15 June 2016

Just a warning, this entry comes in the form of a eulogy. It is also my tale of the death of, and funeral for, a close friend in my village. It is a bit intense, and sad, but will also help to paint a picture of how Tanzanians process death. Instead of using the names of my friends in this story, I just use a letter for each – that’s what one does when telling true stories while trying to remain somewhat anonymous, right? A sort of pseudonym. Anyway, I’ll try to follow suit.
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I hear the wailing of the women as we approach the house. I knew to expect that – the day of and the day after a death, the women wail together. They cry; they ask God why; they wipe away seemingly endless tears. The men sit outside in a circle around a small fire, some on stones, some on stumps, some on planks stretched between the two. They sit and talk, and only rise if a woman requires assistance. Sometimes, as a woman arrives to visit the body of the deceased, she collapses in her grief, wailing all the while. The men will carry her to a safe place out of sight.

M’s daughter is sitting amongst the men, staring at the flames of the fire. I follow the Mtendaji, the village executive officer, into their midst, all the while listening to the women inside the house. We greet each other, as custom dictates, but also as is natural in these circumstances. I sit for a moment with them, eventually making eye contact with M’s daughter. She looks tired, and confused, and sad. I nod to her with a small smile. She nods back.

The Mtendaji stands and beckons to me – it is time to step inside, to pay our respects, to say goodbye. We walk to the door of the house where we take off our shoes outside. It is not M’s house, but a neighbor’s down the road, serving as a place to visit the body, as a place to grieve. A blue tarp covers the dirt floor. We step into the semi-darkness.

The first person I see is M’s son. He is eleven, and he is their firstborn. I take his hand, rub his back, tell him I’m sorry. Tears are in his eyes, one trails down his cheek, but still he smiles up at me. I then pass further into that first room. Four women sit apart on the ground, leaning against the old mud walls, crying to themselves. Three look up as we continue into the room, while one continues to cry out, covering her shaking head with her hands. We greet each in turn. I take their hands, kneel down, say, “pole sana,” I’m so sorry, and then move on.

M’s Father is there, leading us to the next room, where they have placed M. We turn the corner, and I see his form. He is laid out on a mattress, covered in a shuka, a plaid blanket, of bright blue, yellow, and black. M’s Mother appears and stands next to me as the Mtendaji and M’s Father kneel down beside M’s head. They gently pull back the blanket to reveal his sleeping face, his small round head, his slightly pudgy cheeks that pudged out even more when he flashed his teeth in a frequent smile, and his lips, slightly parted to reveal a few of those teeth. His Father tries to push the lips together, but the rigidity of death disagrees with this endeavor. That is when I start to cry.

I hold M’s Mother’s hands as we both let our tears fall. We look into each other’s eyes, in disbelief, in pain, in confusion, in a type of melancholy terror, but also in acceptance. She says to me, “My son. My son. Your friend. Your friend here. He has left us.” All I can do is nod and let my tears flow to show my recognition of her words.

After standing, watching over M for a while, the Mtendaji stands, wipes away his own tears, and says it is time to see A, M’s wife. A has become my closest friend in the village, and visiting her and M, and their three kids, has always been one of my favorite things to do here. She has always been there for me – the one I go to when I need a friend, the perfect person to share a laugh with, and someone who has truly taken the time to listen to me and to try to understand where I come from and why it can be a struggle living here (much like her husband). This is why it nearly breaks me as I look into the room where she sits.

Two women are there with her, on a thin mattress, one on either side. All are wrapped tight in blankets and cloth. They are all weeping, wailing. The one on the left is curled into a ball, her hands gripping the sides of her head with a force that draws my attention. A looks up at me as I enter behind the Mtendaji. He greets each woman in turn, expressing his condolences, having to leave the one curled up without greeting, as she is in too much pain to take his hand. And then he steps back to make his exit, to make room for me.

I greet the woman on the right, and then crouch down in front of A. I take her hands in mine as I lean my knees gently into hers. She looks desperately into my eyes, as if searching for something. She starts to speak to me in a halting voice as she weeps: “Christina… Christina… He has left us! Christina, they said he would get better, but he has been beaten. He has been beaten, and he has passed on… Christina, why has God done this?! How have I erred? Why has God taken him?! He has left us… He has left his children. He has left me!… Why Christina? Why? Why has God done this? He has been beaten… He has left us…” etc. etc. This time all I can do is shake my head, let my tears flow, and try to breathe.

I crouch there in front of her for a long time, rubbing her hands as we cry. I lean in and say quietly to her, “All my love is with you.” She nods slowly and says, “Asante, Christina…” The woman on the right makes room for me beside A, and tells me to sit. I lower myself onto the thin mattress and sit with my back against the mud wall, gently leaning into my friend as she leans into me, my hand on her knee. The tears lessen as we sit together in that small dark room, surrounded by two others, a few old pots stacked in the corner, and a rusty bicycle also leaning against a wall.

Other women come to say goodbye to M, and to express their condolences to A. They come, some transforming their crying into mourning songs, asking God why? Why this bad luck? Why M? Their songs are so hauntingly beautiful to me, wailing their words into a melody of pain that will never leave me. Each note, each word: entirely unique, created on the spot, inspired by nothing more or less than pure grief. They come, letting tears flow freely, kneel down to take A’s hand, the hands of the other women, my hand. They say to me, “I’m sorry.” I say, “I’m sorry as well.”

I sit for some time with A, listening to the others cry out as we wipe away our own tears. Soon our eyes have dried, and we stare into the doorway together in silence, knowing what lies just beyond. A woman comes to find me, saying the Mtendaji is looking for me. It is time to leave for now. I nod and say I am coming. I turn to A, grasp her knee with one hand, her shoulder with the other, and I look her in the eyes. “You have strength.” She looks down at my words and shakes her head, starting to cry again. I tighten my grip so she looks up at me again. “You have strength.” This time she nods every so slightly, once, twice. I say I will see her later, and then I stand, trying to compose myself.

Slowly, I make my way out of the house, holding hands with each woman as I go. Trying to stifle my tears, I wind my way around the milling men, sitting by the fire, standing, chatting softly. I eventually find the Mtendaji. He says it is time to return home for the rest of the morning, and that the funeral and burial will be in the evening. I ask to contribute to the collection for the family – after a person’s death, the community begins a collection of funds to aid the family of the deceased. I give an amount that surprises those collecting, and they express their appreciation. And then it is time to return home, to let what I have just experienced sink in, and to remember a great friend, a great father, and a great leader.

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I left that house, the men milling about, and the cries of the women behind me, but the memory of them will always remain. As I returned home, looking at the green needles of the pine trees in the morning sunlight, out at the rolling hills in the distance with a finger of fog fighting the progression of the day, I thought of M. I thought of the impact he made on me, on those he took under his wing as a mentor, on the community as a whole. M was the Mwenyekiti of the village – the village chairperson. He started his term in office only a year and a half ago, but he had the respect of the community for much longer than that.

People from over 45 villages arrived later that day for his funeral – a great mass of people. They came to express their appreciation, to share their memories, and show the deep respect they had for M. The funeral consisted of a ceremony of Muslim prayers (M was a follower of Islam, something I learned just that day), recognition of his accomplishments as the Mwenyekiti and just as a person, and the burial. Only the men were allowed to escort the body to the gravesite, and to place him in the ground. I appreciated being around the other women as we waited. We talked of M’s life and the tragedy that was his death, but also about other simple day-to-day affairs. This helped bring me back to reality – life goes on.

I’ve been to funerals in the village before, but never for such a close friend. It was a moving experience to participate so completely in the grieving process of my fellow women, and to share some time with A as she lamented her husband’s death. Early on in my service, I was initially somewhat surprised and put-off by the public and dramatic way that women grieve. Now I understand it as a beautiful process that brings women together, and that provides an opportunity to truly cry your heart out, without judgment or shame. I certainly appreciated this opportunity under these circumstances.

M was the backbone of my entire service here in TZ. Every morning I would peak out my little window to see if his motorcycle was parked across the way, outside of the village government office. If it was, then I’d go out to greet him, to chat a little bit, and to discuss our plans for the day – our morning ritual. He was there for me from the start – he spoke slowly and patiently as I was still struggling with the language; he welcomed me into his home for food and to watch TV and to begin my friendship with A (a home away from home); he was always there to greet me with enthusiasm, showing as much appreciation for me, just as a fellow human being, as I had for him. I felt a sense of comfort and security in his presence, which made me feel at home.

I keep thinking about how much he wanted to meet my parents. (He went to the hospital about a week before I arrived with them in the village, and then passed away about a week after – two weeks in the hospital with a consistent bad headache. They say he died from diabetes.) I also keep thinking about how much he wanted to go on safari with us – but in a joking way that can be rare amongst Tanzanians. It was his biggest dream to be able to see the big animals of the wild. We used to watch nature shows together at his house, laughing at all the amusing things the animals did, expressing our distaste when a giant snake or nasty insect showed itself, looking on in awe as a lioness took down a zebra, adding a gash of scarlet to the black and white stripes.

We shared a similar appreciation for things, especially the beauty and richness of the land. I can remember one evening, when we were returning together from a meeting in one of the sub-villages, I said that the land looked so beautiful in the setting sun. He paused, and we just stood there looking out at the rolling hills together, peaceful in the light of the golden hour, in the play of long shadows.

I cannot even begin to understand the pain that A is experiencing right now, but I will be there for her and for her now four children. The day after M went into the hospital, A gave birth to their fourth child. M never got to meet the newborn. As I told her, she has strength. I know she will be able to continue on, to make use of what M has left her. I realize the children’s futures can now never be what they might have been – without the income M was bringing to the family, it will be a more difficult existence. But I still hope their futures will be bright, and I’ll do what I can to help make that happen.

Village life will not ever feel quite whole again without M, but I know I will be able to persist because of him. His capability to mobilize the community was always so inspiring, and he believed wholeheartedly in the abilities of his fellow community members. This encourages ambition within myself, as I hope it encourages ambition in the other leaders of the village. Life goes on, as must we all, and M will live on in our memories, as long as we have memories to relive.

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One thought on “15 June 2016

  1. Chris, I am so sorry to hear about your friend, A. You are an amazing person to be so wonderfully involved with the people in your village. They are lucky to have you, and you are lucky to have them.

    Love – Tracy

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