Saturday, February 28, 2015

Esther's Funeral--George's Post


The last two days, Wednesday and Thursday, February 25th and 26th, have been among the longest, and certainly the most physically taxing, of our four months in Blantyre.  On Wednesday, we attended our first Malawian funeral service, for Esther, an 18 year old sister who was a church member.   What we thought would be a short commitment ended up consuming the entire day.  Thursday was devoted to assisting Elder and Sister Bodily, the welfare/humanitarian missionaries for the Zambia Lusaka Mission, in distributing bags of maize meal, cow peas, a soy based relish, and salt, and bottles of cooking oil, to flood displaced victims in temporary camps in the Chikwawa District, about an hour and a half drive south of Blantyre.  We had a couple weeks forewarning about that project, and it ended up being as arduous as we anticipated, and as interesting and rewarding as you might expect.  Right now I am close to being as physically exhausted, and emotionally keyed up, as I have been during our mission; and though weary to my bone, it is hard to sleep.  We have lots of pictures of the trip to Chikwawa, but none of the funeral.

Carole will write about the refugee project, in a separate blog post, so I will focus instead on Wednesday’s funeral.   Prior to Wednesday, Carole and I had had only a passing experience with Malawian funerals.  Several times in the last month, we have witnessed funeral processions in Chilobwe, one of the communities where some of our members live.  We had heard that Malawi weddings and funerals are each lengthy elaborate affairs, often involving whole communities and hundreds of people, and extremely expensive for the affected families. 

Each of the events we witnessed followed a similar pattern.    At the head of the procession were eight to ten men, some carrying small bunches of branches, serving as a vanguard for the funeral procession, sweeping the branches side to side, forewarning bystanders.  The proper protocol is for bystanders to show respect by pausing and then standing off by the side of the road until the entire funeral caravan has completely passed by.  Towards the end of the convoy were several cars, followed by an open flatbed truck, full of mourners, carrying the coffin; otherwise all of the participants are on foot.  If there is formal order in which mourners file, the pattern is not readily apparent to us.   We assume, however, the cars and flatbed truck are reserved primarily to carry family members, close friends, and community leaders.  The size of the funeral parties is difficult to gauge, but in each case, it has taken the convoy at least five minutes to pass.   So I would estimate the groups to be well in excess of a 100 to 150 people, comprised of all age groups, from mothers with infants to slightly bent seniors, young girls and boys to adults and adolescents.  But apart from these brief encounters, we had no feel for a traditional Malawian funeral.

While Esther was a member of the church, no one in our district (consisting of the four branches in Blantyre) knew her.  Apparently she had joined the church some time ago while living in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, a five hour drive from Blantyre. We don’t know quite why she was in Blantyre, but she recently had come here, either to visit or for medical treatment.  We were later told that she had a grandfather who was also a church member, but otherwise none of her family was in the church or appears to know anything about the church.  But because of her church membership, the church was asked to handle the funeral arrangements—including a vigil the night before the church service, the formal church service, getting flowers for the grave, transportation to the cemetery, and the gravesite program.

The morning of the funeral service we, together with several of the other full-time missionaries, were invited at the last moment to attend the service.  The branch members in charge of the program must have been worried that the branches wouldn’t have enough people out to show proper support for Esther’s family.  We were pleased to come out and were, of course, curious about how the service itself would be handled—never having attended one before.  Brother Banda, the Elders Quorum President of the Zingwangwa Branch, conducted the meeting in the chapel, while President Kanjala, the Branch President of the Blantyre Second Branch, presided.  Sisters from one of the other branches arranged for bouquets of flowers.  Somewhat to our surprise, the chapel was full when the program began, which surely would have been a comfort to Esther’s family.   

As it turned out, the church service itself was very familiar, following what for us is a typical format for Mormon funerals—opening and closing prayers, congregational songs, and two talks.  Both speakers were church members from Lilongwe, where Esther had joined the church, so they knew her and were able to personalize their comments.  Since the talks were given in Chichewa, without translation to English, we don’t know what was said.  But whatever they said, both speakers spoke forcefully and without notes.  (Incidentally, we have been surprised with the ease with which many church members speak in public.)  Later I was told both addresses had been basic doctrinal talks, outlining the plan of salvation and our hope of the resurrection and of a better life to the world to come.  Neither was, however, a eulogy as we understand it.    The program itself finished in about an hour, ending shortly before noon.  Carole and I had appointments scheduled for the afternoon and expected to take off right after the service to get lunch prior to our afternoon commitments.

The familiarity of the morning’s activities quickly gave way to an afternoon that was totally different from anything we expected.  Just as we were getting ready to leave the Blantyre chapel, Brother Chinomwe (a counselor in the Blantyre First Branch) asked if we could provide “transport” for several church members to the gravesite service.  After family and church members had crowded into a private bus, a flatbed truck, and several cars to travel to the cemetery, there not sufficient seats or standing slots for everyone wanting to go to the cemetery.  We said we could help out, but would not be available to help with the return trip because of our afternoon appointments.   We assumed, and this ended up being a flawed assumption, the cemetery was close by (somewhere within the city limits), and we could easily make the round trip in time for our meetings.  We also assumed those we were driving wouldn’t be stranded by our heading back to town after dropping them off, because they could get a ride to Blantyre’s city center using one of the many mini buses servicing Blantyre, Limbe and the surrounding communities. 

Recently, we have found there can, and frequently are, major difficulties in understanding precisely what is wanted or needed by Malawian church members when they ask for our help.  Rarely is it clear what they want.  Language may be part of the problem, but I don’t think it accounts for all of the misunderstandings.  Often we think they are asking for a little help, only to discover they have something quite different in mind.  What we anticipate is a 30 minute drive or time commitment ends up being two to four times as long.  Moreover, requests often come with no advance notice.  Wednesday was just such an occasion. 

[Why they are not clearer about the extent or nature of their needs—and precisely what aid they are seeking from us--is a good question.   Perhaps they are not clear because they know we, as full-time missionaries, are here to serve, so what does it matter whether it takes us much longer to help out than might normally be expected.  Perhaps they are accustomed to helping one another without imposing time limits or otherwise limiting the nature of their help.  If they treat one another that way, why should they, they may think, expect any less of us—we should be equally willing to devote time, to be flexible in readjusting our schedules, to break commitments to others, and to make personal sacrifices.  It is also possible they operate from a bit of an aid-dependent mind set:  Westerners have the resources and means to help; they have helped in the past; so there is no reason why they shouldn’t help out now.   Moreover, Westerners can afford to help (even after helping, the Westerners will have more than enough for themselves), so why should they complain, even if the aid sought goes far beyond what the Malawians would ever ask of one another.  Fear may also be a motivating factor: they may be afraid that we will not help out if we “really” understand the scope of the help being sought: best to be unclear and to count on the Westerners not backing out.  There is no harm in pushing the envelope.]

In any event, what we initially thought of as no more than an hour commitment (a quick drive to the cemetery) morphed into an all-day adventure, one we thoroughly enjoyed and one which I imagine we will remember for the rest of our lives.  The cemetery was not in Blantyre, but instead in a small village, called Mpemba, about 20 kilometers south of Blantyre, off the main road from Blantyre to Chikwawa.   As we drove south toward Mpemba, we found ourselves driving into increasingly heavy cloud cover, accompanied by heavy rain.  The drive out of town, on both the paved road, and muddy country lane, took us the better part of an hour.  By the time we got to the end of the line (which was in the middle of nowhere), it was evident we could not leave our passengers stranded there--we were miles from a paved road where they could catch a mini-bus back into Blantyre.  So whether we wanted to stay or not, we were committed for the long haul.

The last several kilometers of the drive were on red clay, rutted roads, climbing steadily up through maize fields and past clusters of small homemade brick homes, some with thatched roofs.    Short of the village, the bus, flatbed truck and cars pulled off the single lane road, disgorging their passengers for the final walk to the cemetery.  Driving closer to our destination was no longer possible, owing to the narrowness of the lane and the slickness of the path.  As we got to the parking area, we could see the funeral party stretched out in a long file, slowly winding its way further uphill toward the village.   By this time, the weather had further deteriorated, the rain coming down heavily and the footing on the path becoming extremely treacherous.  Some in the funeral party had umbrellas, but most did not.  Yet inspite of everything, they trudged ahead, seemingly oblivious to the rotten weather, the mud, and wetness.

Unfortunately, Carole and I were ill-prepared for an afternoon of rainy weather.  Early Wednesday morning, just before heading to the funeral, we were forced to switch trucks, because of a problem with our safety alarm system.  In our haste to get to the funeral on time, we failed to transfer our raincoats and umbrellas to our replacement vehicle.  After having been drenched the prior Saturday, Carole decided to forego the hike up the hill, electing to stay with the truck.  By this time, it was obvious we would need to cancel our appointments.   Leaving our passengers without a ride back to town (there being no mini bus service within kilometers of the village) was not an option.  And in any event, we were already too far out of Blantyre to make it back to our appointments on time.  Under the circumstances, and anxious to see the balance of the funeral activities, I opted to ignore, as best I could the awful weather, and joined the long line of the funeral party slugging its way up to the village.  It was a 20 minute hike to Mpemba, steadily uphill, past maize fields and small farms.  The main trail (by this time, it was little more than a country lane) meandered, crisscrossed by side trails heading off to who knows where. 

I was one of the last to arrive in the village, which is perched on a small rocky knoll in the hills, and consists of a handful of traditional mud brick homes, outbuildings, and animal pens for hogs and cattle.  So far from Blantyre, the village has no electricity or plumbing or indoor water.   Mpemba is located in a high plain, surrounded by hills, just north of where the highlands drop off, through a series of ridges, finally flowing down into the bottom lands, where the Shirer River cuts through southern Malawi.  (The recent rains have caused heavy flooding in the bottom lands, where Chikwawa District is located, leaving over 300,000 homeless and, in some cases, leaving large villages isolated from the neighboring communities and major roads).  But Mpemba has been spared those problems, sitting as it does high in the uplands.  Esther’s family home is situated on one of the highest points in the village, surrounded by several thatched roof outbuildings and sheds.  Just before reaching the flat shelf, upon which the family home was built, is a final climb up a muddy ridge, which had, by the time I got there, been churned into six inches of muck due to the rain and heavy traffic.  Footing was tricky at best. 

I would estimate close to 200 to 300 people were assembled around Esther’s home, of which approximately 40 to 50 were church members who had managed to make the trek from Blantyre.  The coffin was placed in the family home, with 20 to 25 crowded inside, sitting cheek by jowl, and another 10 to 15 clustered by the front door, many being church members.  The rest of the audience lined the sides of four or five buildings surrounding the family home, seeking whatever meager shelter from the constant rain they could under the slight overhangs of the thatched roofs.  Most were without umbrellas.  Initially I joined one group of men leaning up against the mud wall of a home, but later, when offered a chair, sat outside totally exposed to the rain.   For the better part of two hours, I sat hatless in the rain, wearing my gray pin stripe suit, with a white shirt, and muted red tie, and certainly would have cut quite a strange sight for the villagers.  I was the only white and the only Westerner in the audience. 

But curious though my appearance may have been, it was nothing more than an oddity.  For over two hours, the church members, to give support to the family, sang one church hymn after another.  They had brought hymnals with them.  They were as close to a celestial choir as one is apt to experience in this life.  Their music was simple but sublime.  Most of the lyrics and melodies would have been new to the villagers—since the songs were largely drawn from traditional Mormon sources-- Come Come Ye Saint; O God, The Eternal Father; Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah; How Great Thou Art; Abide With Me, Tis Eventide.  The community listened spellbound.  Once I can remember looking to the hills across the way, seeing the clouds and mist swirling below us, and the rare breaks of blue being suddenly engulfed again by more clouds and mist.  It was a sacred setting and, at least, for a while, I think most of us thought we were on sacred ground, consecrated by the holiness of life and death, and blessed by the sweet spirit that can come from heavenly music.

Shortly before the village women brought dishes of food to the family and guests (including the church members), there was one brief comic event.   For a while I was standing near to the mud ridge, just below the family home.  When women, especially the older ones, started up the ridge, or descended, I would offer a hand of support.  I am not sure it helped much, but it seemed the right (and the proper) thing to do.   Occasionally, another African would also help.  One woman, with a small child in hand, started down the ridge. She offered the child to the African, who in turn passed the infant on to me to hold, while he reached back to help the mother with her footing.  While the infant had no problem being held by the African, he immediately shrieked when I took him in my arms, and his utter panic and cries only subsided when he was passed back to his mother.  The villagers found the event understandably humorous. 

After a couple of hours, and after the weather broke a bit, I called Carole on my cell phone, encouraging her to walk up to the village.  I met her half way and we got back to the village just as they started a short hillside program.  Brother Banda spoke, representing the church, and he was followed by various village elders and family members, including the deceased’s uncle, a distinguished looking African, with an impressive bearing, who was the family representative.  Everything was said in Chichewa.  A closing prayer was offered and then the group broke up and proceeded back down the hill, in the direction we had come, to the village gravesite, sequestered in a small copse of trees, off the main path.   While in transit, the church sisters began singing again, but this time chanting some traditional Malawian songs. 

The community encircled the burial site, family members in the foreground, church members in front of the burial plot, and villagers in the back and on both flanks.  Again the church members sang church hymns, and their singing was then followed by a few short remarks.  One of the speakers was the village elder.  He was ancient in appearance, standing less than five feet, wearing white tennis shirts, without laces, and bearing a white knit cap (perhaps suggesting that he was a Muslim). The coffin was lowered into the grave and six or more men covered the coffin with dirt, using the traditional khasus as shovels, and built up a mound several feet above the ground.  The choir sing multiple refrains of  “God Be With You Until We Meet Again,” as various family members and village leaders were invited to come forward to place floral and other decorative wreathes on the grave.  Each time one of our church sisters would carry a wreathe to the gravesite, bow before the guest as a sign of respect, and extend the wreathe to the guest to place upon the grave.

For the most part, the ceremonies were conducted without bursts of uncontrollable emotion—but instead were done in a quiet but reverent manner.  But the burial itself was obviously a painful time for the family.  Several family members had difficulty containing their emotions, breaking into fits of sobbing.    After the burial itself was completed, but before the end of the formal program, Esther’s sister, who we were told was doing something in China, finally arrived at the cemetery.  Unfortunately, she had been unable to get to the village earlier, and had not had time to work through her feelings.  As soon as she arrived, she sobbed uncontrollably, threw herself upon the grave, and was largely inconsolable.  After her mother wrapped her daughter in her arms, and constantly caressed her, she found a margin of peace and regained a little of her composure.  Her unexpected outbursts triggered similar expressions of emotions from several of the other women in the congregation.  But finally she quieted, finding, I think, some comfort in the singing of the church members.  Her feelings were nonetheless still very close to the surface as we reached the end of the gravesite service.  Brother Mkandawire and Alex Tsegula of our branch gave the dedicatory prayer and final prayer, bringing the afternoon’s service to an end.

The villagers then returned to their homes and the church members headed back to the bus, trucks and cars for the return trip to Blantyre.  On the way back, the rain picked up, rendering the red clay roads almost impassible.  The bus was stuck for two hours and, because our car was blocked by the bus, we in turn were delayed for more than two hours before getting back on a paved road.  The funeral was, I suspect, a fusion combining elements of a traditional Malawian funeral with that of a Mormon service.