The Stranger at the Funeral
This was true mourning — bonafide, unvarnished warts-and-all grief. The kind last seen when Diana’s little white Uno was found in that little French tunnel looking like a child had tried to open a corned beef tin without the key and given up halfway. Meaty, ancestral tears punctuated by shrieks as piercing as Viserion’s death cry after the Night King went full Steve Backley on him during the last series of Game of Thrones. That and singing — singing, singing and more of it. This is saying goodbye the Malawian way.
I have only ever actually visited Malawi once before. It was sweltering, it was dusty and it was full of relatives speaking a language which was alien but unmistakably warm-hearted to my tin ear. That was in 2002 and I was just a 14-year-old boy from Yorkshire with a dick and a dream, here for a family wedding and possibly a fake European replica football shirt.
Fast forward fifteen years and the circumstances couldn’t be more different. Uncle Cherby (pronounced the same as ‘Kirby’ of ‘dream world’ fame. Weirdly that reference didn’t play well in the motherland despite me and my cousins sending two Snes consoles home to Africa over the years exactly so our family didn’t miss out on banter like this) — had died. His funeral would be the first time we met. The burial our goodbye.
The big man was the eldest son. In Malawi that means you are the main man, the head honcho. Its not like the UK where you get the biggest dinner and the first use of your mum’s Ford Ka. All the responsibility fell on Uncle Cherby to make sure the rest of the family didn’t turn into spice addicts perennially in search of their next fix outside Kasungu Tesco*. It was a role he’d carried out dutifully, joyously and successfully until a bout of Malaria ended his watch.
I flew in dreaming of returning to glowing afternoon sun and the embrace of a sombre but beaming family whilst Wizkid — Ojuelegba (Remix) played in the terminal on repeat. Instead I arrived to wailing and tears — an experience my uni days had steeled me for.
Things move at their own pace in Malawi, especially when you can’t speak the language. I primed for waiting. Waiting for relatives to arrive; waiting for the body; waiting for the coffin; waiting for a respectable amount of time to suggest moving from your state of head-bowed reflection to get your first meal in two days wouldn’t be a gross disrespect; waiting for the funeral to start; waiting for the funeral to end; waiting for the right time during the fourth prayer session in three days to tell them you’re an agnostic.
Death divides families by its nature but in Malawian bereavement everybody has their place. At the lying in state, women sit to one side consoling each other. Crying, through sobbing, through writhing in anguish. Each new arrival tears the sorrowful scab off anew releasing another tide of tears. On the other side the men look on, stern, waiting for a break to walk away to the car park to dispense with the straight face for a distracting quip.
When the coffin is brought to the house the women sit inside, for more tears but this time joined by a choir for singing that won’t stop until the body is buried. The men station themselves outside for the long night, joined by most of the village. It is then that my subconscious comes for me.
I told you to eat at the airport dickhead. Shouldn’t have turned your nose up at that springbok burrito in Joburg should you. Now look at you, screaming silently for a crumb of comfort eight hours into Mournfest ’17. You — a non-believing heathen with no spirit or faith to sustain you in times when practical things like food and science are scarce. You’re going to die out here tonight fresher. That’s right, your mum and aunty didn’t tell you did they? You’re sleeping outside. Regardless of your lingering flu, you’re sleeping outside with the wild dogs, snakes, chickens and mosquitoes because — tradition. You are dead.
Tradition is a magic word across Africa and Asia which means sadistic elders can run roughshod over any human rights they see fit without any fear of legal reprise. Tonight was my turn. My All Saints denim jacket was no fit armour for what was to come.
Outside I slept. What they don’t tell you about Africa is that as well as the malnourished babies with swollen bellies, the innately corrupt princely Nigerian fraudsters and flies that land on anything at any time, at night it is freezing cold. I get four hours’ kip broken up by mozzys letting me know that regardless of my 50% deet Boots over-the-counter solution, they’ll sting my face with no regard to how good my travel pics need to look for the gram. The singing tremoring through the air from the coffin room, offered regular untimely reminders of reality in case I was in any danger of forgetting the premise for this curious situation.
Just be prepared my friend. The five-hour funeral should be held in the same regard as those insane charity feats that retired sportsmen take on to squeeze cash from blue chip watch companies and global insurers. Midway through, tired of having its home unsettled by humankind, a snake rifled the congregation biting folk. Someone else sat on a beehive. I could have sworn that four hours in, as 250 people sat in 34-degree heat watching some hench locals fill in a grave (why has one of them got a pick-axe?) I saw James Cracknell mop his dripping brow and drop another shirt button to reveal his taut Olympic navel.
Then the tribute was done. Speaker after speaker had honoured a great man and like the North, Malawi remembered. This wasn’t the end. It was a breath in a process that would go on for days, but the rest is a family affair. A man who was a stranger 48 hours prior had become closer to me than I’ll ever really appreciate.
The village had turned out; handshaking and apologising for being a soft-palmed, English-speaking disappointment had become my vocation and uncle Cherby was laid to rest. In four or more languages; in song and dance and snakebite and prayer; by man, woman, child and bee. The Malawian way.
*There is no Tesco in Malawi. Let me free artistically please.