Zambia, like many African countries, is a collection of dichotomies. Life and death happens around everyone in quick succession. For many years, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, people were dying faster than they were living. AIDS struck like a thief in the night, taking both adults and children.
I have been reading a wonderful memoir called Warrior Princess by Princess Kasune Zulu, who grew up in Zambia but now lives in Chicago. She has been a great force in providing help to her people here through a variety of organizations and networking. But as a child and young adult, she was surrounded by the specter of death and dying.
In the short time I have been here, several relatives of teachers and staff have died. Traditionally, the relatives do not change their clothes or bathe until the body is laid to rest, sometimes days later. The “funeral” encompasses all of these days. Also, many travel far distances to attend the final day of this funeral. As a kindness and in the spirit of many small businesses, the Village supports many of these funeral days for staff by providing food and transportation and often, even the burial plot and stone.
At the same time, there have also been several births, most recently a young son to a teacher. Births are not an easy thing here. There are no medications of any kind, the women must bring to the hospital their own blankets, plastic sheeting for the afterbirth, a bucket, large bottle of bleach, and food. The women are discouraged from crying out in pain and therefore, endure much pain in silence, tears flowing freely. Children often go without names for some many days: after all, the child could die.
Today was a different kind of funeral or memorial service, primarily a white one. Kathleen and Benedict (my hosts), were asked to officiate the service for the 95 year old mother of a family friend. It was held outside on the beautiful grounds of Ibis Gardens (a conference center/resort across the road from the Village). The teens who sing on the worship team at the Village of Hope church were invited to participate in the service. There was an odd mash up of people, the Ibis owner and his extended family, the staff, and a few of us from the Village. After the gentle service, lunch was served to all, made in lovely Ibis fashion with traditional foods as well as simple fare. One relative had a rescued monkey whose mother was killed for food, another friend’s pre-teen daughter climbed the tree, many ate their meals on the grass, and still others clustered in small social circles for conversation. Most dressed nicely but casually, and generally sandals were the norm, no matter the age of the person.
There are other examples of life and death. Pets are generally around for service (cats are mousers and dogs are watch-animals). The cats live as they can and eat what they forage. They have kittens: some live and some die. It’s survival of the strong. Chickens roam free and often become a meal. It’s rural and it’s Africa. And that’s just how it is. Life is a challenge. Death is pushed away as long as possible. But there is a toll to be paid.