Malidu: funeral(s). In America death is a subdued thing, funerals are attended by close family and friends; they happen away from the home, in venues edesigned just for that purpose. I’d only been to two funerals in America. In Malawi funerals encompass the whole community. It doesn’t matter if you knew the deceased or not; if you knew their family, lived close-bye, worked with their relative, happen to be close to the place it’s happening, or the death was particularly tragic or mysterious you’re expected to attend. It’s a slightly different cultural take on mortality.
Most funerals are set up like this. The night the person dies the family of the deceased gathers together with the body in the house they died in, and someone stays with the body at all times. Meanwhile the extended families and neighbors alert the traditional authorities, family members, friends, and anyone else who may care on their mobile phones. Those people tell more people, and all of a sudden the whole village knows. The next morning men come and sit under the shade of trees outside the house, and women arrive with baskets of cassava flour, firewood, and buckets of water to begin cooking. They’ll pound flour, cook nsima, stir beans, do dishes, and feed the crowd until it’s all over. It’s backbreaking work, and when the women take breaks they sit separately from the men. They never cross the invisible line separating the genders.
The community will sit like this, cooking, eating, singing, praying, for several days, until the extended family members can arrive in the village for the burial. Then there will be a mass delivered by a priest outside the family home, a coffin will be delivered and the corpse carried unto the yard, and then the group as a whole parades to the graveyard. All the while women wail, screaming and moaning in eerily inhuman sounds, to show their grief. Not all of it is genuine mourning, wailers are often employed by the host family to give their loved one a proper send-off. It makes the hair on my neck stand on end. I’ll never get used to the sound.
I’m not sure what happens in the graveyard, I’ve never been allowed in. Graveyards are sacred spaces in Malawi, haunts of witchcraft and spirits. Malawians don’t touch trees planted there, don’t hunt animals that reside there. You don’t enter unless expressly allowed by the chief. There is no casual visiting of family members, graveyards are for the dead, not the living. I’ve never been afforded the privilege of entering. I do know that families purchase a few plates and bowls to rest on top the grave so the deceased will be able to take nsima in the afterlife.
Afterwords the party disperses, people resume their routines and the family returns home. During the ceremony money has been collected to help compensate for the loss of their loved one. It’s customary to give around 200mk, 35 cents, for the death of an elderly person or someone you didn’t know so well. For the loss of bread winner, a person in their prime, you give more to help the family scrape by for a little bit. For the loss of child you give more, because what else can you do? The most I’ve ever given was 2,000mk, or around three dollars, when the father of one of my students drowned while fishing. I gave it to a neighbor to share without tying me to the donation.
I think the most interesting thing about funerals is how rarely they’re sad. Even when the loss is significant funerals are mostly upbeat affairs. I never attend funerals by myself, I always make sure I have a Malawian friend to escort me. Early in my service I tried to fit in with the women, but that didn’t go over so well. My first funeral I went with Danford’s daughter Chimwemwe who is exactly my age, and I let her tie a chintenje low around my hips in the manner of unmarried women and wrap my hair up in a matching turban. I thought I looked pretty nice. Then I realized that all the other girls, including 10 year old children, were carrying buckets of water the kilometer to the funeral.
After arguing with Chimwemwe that I can in fact, carry water on my head, she gave me a kiddie bucket less than half the size of the rest. I was pretty salty about it, until we started walking. Carrying a burden on your head on uneven ground uses every muscle in your body. I thought my neck was going to snap in two. By the time we got there I couldn’t feel my arms or back and I’d spilled half my bucket down my front. This gave the women plenty to laugh at. But it didn’t end there. I spent three hours failing to do simple Malawian chores, pounding flour in synch with mortar and pestle, building up fires, stirring nsima with spoons the size of oars, and I vowed never to hang out on the lady’s side again.
Luckily my Group Village Head is a Headwoman, and Ama Damba and I are friends. She’s the only other woman in Old Maula not expected to labor with the rest of our gender. Her inherited authority and my white privilege afford us that. Most of the time I sit with her and we chat and joke in English while sitting on the woven grass mpassas, and some of the more educated men join in. Popo normally sits with us too, a constant source of entertainment for the Malawians. Once I was sitting with her and a man joked that I should take him to America instead of my dog, and Ama Damba jumped in and said “Absolutely not, Popo and Megan are the only two Americans on this mpassa!” Another time I went to leave and Ama Damba said she’d escort me down the road, in typical Malawian fashion. But as soon as we got out of sight of the funeral party she told me “thank goodness you had to leave, I had to urinate for the last half-hour!” and peed right there in the middle of the road. What more can you ask of a chief?
Death in Malawi, like death in America, attracts a fair amount of superstition. There is always speculation and gossip about the cause of death. These are a few of the ways people have supposedly died at funerals I’ve attended: eaten by a crocodile in the river, spiritually infected with HIV through dreams, spiritually murdered in dreams as revenge for sleeping with the Head Teacher’s wife, poisoned by a witch in a dream about drinking water from a glass, sacred to death by a ghost, possessed by a demon, and spiritually murdered by a witch for converting to Jehovah’s Witness. As for the crocodile, I’m pretty sure the guy drowned while checking fish trapes in a flooded river and THEN was eaten, and it was rumored that the girl possessed by a demon actually died from complications of a home abortion.
People go to wild lengths to bury people in their home villages. I’ve heard stories of people dying in South Africa or Tanzania and subsistence farming families scraping together several hundred dollars to ship home the remains. It’s a real struggle when people die on Likoma Island in Lake Malawi, because the morgue is small and there’s only one ferry each week to take corpses to the mainland. Burying them on the island isn’t an option because of the risk of contaminating the water supply. I often wonder why it’s so important to people. It seems a lot more practical to burn the remains and mail them back, but to Malawians it’s absolutely critical to bring your loved one’s home.
I once heard about an elderly widow who died in the village of her husband, away from her sisters and family. The family of the husband were adamant that she would be buried in the village she had lived in, and the family steadfast that she should be buried where she was born. This resulted in a mass brawl and coffin-heist, the coffin getting chucked into a get-away minibus getting pelted with rocks. The fight was so serious several family members had to stop at Nkhata Bay District Hospital before proceeding to the burial.
Another time I was hitchhiking back to Old Maula from Mzuzu when I was offered a ride in the back of a van by a very nice gentleman. He said he could take me halfway home, we just had to stop and pick something up. “It’ll take five minutes, fast fast, and then we’ll go on our way”. Turns out we had to pick up his cousin, at the Nkhata Bay morgue. I hopped out the front while they were sliding the cousin in the back.
Maybe it’s because Malawians deal with so much more death quantitatively, that funerals are such a normalized part of their lives, that the language around them is so blunt. It’s normal to say things like “the woman died on Tuesday, now her dead body is in a freezer in Mzuzu to give time for her son to come from South Africa” or “I am going to the funeral of that old man that lived down by the river, the cousin of Mr. Cassambala, I don’t know his name”. There’s very little grief around the death of someone you didn’t know well.
Around a year into my service a girl in my Peace Corps cohort was killed in a car accident. When I got the news, I was devastated and tried to give my counterpart Danford a hug. He recoiled like I’d tried to kiss him, patting my head with one hand and offering me an ear of boiled maize with the other. Then he told me “you should not cry because now she knows Jesus”. Jesus, lack of physical contact, and maize: condolence Malawian style. A memorial was held in the ambassador’s residence in full patriotic honor, and I had a very un-classy moment popping quarter-sized stress-zit in the Madam Ambassadors guest bathroom.
The hardest funeral I went to was for Regina, my three-year-old next-door neighbor who died of cerebral malaria. I was away when she died, and when I returned there were two hundred people sitting vigil outside my front door. The first day I hid inside. I didn’t know what to do or what to say to the family. I hadn’t known Regina well, she was one of the small children terrified of me because of my white skin and blue eyes. But her older brother, seven-year-old Alimony was one of my favorite kids. What could I have said to him in English, let alone in faltering Chitonga?
Regina and her mother had been visiting family in Nkhotakhota when she died, so the burial was happening there. Many of the inhabitants of my family’s village had gone away to oversee the funeral, but the rest paid homage in the village where she had lived. The community members would sit there for four days, leaving late at night and returning early in the morning, until they received word Regina was safely in the ground. Tongas believe that the spirits of the dead linger for the funeral, and you can’t leave them alone until they are put to rest. It was moving to see so many people giving their respect to Regina’s little spirit, keeping her company even though the funeral itself was happening so far away.
On the third day I swallowed my apprehension and made paid my respects to the family. I humbled myself to Regina’s great-grandmother, who was too frail to travel to the funeral, kneeling on the ground and presenting money to her in Malawian fashion. And I let them put me to work. By this time I had been in Malawi for over a year and knew well what I could and could not do. I wrapped a faded and burned chitenje high around my waist, in the way of married women with work to do, and set myself to washing dishes. I don’t have strong arms or calloused hands, I’m not cut out to feed the masses, but I can wash dishes.
They never stopped coming. Each time the water became foul I’d go to the borehole to fetch more, and come back to another stack of greasy, nsima covered dishes. I scrubbed for hours, scrubbed until my knuckles were raw and fingers pruned, until my back ached from stooping over the basin on the ground. But whenever a woman brought me a new stack of dirty plates and took away the clean ones I felt like I was earning a little respect. At one point I pulled my purple frisbee out of the mix, someone had been using it to serve beans. I felt like I had found my place in my little community: like I knew what I could do, what I couldn’t, and where I belonged. I also finally understood why American women make casseroles for the bereaved family, it just helps to keep your hands busy.
All-in-all I like the way that Malawians cope with death. I like how public it is, there’s no hiding grief or pretending to be okay. People let their communities support them as they habitually support others. It’s a communal effort. I like the brightly colored chitenje, and the grass matts scattered around in the shade. I like how Malawians don’t mince words. And it’s really not all that different from American funerals. Women are still in the kitchen, using their hands to prepare meals to warm the stomachs of those gathered. Children run around and play while their parents try to hush them. It’s still about family and community. The more time I spend in Malawi the more I realize that all people are much more similar than we’d like to admit. And I in matters of grief, I find that perspective very helpful.