On Grieving, in Zambia and America

I had been trying to avoid one for most of my service. Sometimes, it seemed like they were happening every week. When they happen, work stops- villages empty and farmers leave their fields. Although invited to some of them, I would make excuses. After all, I had never personally known the person, and to go would have seemed like some perverse cultural voyeurism. But then I received the call.

Watson Chiwanga was dead. 
 His funeral was the next morning.

Watson was a farmer that I worked with, the chairperson of the Kamtolo Group I trained in fish-farming. He was originally a Northerner, but had come to Eastern Province as a government worker and never left. He was educated, spoke English fluently, and endlessly bold in his farming. But he was one of the furthest farmers I worked with, about 12km away, so I didn’t visit very often. One day, after having not visited for awhile, I rolled into his farm on my bike. Watson was slumped against a tree, a blanket covering his now-frail body. It looked like he had lost half his body-weight. I knelt down to greet him, but he just stared straight ahead. His wife called me from around the corner and explained that their daughter had passed away recently in an accident and Watson was sick- he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t laugh anymore. She didn’t have a word for it, but it sounded like he was severely depressed. We discussed the group’s fish-farming, and as I left I knelt down besides Watson and told him I was sorry about his daughter. Watson would never improve. Sometimes I would be able to talk to him a little bit, but it was now his wife that I worked with on fish-farming. So it was no surprise when I got a call one night that Watson had passed and his funeral would be the next day. I had no excuses this time- I knew Watson, and I worked with him and his family. As I biked to their farm the next day, I purposefully went slow, stopping occasionally to fiddle with my bike, trying to delay the inevitable. Several truck-loads of mourners passed me on my bike. There is a saying that it takes a village to bury a child. It takes one to bury one as well. Funerals here in Zambia are community affairs. Everybody is linked by kinship somehow, and it seems like everybody is obligated to go to funerals, no matter how poorly you know the person. As I approached the Watson farm, I dismounted my bike and started to walk. I could hear otherworldly wailing emanating from the farm. I had no idea what to expect, or what to do, so I just followed an elderly man who had also just dismounted his bike. As we walked, the wailing got louder. As we got closer, I could make out the women gathered in the center of the yard around what must have been Watson’s body. They were wailing and shrieking, pounding their chests and throwing themselves to the ground — a scene, I thought, straight from the Bible. The men were off to one side, somber-faced and sitting on the ground. I sat with them, feeling completely out of my element. Unlike any other situation in Zambia, the muzungu got no attention. I slipped in quietly with the crowd of men and sat silently. All attention was directed towards the mourners. I don’t know how long that went on, the wailing, the shrieking- but it was heart-rending. Eventually, a truck backed into the yard, and a group of the men grabbed the coffin and loaded it into the bed. The grieving women got into the back of the truck with Watson. In the crowd of mourning women, I made out Watson’s wife. I had never seen her anything but happy and laughing, and now tears were streaming down her face as she shrieked and was carried by other women. For a moment, our eyes met as she was carried into the truck. I don’t know why, but I felt ashamed. 
The truck left for the cemetery, and the other mourners followed it on foot. Like the siren of an ambulance, the wails faded as the truck made its way towards the cemetery. The man who I had followed noticed I was out of place, and said we did not have to go to the burial- we had already shown our respects. He invited me to follow him back to his house for a cup of tea. I was rattled, so I accepted.

Grief/ America
I don’t remember much about my brother’s funeral. I remember shopping with my cousin for a suit-I don’t think I had owned one before that. I remember the visitation, where I stood with my mother and father as mourners filed past and told us how sorry they were. It was somber and subdued. I was left alone with my brother at one point and said goodbye. The funeral itself was packed with people. There was no shrieking or wailing, only the occasional muffled sob. I remember trying to cry, but not being able to and feeling guilty for it. I remember thinking, I have to be strong for my parents, and suppressing the urge to cry whenever it came in public. I would cry in private sometimes, in my room. It would come on me unawares and then disappear as suddenly as it came.

Grief in Zambia is a violent hurricane, a natural disaster that rends mind and soul. Like many natural disasters, the community works together to put back together the pieces. Grief in America is a thousand rainy days that only you can see, each violent in its own way. Grief in Zambia is something that is shared, a burden that is carried by everybody. Grief in America is subdued. With our culture of rugged individualism, is it a surprise that grief in America is largely a private process? Grieving is a burden we carry on our own, in private. The wailing and thrashing, the beating of chests I had witnessed in Zambia- I wish I could have done that at my brother’s funeral. It’s certainly how I felt. But for whatever reason, our culture discourages that. It’s a sign of vulnerability. We value the strong individual who is able to maintain composure in the face of such extreme emotional duress.

And I couldn’t help but think that the way Zambians grieve affects the way that they process that grief. For years afterwards, even to this day, I can hardly talk about my brother because of the pain it brings me. When Zambians ask me about my family, I tell them I have a brother, but I often don’t tell him he is passed because I can’t bring myself to say it. It’s something that’s still immensely painful for me. When I first heard rural Zambians talk about their deceased loved ones, it often struck me as cold. I’ve seen parents talk about children who have passed on, children about parents, siblings about siblings, like they were describing last season’s harvest. They can bring up a death mid-conversation and quickly move on, with a boldness that has escaped me in describing my brothers death. Maybe, they way they grieve — the hurricane — is cathartic, allowing them to release all of these emotions at once that have been slowly leaking out of me for the past seven years. They can take a tragedy, embrace it, make it apart of themselves, and then keep going; after all, mouths have to be fed. To keep those mouths fed, fields need to be worked. Life for a subsistence farmer is a delicate balancing act. Maybe it’s some sort of cultural strategy or coping method that has evolved to deal with the tragically too-common deaths that characterize rural life here. Maybe the way we grieve is also a cultural adaptation. As we moved off our farms and into cities, as death rates plummeted and death became more infrequent, as our family sizes got smaller our attitudes towards death shifted. In our economy, driven by the clock, whole communities can’t afford to take off to support the grieving. As medical advances slashed death rates, they become more and more uncommon and we lose any ‘emotional calluses’ that might be built up over time to cushion against the blow. And I’m not saying that deaths in small families are more tragic than those that occur in big families; each death in infinitely, unquantifiably tragic. But the death of a child in a family of four, an American-sized family, is a lot more lonely than the death the death of a child in a family of eight, a Zambian-sized family. I think Watson’s own reactions to his daughter’s death typified these changing attitudes towards death. Watson had a family and upbringing uncharacteristic of typical rural Zambians. He was brought up in an urban setting, was educated, and worked in town as a civil servant. He had a small family. Zambia is rapidly urbanizing- its population is already one of the most urban in Africa. As this change takes place, will their grieving habits change as well?

As an outsider, I can never understand completely how Zambians grieve. But I can’t help but feel that on the day of my brothers funeral, I wish I had been allowed to shriek and wail, to throw myself onto the ground.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Brian Elmore’s story.