This blog started as a way of keeping friends up-to-date with Zambian life but it now also helps generate money for the poor here in Chikuni. If you like what you read please click on an ad to help the people of Chikuni.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Death

Smoke drifts from the wood stoked fires between my vantage point and the group of women, some chanting, some crying out, and some openly weeping. Shelia and Chritine, two of the Mukunzubo girlsThere is a light drizzle reminiscent of the sort of soft rain Ireland (or Seattle apparently) often experiences. It feels very fitting for the sombre occasion. Thin stray dogs with protruding ribcages are shoed away from the food cooking for the assembled people. The sound of haunting singing heralds the arrival of new mourners from the surrounding bush, the women calling out for the soul of a dead girl, calling to her and with each new arrival, making the skin on my back shiver a little more. I stand on the edge of the family compound with a couple of Mukunzubu girls. We are at the funeral of another little Mukunzubu girl who had just started grade 8 (her first year in high school).

Three days earlier, on Thursday evening, she fainted and became unconscious at her home in one of the rural villages in the Chikuni parish. Her family put her in the cow driven cart and travelled for over ninety minutes to reach the Chikuni Mission Hospital. What happened next, I still cannot understand, nor do I want to. The clinical doctor, the only doctor, had already retired for the night and refused to leave his onsite residence and attend to the little girl. By the time Mabel, Kay and I reached the hospital at 21:30 the little girl had died. The on-duty nurse had to break the rules and put her in the mortuary despite the doctor not pronouncing her officially dead. I will never forget the sound of the song the family sang as they left the hospital to return home, in the dark, the rain and the misery, having travelled all that way for nothing. We were there at the request of Yvonne, the director of Mukunzubu, the Tonga cultural centre here in Chikuni. Mukunzubu acts as a go-between between the local people and the various facilities in Chikuni. For this reason, Yvonne is often called upon, especially in this case because the little girl was a former dancer and so the family had called her for help.

When the girls’ body finally arrived for the funeral at her home, things really kicked off. The weeping, howling, chanting and misery ratcheted up to its climax. People moved towards the car and everywhere women wailed and babies cried. The singing momentarily died or perhaps was just drowned out by the sobbing mass. One woman fainted and had to be dragged to the side to let the plain navy blue coffin pass by and reach the table that had been put out for it. I didn’t even know the girl and yet tears started to flood my eyes and I had to fight hard to keep them back. The sadness was all engrossing; I have experienced many distressing times in my life but rarely have I seen such an outpouring of emotion. People flooded in under the tarpaulin after the coffin and the few Mukunzubu girls did a ceremonial dance around it. The mass was of course in Tonga but I understood most of it due to the structure of mass. During the homily though I took the opportunity to write in my diary, as I had no idea what the priest was saying.

At some point between the coffin being placed under the tarpaulin and the end of the mass, a hatch at the head of the coffin was opened so that people could see the girl. When the mass was finished, the congregation filled by the coffin to pay their respects. Some just walked past, heads bowed; some buckled and fell to the ground; most just cried. After they passed the coffin, they headed southeast of the compound to the gravesite. Once everyone who wanted to pay their respects had done so, the coffin was nailed shut and carried behind the mass of people with the Mukunzubu girls again performing a dance just behind the coffin. Finally I left my spot on the edge of the compound and slowly followed the entire crowd. Along the way I passed people lying facedown or kneeling in the long grass, sobbing and refusing to be consoled by the people who had stopped to help. I kept my eyes low to the ground, feeling distinctly out of place. There was another shorter service at the graveside but the rain turned foul and came down in great sheets to soak the people gathered around. Occasionally someone was ejected from the crowd, like a blob of hot wax from the bottom of a lava lamp. They came weeping and crying out once more, for the injustice against this little girl. The coffin went in the ground and people took turns heaping the soil in and stamping it down with tree limbs. A few different people said some words. Finally the rain stopped, the speeches came to an end and Fr. Kelly gave the final prayer. People dispersed, some going home, some headed back to the family compound. The little girl was left alone, to fulfil the cycle; dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

I returned to the compound where the Mukunzubu girls performed the last dances for that day. They danced under the tarpaulin and into the little hut where I assume the girl and her family stayed. I suppose it was a sort of exorcism of the girls’ spirit. I was given a prime seat right next to the priest and we were served first while I enjoyed the dance and music. It was good to be able to smile again and try to forget the sadness we had all just come through. Village chicken is tough as rubber and I wasn’t entirely sure my teeth were up to the challenge. I managed though and both the chicken and shema were very welcome.
Eventually Fr. Kelly, 5 of the Mukunzubu girls and myself said our goodbyes and loaded ourselves into and onto the 4x4 and headed off to Chiyobola were the orphan administrators were hard at work. A little bit of fun after the funeralFr. Kelly is now the priest responsible for the orphans schooling project and I am responsible for the new software they are using so our presence was required there. I am glad to have seen a traditional Tonga funeral, it has helped to both contrast and complement the Tonga wedding back in early December. I just wish the doctor could have at least seen the girl. Doctors are in such short supply here, it saddens me that there is nothing to be done…

1 comment:

  1. Just catching up with the blog (and it's probably a good think that I am typing this isn't it David?) and just wanted to say. LOVE the new hair. It REALLY SUITS you, you handsome devil!

    Miss and love you,