off and said to do as she did. We entered a room with the closed coffin displayed and decorated in the middle. The grandmother was sitting close supported by other women. More women lined the sides of the room singing. We knelt down and held the grandmothers hand repeating: “pepani, pepani, pepani…” (Sorry, sorry, sorry…) The grandmother cried and fell back to be cradled by one of her support women. We joined the women singing on the sidelines for a while, then got up and walked through the backdoor. Outside were more women sitting on the ground by the side of the house. Others were busy cooking food for everybody coming to mourn. Large buckets were on the three stone fires that were stirred with two large wooden spoons by two women. Nsima for everyone. Other pots held beans, cabbage and goat meat. We sat down, trying to find some shade and a woman set down plates in front of us but not before asking if I would eat nsima as well. The atmosphere was calmly busy and I only noticed once in a while that the women were wondering what the white person was doing there. But after I shared the traditional local food with the women, knowing how to eat it properly and also offered to help with the dishes I was simply included in the rest of the day.
During the funeral festivities the women share separate areas around the house than the men. The men were sitting in front and to the right, all women were either involved in the cooking and cleaning, child care or they were quietly sitting in large groups behind the house and to the left. The whole neighborhood grounds were used for sitting and gathering. I sat with the women by the house trying to find some shade, dozing off which was completely acceptable during this long wake. Some of the people had been there all night leading up to that day, taking turns singing and mourning.
Suddenly the crowd stirred and everybody moved around the house, sitting in the dry maize field surrounding the compound. A Roman Catholic priest was reading mass behind a makeshift altar, the choir sang, woman in white blouses and purple skirts and head dresses, men in black shirts and trousers. Most attendees were of different faith. There were Presbyterians, Muslims, members of the Living Waters church and Jehovah Witnesses, but everyone celebrated the Catholic mass because that is how people here show respect.
After a long time, the crowd started moving again. We walked in rows of colorful dots among and between the dry maize stalks, we crossed creeks, fields, and dusty earth, and finally arrived at the local cemetery where the actual burial was performed. The singing never stopped. It was the men’s job to dig the grave, lower the coffin into the ground, and move the earth back onto its rightful place. Then they left in a long row. The rest of us remained, sitting on the ground, singing, comforting the bereft.
When we quietly walked back to our own villages 7 hours had passed. We were tired and hot, but we were calm. I thought to myself: what a beautiful way to leave this earth, supported by many, surrounded by life, food, and music.
Here in the villages, people drop everything to partake in a funeral. Nothing is more important, not even work. And if you couldn’t attend for whatever reason, you would go to the village chief to explain yourself. And that was exactly what happened to me upon my return to my own village. A neighbor had died during the afternoon and the funeral was set to be held the next day. Tiered or not, I went to the chief, explained my situation, and the chief said to at least sit and sing with the women that evening and help prepare the food for the next day. There is nothing unusual about two or three funerals close together. Everybody is shown the same respect.
And I was tired and hot, and for a second I thought that this seems unreasonable, to spend all day at one funeral, just to come home to another one. And then I thought that, if it was me who would have died, or me who would mourn a loved one, I would feel comforted, supported, even happy if people simply came, no matter what. Because presence counts. Singing counts. Preparing food counts.