A death in the village

5 February 2014

Today I attended the funeral of a not-quite-three-year-old girl. I didn’t know her name, but I probably would’ve recognized her face. She was likely among the hordes of grinning kids who typically greet me at that end of the village, but I’ll never know, because she died from severe burns when her family’s nsaka caught fire two days ago.

I should’ve seen this coming. When I arrived at the Mfuba turnoff yesterday, after two weeks away, I was lucky to run into Boyd, on his way home from school. We walked the 6K back to Mfuba together, and he updated me on all the recent goings-on in the vil.

He told me about the fire, the little girl with burns over most of her body, how they’d taken her to the hospital in Kasama, 90K away.

Then this morning I heard a vehicle drive down the main path through Mfuba, which usually means something big’s going on.

Not long after, Ba Dorothy came by. “Bana Maureen’s youngest child died,” she told me. She was on her way to the wake. I asked if I could join her and went to change out of my work clothes.

This is what happens when someone dies in a Zambian village: all work stops, and everyone goes to the funeral. Everyone.

At the three funerals I’ve attended thus far in Zambia, there have been no ceremonies, no religious leaders, no speeches. No one offers words of condolence or a hug to the family members. No one hugs at all. All adults simply come to sit with the body, for hours – sometimes days – on end.

Ba Dorothy and I were among the first to arrive. The moment we entered the house, she began to wail, tears streaming down her face. As did almost every woman who came in. (The men all stayed outside; none cried that I could see.)

As soon as each woman left the house, the tears turned off, almost instantly. But in the brief time that I watched them sobbing their hearts out, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of them weren’t crying for more than this one little girl.

After the age of 8 or so, no one here cries in public. I’ve seen a 9-year-old openly mocked for crying, and watched two different kids, barely in their teens, struggle to remain composed as they quickly wiped away tears. I’m told women never make a sound during childbirth; it’s seen as a sign of weakness.

In this context, it’s hard not to see such open displays of emotion as a kind of catharsis for every awful thing that’s ever happened to you. Then again, maybe the loss of a child in a preventable accident is enough.

And yet, in the midst of all this wailing and sobbing, Bana Maureen sat next to the body of her daughter, not making a sound or shedding a tear, barely moving. She is normally one of the most outspoken people in Mfuba – loud, opinionated, gregarious. I learned later that this was the fifth time she’d lost a child.

Bana Maureen was breast-feeding another baby – not her own, but that of a mentally ill woman who also lives here. When this woman gave birth about eight months ago, it was apparently decided that she wouldn’t be able to properly care for the baby. So Bana Maureen, who was just weaning her then-two-year-old daughter, stepped in to take care of this new child.

When the mentally ill mother came to the wake, she sat right down on the other side of Bana Maureen’s dead child. She also remained silent, shedding no tears, while the wailing continued all around.

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One year ago

Right now, 31 new Peace Corps LIFE PCTs are meeting for the first time and preparing to board a plane to Lusaka. Tomorrow afternoon, they will arrive in Zambia, probably exhausted, emotional, and a little bewildered, just as our group of LIFErs was nearly one year ago.

Future PCVs on a plane en route to Zambia, 13 February 2013. None of us had any idea what we were in for.

Future PCVs on a plane en route to Zambia, 13 February 2013. None of us had any idea what we were in for.

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I myself arrived in Zambia. February 13 will mark the official anniversary for me and the rest of the LIFE ’13 intake.

Looking back, it’s crazy how the time has flown. Especially remembering how, during so much of that year, the days felt like they’d never end. Like time was dragging on as I struggled with how to communicate, fit in, and live up to the expectations of both others and myself – all while desperately missing my easy life in Montana.

Just yesterday, I admitted for the first time, to one of my PCV friends here in Kasama, that I’d thought about going home a LOT in this first year. ETing (short for Early Termination in Peace Corps speak) was like a little fantasy for me on some of the hardest days. “If I really can’t handle this,” I’d tell myself, “I can go home any time.” I think some deep down part of me knew I’d pull through, but I sure thought about it some days. Turns out, the friend I’d been talking to had had those same exact thoughts in his first year. Now he’s got two months left in his service and doesn’t want to leave.

A couple weeks ago, I was faced with the prospect of going back to the States for real. Due to an illness in my family back there, and my own bizarre health problems, suddenly it seemed like I might actually HAVE to go back – if not permanently, at least for a little while. Every thought and emotion I had in me rebelled at the very thought. Leaving Zambia – in particular, leaving Mfuba – was the last thing I wanted to do.

Never before in my life have I been so challenged – and so rewarded – as I have been thus far in Peace Corps Zambia. Especially since I moved to my own home in Mfuba Village, where my neighbors have taught and given me so much more than they’ll ever know. Letting it all go at this point seems unthinkable.