Archives – February 27, 2006

The funeral

Note: Apart from the first one, all pictures in this post are made by Brian (In the first picture on the very right)

Emilia was 22 years old when she died from AIDS. Her daughter, aged 4, was infected with the virus during birth. She will never get the chance to protect herself from the disease; she was already born with it. Within two years, Emilia’s father lost his wife, his daughter and his sister in law, the first to breast cancer, the latter two to the virus.

Emilia was the sunshine of Mbare and everyone here loved her. She was a trusted friend to many and she was up for everything. Just four months ago, Emilia was well on her feet and roamed around with her friends, having a beer in that bar in Beatrice Cottages or a walk through the roads of Mbare. Then, all of a sudden, she started feeling sick. She kept telling her friends that she didn’t feel good. The virus had begun to take down her immune system. She had to go to the hospital and her condition grew rapidly worse. Just a few days ago, the doctors told her family that she would die if she didn’t get proper medication. But drugs are expensive. Where to get drugs when you can’t pay for them? After all, there are no license free imitations; the big Parma companies defend their patents like castles. Those who cannot pay simply have to bite the bullet.

But Emilia’s family managed to collect the money for her treatment. They flipped every penny and collected among the more distant relatives. A cousin sent 2000 Rand from South Africa. But it’s too late. On February, 22nd, the day the money is finally scratched together, the girl died. And once again the people of Mbare gathered for the obsequies.

Nokhutula and her brothers were close friends of Emilia, they grew up together and to them, Emilia was the kind of person you sleep together with in one bed and share the most intimate secrets with. They invite us to take part in both the obsequies and the burial one day later. We go to Mbare and meet at Siman’gliso’s house. Together with Shela and Nyaradzi we walk to the place, just about two hundred meters away. At that time I don’t know yet how close my friends from Mbare were to Emilia; I get to know all that I’ve written above in these two days. On our way to Emilia’s house, Shela teaches me some Shona. Trukfamba mu’Mbare, trukando conamo – We are walking through Mbare, on the way to a funeral. I had a different idea of my first sentence in Shona.

The obsequies have already begun when we arrive. Even before we turn into the road, we can hear the singing. It’s not somber or sad, nothing that you would expect for a funeral when you are European. In the first moments I relate it to a birthday party or something of that kind. We reach the house, where the men are all gathered in the shadow under a tree across the street, while the women stand in a semicircle in the garden, clapping and singing. They seem relaxed, they laugh and kid around and only a few, elder women sit aside and watch with somber faces. Shela grabs me on the sleeve, whispers that we should not go there now and drags me towards the men. Brian, another friend of the group, is there, too. We sit down, smoke, and listen to the singing. Brian, Shela and Siman’gliso tell me about Emilia.

Eventually, a pick-up truck comes, with the coffin on the load floor, and backs into the garden. The guys stand up and approach the car. Together, they lift the wooden coffin from the trunk and carry it over the small veranda into the house where the body is to be laid out. Now the men and the women mix again and I, too, go into the yard and join Saba and Andree. A small boy sits in the corner of the garden and cries his heart out. Emilia’s relatives and friends get in a line and, one after the other, go into the house, take a look at their dead girl and walk out through the back door. It is now, that – apart from the small boy – I can see and hear people crying for the first time. Siman’gliso and the others are in the row, too, and beckon me to join. They want me to pass the coffin with them. Inside the house it’s cool and dim, just a little light casts in through the open door. The front end of the coffin is uncovered and there lays Emilia, all but her face covered in white cloth. She looks peaceful.

After everyone has walked past the dead, Emilia’s friends carry the coffin back out onto the load floor of the pick-up truck. They cover it and the car leaves for Seke, the village of Emilia’s family. The obsequies is over and the people gradually leave for their way home. We walk back to Siman’gliso’s house and sit together in his living room with a glass of Sprite, gossiping.

The next morning, we raise early, drive to Mbare and gather in front of Emilia’s place. The day before, Nokhutula bought 60 liters of petrol to fuel enough cars. Emilia’s friends all wanted to go to the burial, but didn’t know how to get to the village. After everyone has arrived and yet another car is organized for all the people, we leave for Seke, the village where the burial will take place. Together with the guys, I take a seat on the back of Nokhutula’s pick-up truck. We’re about fifteen people on the small load floor, but neither of us is reserved and we hold on to each other harmoniously. We aren’t even around the first corner when the guys start singing. It sounds similar to what I heard yesterday at the obsequies. Happy, but sincere. One of them sings the verses, the others join in for the refrain and I don’t understand anything since it is all in Shona. But I clap, I wave back and forth and I stomp my foot on the ground along with them, and sometimes, when they repeat the refrain over and over again and when I can make out the words, I even sing with them. The guys now really gather momentum, every now and then one of them whistles or screams while clapping his hand onto his mouth, sounding somewhat like a loud Rididididi. I join in and start screaming, whistling and clapping together with them.

At some point we stop and Brian buys some rum. They cut open a plastic bottle, mix the rum with water and hand it around. After about two hours, we reach Seke. The farm consists of a house, not very big, and face to face of it a round hut made of clay with a roof of straw. On the top end of the courtyard there is a third building under construction, but obviously no one has worked on it for a long time. It sprawles green out of every door and window opening. Some trees cast welcome shadow and everywhere around the farm grows maize. We descend from the pick-up and go to every single person on the yard to greet them. Nyaradzi tells me to say nematambudzko every time I shake someone’s hand. That means I’m sorry. On the way here, I had a bad conscience because I neither knew Emilia nor anyone of her family and still I would come to her funeral. Nokhutula asked me to take the camera and so I felt like a vulture, like one of these yellow press photographers who get their stories out of others’ misery. But the way I was accepted by Emilia’s family quickly took away those feeling. They welcomed me like a brother and her aunty Messa told me that this farm is also my farm and that I should make myself at home. If I had any problem I should tell her. It was her, who later asked me to take pictures and she was next to me when I went into the round hut where Emilia’s body was laid out to photograph the wake. I never felt as an intruder.

After we had greeted everyone but the women who were singing in the hut, we went to the grave that was being prepared for the burial. The men who had dug it out were just laying the bricks of the side walls. Emilia’s father and grandfather were with us, and on the way, her father told me about how painful it was for him that his daughter was not around anymore. But life would go on, he said, and never have I heard this sentence spoken with so much conviction. This man radiated an admirable peace and hope. Then he thanked me for everything I had done for their family, and I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t done anything for this family; I just came for the funeral of their daughter. In the opposite, these people did so much for me by sharing this difficult moment with me and thus let me take part in their culture in such a unique way, and I told him that.

After we got back to the farm, Siman’gliso and his friend brought out two big drums and we began singing again. It was the same songs we had sung on the car and I understood now that it hadn’t been just for fun but to rehearse the songs before they performed them here. We grouped around the drummers and danced and clapped, and soon the women around began to dance the jiti. For this traditional dance they bend over and vigorously swing their hips and backside towards a person or the drum or whatever they dance at. Some pulled out some bank notes and threw them in the crowd and Kugi would pick them up and collect them. The dancers were rewarded for their performance. The singing went on for about two hours, with brakes, since the sun burnt down mercilessly and everyone was drenched in sweat. Eventually we went into the round hut and continued there, with the women dancing the jiti at Emilia’s coffin and everyone taking up her picture, holding it above the head while dancing and passing it on to the next person. Once more, Emilia celebrated with her friends.

Then it became silent. The people went outside and took their lunch. Only the closest relatives remained in the hut and silently sat on the floor in front of the coffin. Messa went inside with me and asked me to photograph. There was a sacral atmosphere in the room and I tried to move as silent as possible. I was in the hut for about half an hour when the coffin was opened and moved to the center of the room. Messa asked me to take a picture of her and her sister with their dead niece. Then, one after the other, the people came inside to say good bye. They circled Emilia’s coffin, some would stop briefly to touch or kiss her, and many cried. I pressed myself to the wall and I really felt being in the wrong place now. It was very, very intimate. But I didn’t want to disturb by just standing up and leaving, either. So I made myself as small as possible and huddled further to the wall. When Siman’gliso and his friends came in and I saw the pain in their eyes, when Brian bent down to kiss his dead friend, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I broke into tears and left the hut together with them. I was relieved to finally be outside since I really felt trapped between the urge not to disturb the intimacy and the fear to break it through the slightest motion.

After everyone was at Emilia’s body, the coffin was taken outside on the courtyard, and a priest spoke some words in Shona; probably a prayer, but I don’t know and I didn’t want to ask, either. Then Siman’gliso and his friends hauled the coffin to the load floor of a pick-up, the grandmothers and the aunties took a seat next to it and the whole crowd moved to the cemetery. Emilia was bedded on the pile of earth next to the grave and everyone sat down on the floor. The priest spoke again, this time passionately and vigorously, and he walked up and down on the open grave like a tiger in a cage so that I was afraid that he might fall into it any minute. After he had ended, single people stood up and held speeches of which unfortunately I didn’t understand anything. Every time when a person finished speaking and sat down again, the women cheered stridently and clapped. After the coffin was finally lowered into the grave, they put a heavy iron slab on it and fixed it with concrete. The concrete was prepared with water which had been in a jar under Emilia’s coffin all the time. Then some wooden sticks were put on the concrete and finally the earth was shoveled in the hole. The people at the grave grabbed the spade from each other and poured the soil in the opening as fast as possible. It almost looked like a contest and the people rooted for each other. I don’t know yet about the meaning of the water, the wood and the common shoveling, but Nokhutula promised to find it out and I will write it later in another post. Suddenly, a man came with a bucket full of water and spilled it over two of the women standing on the grave. Everyone laughed and cheered and then the three started a wild chase through the maize fields while the others started singing and dancing again. Two men were drumming, and the women danced the jiti at Emilia one last time. The last song was quiet and melancholic but still happy. I didn’t understand much, but the refrain was always the same: Bye bye, Emilia…

After the song had ended, the people spread out. Some went back to the farm, others started their way home. The sky was overcast now and the first raindrops started falling. Bolts flashed in the clouds and somewhere in the distance, the thunder growled. We hopped on the pick-up and left for Harare. It began to rain heavily now. We moved closer together on the load board, put our arms around each other and covered our heads with jackets and sweaters. It was nice, back there in the rain. And then we started singing again. Bye bye Emilia…

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