Thursday, March 09, 2006

Funerals and paradoxes

A big woman with a big heart…

I promised a story of a volunteer’s life here…so I wanted to share about this beautiful, incredible woman who I have kind of fallen in love with here. Next to my mom, she is one of the women who I respect and love most in the world…
Her name is MaBeauty. Here is her photo…she is the absolute Websters’ dictionary of an African mama. She is fat, and believe me, that is a compliment in Africa. She is regal and wise and humble and generous to a fault. She is everyone’s mother…
So just a few weeks ago, we (myself and a fellow volunteer, Sarah) were invited to a funeral in the community. So now I can share with you from first hand experience what the a day in her life is like…
First, let me introduce you to Ma Beauty – she is about 5’2, about 250 pounds, with a beautiful golden hue to her skin. She wears a lot of hats, and she laughs like a school girl, with this deep, resonating, joy-filled laugh. Every time she greets me, she says in broken English, Eat, eat, you never eat enough! They are trying to fatten me up here in Africa!!!!
MaBeauty has been a faithful volunteer with Masoyi Home Based Care for 8 years, working mostly in patient care until just last year when she became the cook in the kitchen of the preschool. She is ALWAYS trying to feed you, so if anyone of you are concerned about me starving while in Africa, I assure you it could never happen to me while I am friends with MaBeauty!
At around 5 am, Ma Beauty’s alarm goes off. She gently nudges you awake (although this may sound odd, it is common to share a bed when you are a guest just because of the limited number of beds), saying, “time for prayers”. Ma Beauty kneels by her bed, praying for all 13 of her children, me, Sarah, fellow volunteers, children, and for her patients and friends she visits. She then screams at the top of her lungs for her 13-year-old son, Kapela, to come and fetch water for us to bathe in. The chilly water arrives in a large bucket, and you stand there trying to bathe without getting the floor too wet. Breakfast arrives, which is Ramen noodles and tea. Then, we embark on our Saturday duties. Ma Beauty uses her spare time to visit former patients and friends who have recently died in the community.
MaBeauty’s days when we are NOT around involves much of the same…she sends one of her 13 kids to collect water, they prepare breakfast together, she travels to Lula, the childcare center, and works from 8 to 5 every day. She returns home at dusk, greeting everyone, which takes about an hour (honestly, it took us over 3 hours to walk home from the funeral. As I mentioned before, greeting is serious business in Africa), and prepares dinner for her kids. After dinner, the whole family gathers around the family television to watch the evening news in Zulu (a commonly spoken South African language), and she goes to bed at around 9 pm.
Sounds pretty regular, eh? Minus the stop at starbucks or tim hortons, life for people in Africa is like life everywhere else. They talk a LOT more to their neighbors though.
Except for the funerals. We attended the funeral for MaBeauty’s nephew, John, who was 35 and died of complications to HIV/AIDS. Funerals in Africa are a 2 day matter for you…it begins the night before the burial, with an all-night prayer vigil held at the house of the family. The service, which was held in a circus tent outside of the small brick house that was owned by John, began at 7:30 in the morning on Sunday. The funeral was supposed to be held on Saturday, but because too many people died that week, the funeral needed to be held on Sunday. I asked MaBeauty how many funerals she is invited to attend every week, and she said 8 or 9. I asked her how old the people are who are passing away, and she said 21 to 25 years old. I couldn’t speak when she told me this…I know that these are likely AIDS related deaths, and it reminds me of all of the young people we work with in the community, and I wonder about what the future holds for them.
So back to the funeral; women must have their heads covered to show respect for the dead, and the wife of a deceased man must wear all black. She needs to mourn her husband’s death for the entire year after he passes away, wearing black every day. Men also wear black after the death of their wife, but they only wear black for 6 months.
There is a lot of singing, and then the preacher shares, the friends share, and the honoured guests share. Have I mentioned before that you need to be ready to preach on the drop of a hat in Africa? If you happen to attend a funeral, you would need to be ready to preach. I was sitting there, singing hymns at the funeral when the preacher, Colin, told everyone that I had a word from the Lord to share. So I can now say that I preached at my first funeral! It was an incredibly humbling experience…I know that it was only because of the colour of my skin, but it was still overwhelming to speak to a community of people about the faithfulness of Christ in the face of extreme, challenging circumstances like those they face…
After the service, we rode in the hearse to the burial grounds, which was a desolate field just outside of the community. The entire way, the funeral procession (which was one car, the hearse, and about 45 people following behind singing songs of mourning) attracted attention from people in the city. Children covered their eyes when we drove past, MaBeauty said that they are afraid of so many people dying. There was another tent erected by a weed-covered grave with freshly turned soil, and a small team of gravediggers waiting to refill the hole. We sang more songs, I prayed again, and the entire procession (which had grown to about 60 people by the time we arrived) sang a song of mourning as the men took turns covering the grave.

I am not sure how to describe how I felt…I have been looking over my blog for the past little while, realizing that a lot of my posts are not emotional, while others were written with tears streaming down my face. I feel like the tragedy and the beauty of this place collide in such unexpected places, right before my eyes. At the funeral, I could see the beauty of family and friends, the joy and peace of mourning as a community, and I was reminded yet again of the absolute heartbreak that is the AIDS pandemic. There is a gap left in this culture – the young mothers and fathers are missing, the children are going to funerals more times than they eat meat in a week…and all without cause. As I visit the homes of the dying, and as I am beginning to know the orphans more and more, I keep facing the fact that all of this can be avoided. This thought is broken and incomplete because I am facing more questions than answers right now.

grace and peace.



Blogger Aiban said... have a wonderful story here. I am please to meet MaBeauty. I'm yet to read your other stories and Im sure to enjoy them...Keep writing.

8:15 AM  

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