A Funeral Day



Greetings from the Warm Heart of Africa.  I hope this finds you well at home or where ever you may be.  I’m doing fine, it’s super hot this time of year in Nkhotakota District, but I’m drinking lots of water and trying to wear as much sunscreen as the medical office will hand out.  And also don’t worry this is more of a short story than an update, but there is a point so don’t worry.  Feel free to check out my friend Brook’s blog. It’s set up more as a discussion forum on issues here in Malawi and looks fairly amazing. http://www.tbrookscamp.com/ShootinTheShit/.


A Funeral Day

I wake up, fetch my days water, cook breakfast, drink some coffee, and then put on my best dress shirt and walk over to the funeral feeling halfway guilty.  The funeral is in Mangodana Village about a 20 minute walk from my house.  I take the long way back through the peanut fields to by-pass the “downtown” traffic; the express route maybe.  It’s nice to collect your thoughts so early in the morning and save all your best small talk.  Funerals in Malawi inhibit movement and productivity for hours if not days.  The back route leads me right past the grave yard where I had left the men the previous night. By 9 A.M. they are still digging and the grave is about 2 and a half meters in depth.  The man digging is shirtless, wearing a tattered pair of shorts with his head dusted red from all the layers of dried clay falling from overhead.  My dog runs over to Paul thinking that there’s a good chance he’ll get fed, but this morning Paul looks up at me and says,

“I think you should put Achimadyo on the chain”.  Paul has been up all night along with about 20 other village men all helping with the grave yard digging and related ceremonies.  They look relieved when I walk up.  Now after all the early morning hours of sparse conversation they can talk about the Azungu (white person).  We all still greet one another with the same words, but on this occasion it’s all very intentionally hushed and somber.  They whisper, “ndadzuka bwino” out of habit, but I know that no one here has gotten a wink of sleep.

Paul is my best friend and the death is his 7- 8 year old nephew, and so I feel that this is an especially good time to make your friendship count.  And this is the part where I start to feel guilty for not toughing it out and staying all night at the grave yard; I made too many excuses.  I quickly tie up my dog, hang my dress shirt on a tree branch and grab a digging tool to help finish off the work.  The hours pass and small groups of men start to gather from all directions and villages.  I float in and out of conversation with all the novice English speakers I can find.  The cemetery is located in a small woodlot, which is less of a woodlot and more exclusively used as a cemetery.  All of the space under the canopy is occupied by tombstones or mounds of dirt so we extend the burial out of the shade and into someone’s peanut field.  Zimachitika, it happens.

The conversation flutters with sporadic bursts of laughter, but overall it is respectfully subdued.  I look over to see that Paul has fallen asleep in between a row of weeds.  Paul is my main translator and so after 4 months he is very much the left part of my brain.  In his absence I typically get frustrated with speaking Chichewa and start yelling obscure things in English at all of the inquisitive and persistent Malawians that I seem to attract in conversation.

More hours pass. I have a hard time imagining what the conversations within each group consist of.  Nearly all of the men sitting here are peanut farmers and we have a female president to contemplate.  It becomes a good time for me to get a pulse on all the area beekeeping clubs, most of them are dissolved and broken. Zimachitika, it happens.

Soon Paul’s cousin stands up to make an impromptu speech.  The group, by now, is comprised of about 60 bored men (2 digging and 58 lounging) and he easily strikes a chord.  Soon the moroseness of a funeral turns into the passive agitation of a town hall meeting.  The sun has caught up with us now and is dispensing heat overhead.  Of course I’m melting in my white skin; black people however, are indifferent to the power of the sun.  It just so happens that my cell phone has recently died for good along with my wrist watch several months prior, so I’m forced to integrate with the rest of my community through guestamation of time and the weather.  You can be effective as a timekeeper and local weatherman just by finding the sun in the sky.  In this case the sun has found me, it’s 12 noon.

The commotion picks up as the chief of Mangodana Village approaches the group.  He speaks in such a way that causes a few in the crowd to yell and some people stand and walk away. Even the man digging the grave suddenly pops out of the hole in protest.  And so it’s at this time that the funeral goes on strike.  I look over to see my puppy still tied to the tree very much content with licking his wiener, perfect timing Achimadyo!  Paul has disappeared from his spot in the weeds, but I quickly locate him 100 yards away talking with the chiefs.  Slowly, I piece together in fragmented Chichewa sentences that the grave digging operation has been halted until all of the members of Chilewa Village vacate the grave yard. In previous weeks hard feelings have boiled over into group solidarity, we have drawn a line in the sand and the men of Chilewa need to go.  Some shouting soon erupts among the Chilewans who have gathered together in peripheral range, far enough to avoid confrontation, yet close enough to be defensive.  It’s back and forth for several minutes, I’m amiss as to what was really said.  Then, like a huge herd of cattle, we wander out of the cemetery and move towards the shade tree where the chiefs have assembled and are having a pawow on the newly surfaced issue. Much of what was said is up for interpretation, but I got a strong sense that like most any argument that exceeds 10 minutes, that this one was going in circles.   The agitators are vocal enough to suggest that the chief of Chilewa should pay a fine in either goats or money to amend such a careless blunder of culture.  Afumu Breakfasti Gumu, our area senior chief will make the final say, and so we wait, something we had all previously been doing, but now with a touch of suspense.  I look over at my friend Kenneth with what must look like a giant question mark tattooed to my forehead.  He simply says,”Zimachitika, it happens.”  My dog keeps himself busy and a small army of women are cooking nsima in the foreground for the hundreds of people who have now gathered for the funeral, both are oblivious to the escalating situation under the shade tree.

Very luckily, Amos stands up.  He’s the only punctual Malawian in a 100 km radius of my site.  He stands at a meter and a half tall with a prominent nose and a wiry mustache the hangs underneath.  He rolls his own cigarettes and is the chairman of our village CBCC (Community Based Child Care).  Amos…is… someone you would call a mover and a shaker.  I have absolute confidence that Amos can and will, in this moment, redeem such a pitiful situation.  As I watch him speak, I think of the similarities of this Amos and the Old Testament prophet, a poor, outspoken farmer that speaks so commonsensically as to publicly shame a riled up crowd. Amos speaks his wisdom; this is a funeral after all.

At this point I need to come out of the story and say that there is no real thrilling climax here.  It’s best just to imagine the rest of this blog post as the type of dream where scenes shift without good reason and you end up following a groups of people talking in foreign languages.

So now all of the people at the funeral have gathered around the dead boy’s home where the body is laid in the casket.  Several community members stand to say a few words, and we are all informed that this child has passed away from Malaria.  The contributions for the funeral are then publically announced by village and then by individual just like in a public radio pledge drive.  I had intended to give my 500 Kwacha anonymously, but as I stare down at the ground my contribution is announced and highlighted for being 1/6th of the total contributions collected. I have a hard time looking up.  This becomes the part of the dream where you stare at a group of people and they stare back at you like you’re not wearing any pants.  This is where you envision a mob of people coming over and whacking you with a whiffle ball bat like you’re a piñata all the while you are sitting indian style on the ground trying to be polite.  Just for context 500 Kwacha is less than $2.

A Presbyterian preacher, who has traveled all the way from Nkhotakota Boma stands.  He is barrel chested and immediately lets on to the crowd that he has been blessed with a dynamic speaking voice.  He is also clutching a bible.  The women stop weeping in anticipation of a sermon.  He has the type of frame, maybe even a presence, that is unmistakably built for preaching the Gospel, and that’s just what he does for the next half hour.  And like any charismatic speaker he connects with his audience through humor.  I sit and patiently ponder whether humor is a good tact for such an occasion; this is a funeral after all.  Hymns are sung and then the women and brothers of the dead boy begin to weep as the casket is lifted and slowly progresses towards the cemetery.  All the silliness of the graveyard boycott has cooled in the past hours and the hard feelings dissolve into silence.  This is a funeral for a young boy and this is where the full weight of its sadness hits everyone.  The casket is lowered into the grave.  The funeral director politely asks the family of the deceased to stop weeping, while at the same time the Presbyterian preacher is rising to his feet for a few more remarks.  He starts with a prayer and then feels led to give another twenty minute sermon.  I am trying my best to display my super disgusted face as he cracks more jokes, but I look around the crowd to see that everyone is laughing.  I just stare blankly, too emotionally confused and tired to think any further. I’m not certain, but maybe… could the Holy Spirit be using humor in such a sad situation? Through this large man with a booming voice?  I guess you shouldn’t put the Holy Spirit in a box.

The crowd is soon released.  I look around and can nearly read the minds of every single Malawian. Nsima. It’s nsima time just the same way we think about Applebee’s on a Friday night.

The Senior Chief calls all of the men together, where he aims to resolve the days earlier issue (the boycott).

A rough translation of his speech.

“Ahhh. Zikomo kwambiri, Thank you very much.  That stunt you pulled earlier today was tremendously embarrassing.  I don’t want this to ever happen again. I want to speak with the agitators privately… this is a funeral after all Zikomo Kwambiri.”

I look over at Paul and with no restraint I yell-speak, “Man, what a great chief!”

Soon after I am led by the hand of my own chief, Chief Ezera, where we sit with a group of men for a communal meal of nsima, beans, chicken , and goat innards.  These men seem most interested in talking about my $2 contribution from earlier, and then when they forget my name, I become the “500 Kwacha” guy.  I am strangely embarrassed for having so much disposable income and slightly annoyed, but when my own nsima cooking (credibility) comes into question, I briefly lose my cool.  Purely out of anger, I yell-invite these doubting strangers to come to my house anytime for a cooking demonstration.  And then for some reason I say,” the proof is in the pudding”, as confidently as I can without sounding mad and without making any sort of sense.  And I assume like most other crazy things I say in English, nobody has a clue as to what I’m saying.

To close.

 After really processing the entirety of this day, I’ve seen a few things that I can passionately and enthusiastically address as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  There are too many cultural hurdles for me to grasp at this point, but that’s why the Peace Corps program is 2 years long.  The phrase “zimachitika, it happens”, comes up as a daily part of speech for most Malawians.  I think that in time I’m better suited to respond to such statements with a question. “Does it have to happen?”

During the funeral boycott, as I was trying to clarify what was happening Kenneth’s response was, “zimachitika”, said as if he had sat through more than one funeral boycott in the past.  But does staging a boycott in the middle of a funneral really have to happen?

Just 2 weeks before this funeral I attended the funeral of my landlords 4 year old daughter.  I was instructed to approach the grieving father and mutter, ” Pepani kwambiri, zimachitika” or “very sorry, it happens”.  This little girl also died from Malaria. Malaria happens that’s true, but do two kids have to die from a preventable and curable disease?  Walking home I see the packaging for a mosquito net lying in a ditch along the road, and I wonder how far two mosquito nets could have gone.

The developing world receives and distributes millions of mosquito nets from donor countries; supply is not always the problem.  But in my experience so far in the village, I’ve begun to see that a person who is living in poverty can find 100 other direct uses for a mosquito net than for its intended purpose.  Our country must give millions of condoms to Malawi each year, how many of those condoms are used by kids to make local soccer balls may never be fully realized.  Zimachitika, it happens…I want to find out whether it really does.


About jeff G.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Malawi. I work as a forestry advisor near Nyenje Forest Reserve in the district of Nkhotakota. I like reading, chatting with friends,biking, farming, and eating nsima, at least that's all I do anymore.

One response to “A Funeral Day

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