I donned my favorite head covering, a cotton scarf the color of fresh lime and wound it around my head and neck. We were going to the funeral of a woman I had never met, Mama Katie. According to my friend, Mariam, she had been a widely respected member of the community, and Mama Katie had died suddenly, overnight. Although I had other plans that afternoon, I decided I would push them aside and take Mariam’s advice to attend the funeral with her.
When I stepped outside of the door, Mariam laughed at my clumsily tied “mtandio” (head covering). She straightened the scarf and in a motherly way laid the folds of fabric around my face. I swung my one-year-old daughter onto my back, and Mariam helped me tie a long piece of pattern-printed fabric called a “kanga” around my back and over one shoulder as a baby carrier. We flagged down a small three-wheeled vehicle (think a cross between a golf cart and a motorcycle) and climbed in.
When we reached the house of the person who died, the family members and men had already left to the graveyard to bury the dead. The funeral party that was left was all women, about one hundred or so of them, quietly talking and perched under the trees that lined the house by the road. As we walked down the line of women, I felt all eyes on me as they muttered to each other, “What? A white person!” “Ha! A white person came,” and with surprise, “White people bury?”
A group of women that seemed to know Mariam greeted us, and I said the normal greetings back with an added “Shikamo” (translated, “I touch my heart”) as a respectful greeting to the women older than me.
“Sit here,” said Mariam, and I made myself as comfortable as I could on the gravely side-of-the road by a thorn bush. Addie crawled around in the road, ate pebbles, and grinned at the ladies. A boy about two years-old approached to play with her, and as she began to crawl eagerly after him, he got spooked. Crying, he turned and fled to his mother. The former hushed and reverent tone of the funeral party was shattered with a ripple of laughter that spilled forth from the entire gaggle of women. They looked at Addie and then at me, watching for my reaction. I smiled and chuckled too.
An enamel plate was passed around with a paper notebook on it where guests were meant to give money and then write how much they gave. I handed Mariam a 2,000 Shilling note and decided not to write in the book. The women we were sitting with traded small talk with Mariam and were very kind and interested in Addie, “Is she walking yet?” they asked.
Every woman sported a colorful head covering, and many wore the traditional printed kangas around their waists. The dazzle of colors that dance in a crowd of Tanzanian women is difficult to describe. Sitting among the vibrant reds, pinks, blues, and teals is a special pleasure that is unique to my vocation.
Suddenly a white truck stacked high with family members all hugging and grabbing each other in the truck bed, singing a mournful funeral song, “Mama’s gone she won’t be back, Mama’s gone,” bounced down the gravel road. The tune chilled my spirit, and I felt sorry for the family left so suddenly motherless.
They climbed out, one after the other, and I was surprised so many had been able to fit in the truck bed. Most of the women were wrapped with the same white kanga printed with blue flowers and the message on the bottom, “We will never forget you.” After the truck came a whole caravan including an ambulance, a bus, several personal vehicles, motorcycles, etc., carrying passengers who had gone with the family to the graveside.
After a while, Mariam said, “Let’s go inside and greet the family,” and I grabbed Addie and stood up. The concrete house was built with rooms lining one large square courtyard. Many more women were sitting in the courtyard. We joined a long line pushing through the courtyard into a back room where all of the women family members of the dead were grieving. There were so many women that I was being pushed into Mariam’s back and surrounded on all sides by people. Again I heard the women murmuring to each other as if surprised, “Whites bury?” I wondered if they thought that I couldn’t understand Kiswahili.
As we entered into the grieving room, my eyes had to adjust to the shadows from the blinding light outside. The whole room was full of women and white kangas; some sobbed softly, many had eyes closed and were laying down (sleeping?). The grief was palpable. One woman, with another woman’s head in her lap, scooped water from an aluminum pot by her side into a plastic cup and handed it out to one person at a time. It was oppressively hot in there, a few flies buzzed about, and beads of sweat rolled off of foreheads and backs of the bodies of people lying around.
I was struck by how different this was than the air conditioned, individual grief of America where people cry in their rooms or into their lone pillows. I was reminded how close most African families are—sleeping together, sharing clothes and possessions, eating most meals from the same lump of ugali—I know that my Tanzanian friends live together in a sort of closeness I may never really understand. And although, in a way, the room of bodies, the crowd, and the heat disturbed me, it all seemed human and fitting way to grieve as a family.
The line of women was headed directly to an older woman (supposedly a close family relation?) who sat in the back of the room with her back on the wall. She was not crying, but her eyes were heavy with grief. I felt sorry for her having to greet so many in her grief. Each woman shook her hand and said something; I don’t know what. What do I say? I thought. Mariam in front of me greeted the woman with her head bowed low and voice low so that I was not able to understand. Then it was my turn. I clasped the woman’s hand and said, “Sorry. I’m so sorry.” I grasped for some other Kiswahili words of apology or condolence, but I only retrieved, “God bless you.”
That seemed awkward and too happy. “What should I have said to that woman?” I asked Mariam, as we walked away.
“Just say, sorry,” she said.
“Sorry? That’s all?” Then she paused.
“Or maybe, God wills it.”
I thought about that as we walked down the dusty road in silence together. But I couldn’t think of anything to say.