Monday, December 8, 2008

Malawian funeral

I attended Jane’s funeral on Friday. I came in to work, soberly dressed, expecting to be out of the office for a few hours, then back in time to finish off a few things before the weekend.

I really should have known better.

About an hour before we were to leave I was given a little lesson on what to expect. First, I would need a chitenje, to wrap around my waist like a skirt. Also, I should expect it to take the whole day.

We headed to my house to collect the chitenje, then drove to Jane’s family home. I was told to stick close to the side of Lucy, the only other female staff going to the funeral from my office, and she would let me know what to do. I was very nervous at that point, afraid that I was going to commit some horrible gaffe that would shame the office.

When we arrived at 10 AM there was already a big crowd, and it just grew throughout the day. The men and women separated, and Lucy and I took seats on the floor inside the house, where women were singing, and several people were crying inconsolably. The music was lovely and sad.

We moved outside shortly after, to allow more room for close family members. Then we sat. And sat. And sat. For almost two hours I sat on the ground by the front patio, shifting to try and find a comfortable position. Finally, as though at some invidible sign, everyone stood. The body was brought into the house, and more keening and wailing erupted from inside. A woman kept yelling “Amayi, amayi” – woman, or mother, in Chichewa, as though she was yelling at Jane to come back. It was a bit startling sometimes, coming as I do from a tradition of quiet, respectful, stiff-upper-lip mourning.

At that point I snuck home to feed Milo. When I got back to the house, everyone had moved outside. I took a seat on the ground, and the Malawian women made space for me in the shade. We sat for another two hours. An MC was addressing the crowds – men on one side of the street, women on the other. He announced the names of every person who had donated money for the funeral, down to 15 cents. Then there were speakers, from the family, from our office, from the local political party.

Finally, the speeches were finished, and we made our way to the cemetery. We had only moved a few feet when we were accosted by a group of young men wanting a lift. We told them we are not allowed to transport people in the truck bed, but they all piled in the back anyway, shouting abuse.

At the cemetery, there was more sitting in the dirt. By then I had figured out that the chitenje was for keeping your clothes clean, not modesty. First, there were prayers, then the men began covering the coffin. It was quite moving – each man would work for a short while, and then another man would come and take over, each of them taking their turn. The MC then called individual family members to come and pay their respects. There were a few dozen staff members from my organization, and we all came together to lay roses on Jane’s grave, which ended up completely covered in flowers. It was a touching farewell to a much-loved member of staff.


Anonymous said...

A sad, but joyous occassion, and what a long one for you. Interesting to hear how another culture takes final leave of their loved one.

Joan said...

Don't know why I keep coming up as anonymous. I click on the correct dot.