Ubuntu and a Funeral

The isiZulu word of the post is going on a brief hiatus as my isiZulu dictionary is packed away for needed construction! Ngiyabonga for understanding!

I hesitated to write this post. When you work in a HIV/AIDS context in a high poverty area there are a lot of painful things to witness. However in the midst of extreme suffering there can be incredible displays of humanity. I decided to share the following story to show an example of South African resilience and ubuntu.

This month one of my host mom’s learners died suddenly. She was in her 7th year of school, moved to the valley last school year, and around my American brothers’ age. The week before, the War Room (post coming on what that is) initiated a debate for Freedom Day (the 25th of April) and that day she suddenly started to complain about a “runny tummy”. Teachers visited the house over the weekend where her grandmother and father said she was hospitalized. The same teachers stopped by the hospital on Monday the 4th and received the gut wrenching news.

It is one thing to see public health statistics on diarrhea but another to see your host mother blinking back tears as she shows a grainy cellphone video of the learner reciting a poem about Nelson Mandela and says her name describing her as “very clever,” I know that children die of flu complications every time there is an outbreak and once had a classmate who lost a 4 year old brother to pneumonia in the States. I do not know her medical story (nor is it my business) but I will never be okay with children dying. She had many younger half siblings, and they should not have to deal with the death of a child. I am crushed to think how she could have used her clever mind to help South Africa progress. I am also not okay with people dying from anything related to diarrhea in 2015.

In other words, there is nothing right about the situation. It is tragic full stop. Since the mother and the father were not married, tradition states that the funeral is at the mother’s home. In this case the Mother was Xhosa and the funeral would be in the Eastern Cape Province. This was pretty devastating to the school because South Africa is big (it is twice the size of Texas) and so the community would not be able to attend the funeral. The school quickly created a memorial service for the girl and made a conscious effort to make it honorable. My host mom stayed for two hours after school let out Monday to try and coordinate a choir to sing a beautiful isiZulu song about death (although she did not think the choir was ready for the 10 AM performance the next day).

After the memorial service, everyone pitched in to purchase two taxis to the Eastern Cape so people could attend the funeral. I cannot stress how moving this gesture was because most people in my valley are on government grants and minimum subsistence. The day before the memorial service my host mom did not know if it was an option to attend and I was heartbroken that this community would not have any closure (one week ago the child was in class and now they are dead). Yet, the school cared enough about their learner to go to their funeral. The taxis left at 2 AM to arrive at the funeral by 6 AM, full of teachers and a few learners. They got back late at night and yes everyone went to school the next day.

In America, families will bend over backwards if a loved one passes away. However we rarely think about what to do about the communities impacted by the loss. The tendency is to go to the memorial service if it is close enough and send flowers/monetary donations if it is too far. If someone means a lot to a community, they may have their own memorial service if the funeral is too far. In a group oriented culture like AmaZulu, everyone matters and the community grieves together.

On a slightly less depressing note, my host mom got to see the Eastern Cape for the first time. She wants to travel and eagerly awaits her retirement when she can explore South Africa. I gently teased her (we have a relationship that allows me to do so) that Eastern Cape is next door and it is about time she visited! We called my cousin (who works in Pretoria but is home in Mooi River for her Maternity Leave) who also experienced the Eastern Cape through a funeral for any tips but she was bit tired after having a child 8 days before. I have yet to experience the Eastern Cape so I told her to let me know how it is (but I really hope my time in the Eastern Cape is either work related or a holiday…not a funeral). Apparently there are mountains like our home in the Berg!


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