Thursday, March 1, 2012

Death of a Colleague

During training, we were warned that we would experience more death, loss, and grieving here in Mozambique than we probably would have experienced in the same two years had we remained United States.  After all, the life expectancy for a Mozambican male is approximately 47 years, and about 14% of children don’t live past the age of five.   That, coupled with the prevalence of HIV (around 11.5%, but higher in Tete Province), means that the odds are daunting for anyone born and raised in the little town of Zobue, Mozambique.

After the accident took place in December, I actually started to worry about my American counterparts more than my Mozambican neighbors.  The Mozambicans around me seemed so healthy and full of vitality.  The neighborhood children, for instance, are always bouncing around like balloons.  They are the healthiest, happiest kids I have ever seen in my life.   The other teachers, too, are young, fit, and well-groomed.  In fact, it is us Americans- soft-skinned, unaccostumed, and na├»ve- that seemed primed for disaster.

I had been in this mindset (looking both ways before I crossed the road, choosing my boleias carefully, and reminding my American friends to “Call when you get there!”) for two months when I learned of the passing of my Mozambican colleague.  My first reaction was to feel guilt.  Why hadn’t I noticed that he had been so sick?  I had been busy keeping track of all of these Americans…

Professor Marcos was a fellow teacher at the secondary school and had been sick for the past month or so.  We knew that he was sick, of course, but we didn’t realize to what extent he was feeling ill.  We didn’t know him very well (after only two or three months at site, we don’t know anybody very well), but we DID know who he was and we liked him.  He was, for instance, one of the first people to greet us in Zobue.  He rode a motorcycle and would, for the first few weeks before he got sick, putter up to our house to relay information or just to check on our well-being.  One time, I remember, he roared up to our house and greeted Dan on the front step.

“How are you?”  Asked Dan.

“I am fine,” said Marcos, “but my friend’s computer is not!  Come quickly!” 

And he and Dan had taken off down the path together, racing to fix the broken computer. 

I know that Marcos was one of Angelina’s favorite professors, and that he was very fond of the Peace Corps volunteers.  I feel that his death is a loss for us, personally and professionally, and that our experience will be diminished by his absence. 

At the age of 39, Marcos died at the health center on Sunday at three in the morning.  When we asked how he died, a fellow teacher said, tactfully, “It seemed like malaria.”  Here in Mozambique, it isn’t kind to speculate.  At least, not openly.

The announcement was made to ninth and tenth grade at 7AM on Monday, and then to eighth grade at 12:30.   The funeral was at 2PM, the School Director told Dan.  At least, something was at 2PM.  We were supposed to arrive at the home at 2PM, and then we would be guided from there.  Oh, and one more thing, said the Director- I was supposed to wear a capulana. 

It’s strange.  Things like this just serve to remind us how removed we are from the rest of the community.  The teachers all got together on Sunday, for instance, to write his eulogy and obituary, but didn’t stop by our house to let us know that he had died.  If we hadn’t run into a teacher on our way to the marketplace on Sunday afternoon, we never would have known.  The teachers also collected money for Marcos’s family, but never asked us for so much as a Metical.  Then, when making the announcement to the school on Monday morning, it was just a coincidence that Dan was there, at all.  He had been hoping to make announcement about his after-school club and, instead, had learned that school was canceled and that the funeral was this very same day.

By 2PM, I was dressed and brushed and smelling good.  My bottom half was bound with a long length of colorful fabric, a capulana, that my neighbors had tied for me.  We didn’t know where we were going (we had never been to Marcos’s house before), but we had been told to follow the main road “until we saw the crowd.”

These directions, it turns out, were perfectly sound.  By the time we reached the main road, we knew exactly where to go.  Half of Zobue had turned out for the funeral.  There were at least one, two, or three thousand people present.  It was hard to tell exactly how many people were there, because they were packed around every corner of every house in this section of neighborhood.  They sat on front stoops and under wooden awnings.  They packed shoulder to shoulder in the grassy areas and lined every building.  Most were silent, staring emptily at a brick house where a procession of people was heading in, and then out.  Dan and I stood to watch. 

It became apparent that the body was inside the house.  People would walk in in a long line, form a loop, and then exit again.  Some women, it seemed, felt obligated to carry out elaborate displays of grief after seeing the body.  They would walk into the house, looking fairly composed, then walk out again.  Once in sight of the crowd, they would begin to tear at their hair and at their clothes, screaming and prostrating themselves on the ground. 

“Mano Marcos!”  They would wail.  “Mano Marcos!”

The whole thing was a bit disgusting to me, actually.  It seemed fake.  I don’t think Marcos’s wife or children were carrying on like that.  They were bearing their grief in a very real, very silent way. 

Suddenly, from our spot in the back of the crowd, we saw the teachers lining up to go inside.

“Should we go?”  Asked Dan. 

About two hundred people were seated between us and the house, and I didn’t know the first thing about funeral protocol.

“I think we missed it,” I said.  “I think we should just stay here.”

A woman behind us nudged us, though, and ushered us forward. 

“You can ask license,” she hissed. 

So Dan and I staggered through the crowd, apologizing profusely, stepping on feet and shins and hands and capulanas, trying to make our way towards the brick house that held Marcos’s body.  Dan jumped in line with the men, and I jumped in line with the women.  It was not graceful.

I wasn’t sure how to carry myself in line.  I knew that the crowd was watching, and I felt very conspicuous.  Not for the first time, I wished that I was a Mozambican.  At least temporarily.  I wanted to pay my respects, but I didn’t want everyone noticing me.  I was highly embarrassed by the color of my skin. 

I clasped my hands in front of me and looked down.  That way, I wouldn’t catch the eyes of anybody in the crowd.  I wasn’t crying- I wasn’t even really very sad.  I had liked Marcos, but I didn’t really know him or his family.  I was mostly sad for me and Dan, because I thought he would have made a good counterpart.  It was like this that I shuffled into the house with the rest of the women.

The house, I was surprised to find, was unfinished.  Bits of brick rubble littered the floor.  In the middle of the main room lay the coffin.  It was resting on a straw mat on the floor.  The viewing procession made a large, counter-clockwise circle around the outside of the room. 

How much should I be looking at the body?  Should I be taking a good long stare, or should I draw my eyes away, respectfully?  I settled on several short peeks. 

“Had he been that short in real life?”  I wondered.  He seemed so tiny.  Perhaps it was because the coffin was on the floor.  Only his eyes and nose were visible.  The rest of his body was wrapped in a white sheet and covered in pink flower petals. 

As I walked around the body, I passed several members of the school administration, including our Director.  I was hurt to see that his face was strewn with very quiet, very real tears.  His grief stood in sharp contrast to the fake demonstrations of guilt being carried out in the yard.  I didn’t know what was appropriate, so I did what was natural. 

I reached out and touched his arm.  He nodded.

Other teachers were there, too, filming the whole thing on their cell phone cameras.  In America, I think this would have been considered disrespectful (horrible, really), but here, it is so normal.  Every event- sad ones, happy ones, even boring, bureaucratic ones, are filmed by cell phone cameras.  It is a method of commemoration. 

I was not interested in prostrating myself upon exiting the house.  Thankfully, the women who were with me were not of that type, either.  Together, we walked in a line to a patch of grass and took a seat.  We were wedged in like sardines, but it was strangely comforting.  Knees drawn up, we sat in silence, waiting for the speaking to commence. 

It turns out that we were the last group to visit the body inside the house.  After the professors and administration had exited the house, Marcos’s soccer team entered to retrieve the body in the coffin.  He was brought outside and laid, again, on the straw matt.  This time, though, he was in the bright sunlight.

A speaker began to read aloud the monetary donations given by various individuals and groups in Zobue and the surrounding villages.

“Catholic Church of Zobue,” he read, “1500 Meticais.  Escola Secondaria de Zobue, 3500 Meticais.” 

He read amounts as high as 5,000 Meticais and amounts as low as 200 Kwacha.  The reading of the donations seemed to me to be a rather tacky practice, but it was evidently very normal in Mozambique. 

Dan and I had brought 200 Meticais, but we didn’t know what to do with it.  We weren’t sure which woman was actually his widow, and, if possible, we wanted to avoid having our names read out loud.  It would have been best to donate money with all of the other teachers, but nobody had collected anything from us when the teacher’s fund had been pooled.  Why hadn’t they asked us for anything?  Not for the first time, I regretted feeling so removed from this community.  Would it continue like this for the next two years? 

I’ll admit that most of my thoughts were not on Marcos as I sat there in his yard.  The sun was bright and my capulana wrap was hot and sticky.  I had elbows in my back and another woman’s feet wedged into my bottom.  There were several preachers who seemed to be competing for the right speak, and every single one of them was waving their arms around and evangelizing wildly in the local language.  To me, it was mostly just confusing.  One of the preachers wore a nice gray suit.  Another was wearing a torn, white T-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants.  I looked at the people around me (should I be wearing a head wrap?) and then down at the freckles on my arms (I think I’ve developed more, since moving to Africa).  I looked around the crowd, trying to identify Marcos’s wife and kids, but was unable to do so. 

Finally, the preachers seemed to be dying down.  The crowd stood up, en masse, and began to move out of the yard and towards the road.  For the second time that day, I was struck by the sheer number of people who were present.  We moved shoulder-to-shoulder, like cattle, down the road.  I looked wildly for Dan, having been separated nearly thirty minutes before.  In Mozambique, most things are usually done in gender groupings-  women, here; men, over here.  I did not want to attend the actual burial alone, and I was surprised at how lonely I felt in this crowd of black faces.  Nobody was talking to me. 

Thank goodness Dan is tall.  I found him and, for a brief moment, intertwined my fingers with his.  Together, we follow the path from the house to the road, and from the road to the dirt road, and from the dirt road to a dirt path that led into the fields and to the cemetery. 

We walked forever to the cemetery, it seemed.  The crowd walked fast, like a roaring wall of water.  I was tripping over myself, just to keep up. 

“What happened to the passear?” I wondered, bitterly, feeling my lunch turning over in my stomach. 

The cemetery was so far away that we were staring up at a completely different quadrant of Monte Zobue.  As I entered on foot, I tried hard not to stare at the graves around me.  I was captivated.  Each grave was built up, into a mound of dirt.  Some were as high as my waist. 

“Perhaps,” I thought, “it's to keep the water from running in and creating potholes and divots over the casket.”

Mozambicans use the same system to plant crops in a garden.  Only mounds, I suppose, can with stand the battering rains of Southern Africa. 

Headstones were handmade, out of wood or metal.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the way that things are spelled.  Birth, for instance, can be spelled “Nacido, Nascedo, or Nacinde.”  Death is “Falecido” or “Faleceu.”  That explains why we thought that other professor was saying that Marcos had spoken (“Falou”) on Sunday. 

“Yes,” we had been saying.  “That’s great!”  We were not understanding, of course, the significance of his statement. 

Finally, the professor had broken decorum and addressed us with more simple language.  “Ele morreu,” he said.  “He died.”

And that was how we learned. 

Now, in the graveyard, we were pouring around the burial mounds like ants.  I followed the crowd to the back of the graveyard.  Only then did I get a chance to stop and look around.  It seemed like all the graves in view were new- less than a year old. I realized with a start that the graveyard had once been much bigger, but it was being slowly, constantly, devoured by the bush.  The vegetation on both sides of the narrow cemetery seemed to be crowding in, hungrily.  Soon trees and bushes and plants would obscure the grave that I was sitting on.  Soon, too, would they devour Marcos’s grave. 

The funeral itself, unfortunately, was really, really boring.  An endless stream of people spoke in language that I didn’t understand, and from my position at the fringe of the crowd, I couldn’t see anything, anyway.  I felt obligated to stay, however, so I went back to examining my arms and my fingers. 

I never noticed how truly white my skin was before.  Really, it looked strange in the sunlight.  “No wonder people stare,” I thought.  My hair, too, seemed strange.  Some strands are so light that they are nearly translucent.  Again, I wondered if I should be wearing some sort of head covering.  My hair wasn’t even up.  How strange I must look, with my limp, pale, dead rabbit hair and my long, skinny, white fingers.  No wonder I didn’t have any friends.  By Mozambican standards, I am a monstrosity. 

Some women were beginning to wail again, and throw themselves noisily to the ground.  I simply was not interested in this, and I was not buying it.  The women who were wailing were in the back of the crowd, for one thing, not in the front, where most intimate friends and family were standing.    I decided that I preferred the American way of mourning.  It seems more quiet and dignified.  From what I have seen, at least.  I am not very well-versed in the ways of death and mourning, in any culture. 

Finally, after two hours at the grave site (two hours!  I had now memorized the pattern of freckles on both arms), the crowd began to move.  For the first time all day, someone spoke to me.

“Vamos embora,” she said.  “We go away.”

The women exited first, pouring around the graves and funneling out the brick-and-barbed-wire entrance to the little cemetery.  For the second time, I was struck by the presence of the encroaching trees and vegetation.  We were standing in neither forested land nor actual grassland, but in sparse, scrubby vegetation that seemed to be rolling over the graveyard like an army or wave.  It would only be a few days before grass was growing on the newest mound of dirt. 

I waited for Dan at the edge of the graveyard.  Hundreds of people passed, if not thousands.  Nobody greeted me (perhaps it was not appropriate at that time), but, to their credit, only one person muttered, “A’zungu.”  White person. 

Sometimes, I am tempted to correct people in their own language.  “A’zungu is plural,” I want to say.  “Can’t you see that I am only one?  You should say M’zungu, it is more appropriate.”

I didn’t say anything, though.  I just stared straight ahead, waiting for Dan.  Once reunited, he squeezed his hand in mine.  It was a long, quiet walk back to town. 

Unfortunately, and here is the worst part--  I don’t think that was our last Mozambican funeral. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing that experience. Marcos was a kind man and a constant source of smiles and laughter. Also, don't worry about Chewas addressing you in plural, its their way of showing respect.