Death in Cobué


Good news: I am back at the lodge and can post for a few days before I head to the next three villages. 
Bad news: The lodge has new batteries for the solar power, but the terminal connections are not the same as the old ones.  Until the new connectors come, we are on very weak power and only have internet a few minutes at a time. Again, I appreciate your patience.  I may not be able to post pictures for a while due to the bandwidth, but I will add them later as I can.

JUNE 1:  Shortly after Farm Day, one of the volunteers came down with malaria.  It was a fairly serious case, although it didn’t require hospitalization. This volunteer is from Zimbabwe, and people from Africa cannot take malaria pills long-term. Apparently the side effects for the medicine become worse the longer you take it; at some point the risks outweigh the benefits.  All long-term employees here face the same risk; many of them have had malaria at least once.  Malaria is actually fairly rare in this region, though, because it is so sparsely populated; most people on shorter stays of course come through without getting it. Nonetheless, I have seen it twice already.  I make extra sure that I am taking my pills, and I spray for mosquitoes at night.  I also take extra care to tuck in my mosquito net at night, especially since the night that five inch spider decided to visit me inside my net.  Those are all the precautions anyone can take, knowing that nothing is failsafe.

A few days ago, one of the extremely skilled woodcarvers of the region came to visit Nkwichi.  Woodcarving is a craft for which people here were long renowned, but the art has been dying out. This elderly gentleman is one of the last of his generation, but though he brought some beautiful work with him, that was not the primary purpose of his visit.  It seems one of his sons was quite ill and in Cobué, quite far from this man’s village, which lies south of the entire Manda Wilderness.  Because of the long-standing relationship he has had with the lodge, staff there have been assisting him as he has tried to deal with his son’s illness.  It has been five years now.  Though I would have no way of knowing, some people in the villages had told me that it might be the effects of HIV, which would not be at all unusual in this part of the world.  Apparently it has been a slow and steady decline for him. His craftsman father, who must be in his seventies and possibly early eighties, has been doing woodwork to make money, but has also been traveling the long distance to visit his son.  Apparently the course of treatment has been somewhat confusing, with his son being placed and released from clinics, and staff at Nkwichi was trying to help him navigate the maze.  He came to the lodge walking with a slow, somewhat stiff and hesitant gait.  His presence was quite striking in this very youthful society, and he was treated with the deference that the elderly always receive here.  Staff made sure he had enough to eat and to drink, and he often sat at the volunteer table outside the office with a faraway look in his eyes, with the quiet dignity of the grieving.  He left two days ago.

Yesterday, word came to the lodge that his son had died in Cobué.  Due to the heat, it was essential that he be buried as soon as possible, as bodies here begin to decompose almost immediately.  The lodge needed to be represented, both by locals and by staff and volunteers.  I was the only volunteer available; and I was quite willing to go, since it was very important to demonstrate that all at the lodge cared.  Indeed, the lodge was prepared to assist in the expenses of food during the journey and the transport back of the father and his son’s body to their home village and to help with the burial as needed.  I said I would go to town, not knowing what to expect.

“You may have to give a speech,” I was told as we headed toward the boat.  I spent the speedboat ride preparing my remarks in ChiNyanja, trying to make sure I got my grammar correct and hoping my oration would be appropriate to the occasion. My name is Mark, and I live now at Nkwichi though I arrived from America one month ago.  Though it is true that I did not know this man, I can tell you that all of us who live at Nkwichi have heard that he was a man of honor.  We will pray for this man and for his family, and I know all of us wish to say to you that we are very sorry.  I rehearsed this in my mind over and over until we landed at Julius’ Beach.  I had extra time because we stopped in Mala village first, both to pick up some more employees who were to come to the funeral and to drop off a couple here to film the celebrations in Mala.  That’s right, I thought.  Today is Dia da Crianças.  Because the couple doing filming had arrived at Cobué by driving the night before, they needed me to move their 4x4 from Julius’ Beach to James Bondo’s house, where they could park it for their long stay.  A few hasty instructions and hurried farewells later, we were back on the way to Cobué.

This driving errand made me more than a little nervous, too, since I had not driven this sort of off-road 4x4 stick shift, let alone with the steering wheel on the “wrong side!”  After initially forgetting this and getting in the passenger seat (to the amusement of my travel companion), I began to figure things out.  I disengaged the four-wheel drive, put it in gear and began lumbering down the path.  I laughed as I remembered asking people if one drives on the left in Mozambique [yes].  How could I forget: this is Cobué!  There is barely a road, let alone enough of one to have a right and a left.  I was doing my best to go slowly up a steep hill, avoiding the foot-deep erosion ruts in places between tire tracks that were usually visible.  How these two could have driven like this all the way up from South Africa on roads very often in this condition, especially north, was beyond me.  Finally, I got the thing up to the house, and I was very happy to turn it off and set the parking brake.  Now it was on to the funeral vigil.

The craftsman had one nephew who lived in Cobué, but funerals are arranged by villages, not by relatives.  A woman who was in essence a stranger to this family agreed to have the body kept in her front room until it could be buried.  Women were either cooking for the family and for those who came to the funeral, or they were keeping vigil with the body, moaning or singing hymns in two or three-part harmony.  One hymn, rather incongruously, was based on the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Under the shade of a fig tree, there were two tarps spread in this family’s yard.  This is where the men gathered and simply sat with the old man and his nephew, generally in silence, simply listening to the women in the house nearby.  Upon the arrival of the delegation from Nkwichi, the old man called some of the employees over and spoke to them at length.  Though he kept his calm and very quiet demeanor throughout, he was obviously very distraught.  They sat with him for some time.  Eventually, they called me over as well.  I had given my condolences when we arrived, and my presence was purely symbolic at this point.  We sat together in silence; I was extremely thankful for my Quaker spiritual practice.

Around one, the four men from Nkwichi were invited into another house to eat a specially prepared meal.  By now, I am getting used to the customs involved with eating as a guest in another’s home.  As usual, we are the only ones in the front room. The host family is not present.  A large floor mat is in place; we take our places around it, sitting on the floor.  For those in sandals, if they wish they may take them off and place their feet on the mat.  Otherwise, feet in shoes of course stay off the mat.  First water is poured from a pitcher into a basin.  This is then passed around for all to wash their hands: first me. As I am an older male (compared to everyone else at least!) clearly not from the region, I have always come first so far. After I am served, a rather complicated hierarchy determines who is served next: eldest to youngest, or highest rank to lowest, furthest traveler to nearest, or male to female, the rules are applied.  Next comes the tea, once again poured and served in the same order by one person.  It always surprises and seems to slightly bother everyone that I drink my tea black.  Nobody does that here.  Maybe they take no powdered creamer… but black? No sugar at all?  Once everyone’s tea is prepared, we each receive a spoon, and the lid is lifted from the pot.  Today’s meal will be a bowl of rice [mpunga], eaten communally from the one pot.  It is a lot of rice, and we only finish half of it.  As this is not nsima and we are not eating with our hands, we do not pass the water basin around again at the end of the meal.

After we ate but before we left, a woman came in and began conversing with the men. She knew them quite well, and as a result they were speaking too quickly for me to be able to follow.  Eventually, someone told me that she had once been the wife of one of the men at the mat, and they had even had a child together.  She now lived in this quite large house in Cobué with another man but was serving us today from her new home.  Clearly all were comfortable with this state of things, and all were watching me to see what my reaction would be to this information.  “Ah!”  I said, looking at the woman and my companions after hearing this information. “Ndamva”- I have understood.  They all had a good laugh over that diplomatic response; we said our thanks to this amayi and left her home to return to the fig tree.

By now the shade was beginning to lengthen but in the wrong direction from the tarps, which had been placed for the morning.  Two men older than I wanted to move so that I could be in the shade, but I insisted that I was fine where I was. There were definitely more people now, both women in the house (and outside on the porch and yard) singing, and men under the tree.  I estimate there were sixty to seventy people present at this point, more or less evenly divided between men and women.  I did not see any children.  Remember that almost nobody in Cobué knew this man, really.  It was explained to me that funerals are always affairs of a village, not of a family, and that a village will work to ensure that everything is taken care of for the mourners in the immediate family.  This can cause hardships when non-African employers encounter this tradition and cannot understand why an employee needs to take three days off for the funeral of a neighbor’s mother-in-law’s aunt, for example.  It is simply the community’s way of showing support to those in need.  All know that the day will come when the courtesy will be returned.

A cook from Nkwichi came over with a huge basin on her head.  It was filled with beans that the lodge had donated and that she had spent the morning cooking.  This would be the meal for the other male mourners.  I do not know what or whether the women ate. A young man pulled out a large pitcher and brought it to any man who wished to eat.  He poured some water on each man’s hands for him to wash.  Next came the tea, scooped from buckets as I had seen at Farm Day.  While this service was going on, another man came to the basin of beans and began scooping the food into smaller basins for the young man to pass among the men on the tarp, two or three to a basin.  They would eat with their fingers.  After lunch it would be time to have a brief funeral service at the house, then a procession to the cemetery.  It had been decided to bury the man in Cobué due to the heat, the health risk and expense of transport.  This must have been an extraordinarily difficult decision for his father, since tradition requires quite strongly that a person be buried in his native village.  Nonetheless, we would be processing to the graveyard, then another ceremony, most likely the one at which I would say some words, then the burial.

At this point, a staff member’s phone rang.  It was the lodge; someone in the kitchen had cut his finger badly and needed to get to Cobué right away for stitches and antiseptic.  This is a serious situation in this region: with the heat and humidity as it is during the day, infection can set in very quickly.  We are all cautioned on arrival to treat all cuts immediately, no matter how small.  Someone would have to go back in the speedboat to get him and bring him back to the clinic.  Since we would miss the services and burial, I was told that I might as well come back on the boat then.  My presence for the day would have been enough, I was assured.

And so it was that three of us almost ran to the speedboat and went back to Nkwichi faster than I thought even a speedboat could go.  Even small waves were crashing us about in spine-jarring bumps, but we got there in about thirty minutes on a trip that normally takes forty-five minutes to an hour.  I disembarked quickly as the patient got in, finger wrapped an inch thick in cloth – whatever they could find, I would imagine.  Then they were off.  I headed to the office.

No speech.  No funeral.  Only a very sunny and very moving day of communal mourning, under the shade of a fig tree.    

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