When John Mbambo left Zimbabwe for England 20 years ago, his intention was to find a job, make some money and return home.
BY TANGAI CHIPANGURA
Entry into the United Kingdom was not a problem then and for an educated young man like Mbambo, a job was not difficult to find. In no time, he had settled well with a steady job and a good income.
A few years down the line, Mbambo met his childhood love who, as others like him, had gone to London in search of better life opportunities. They eventually married and started a family in the diaspora.
Back then, visits to Zimbabwe were quite frequent, about twice a year and family ties with relatives back home were very strong. Hopes and intentions of eventually returning home to settle forever were high and plans towards this eventuality were being put in place. They built two big houses in Harare and invested in other businesses in the city and even at their rural home.
The year 2000 saw the beginning of mass migration of locals — a deluge of Zimbabweans pouring into Europe, the United States, Australia and almost every other country in the world. Millions more flooded neighbouring South Africa as political and economic temperatures back home soared.
Mbambo’s hopes of returning to settle home had come under real threat as Zimbabwe fast transformed into a political and economic hellhole. Those that were fooled by appearances of political change following the 2008 elections came back and up till today, they regret that mistake as they can no longer go back overseas for various reasons.
Forced to remain in foreign lands for many years, most Zimbabweans made family in those lands and almost all their children were born there, naturalised citizens of those countries. Their parents also qualified and assumed citizenship of those countries.
Still, in those years, very few dreamt of remaining in foreigncountries forever, let alone being buried there in the event of death. Few contemplated death anyway because they were young, healthy and lived in countries where health delivery systems are top notch.
Life expectancy in their adopted countries is several decades higher than in Africa and particularly their own Zimbabwe where at the peak of economic decay in 2007\8 life expectancy had fallen down to about 39 years. This was because of a collapsed health delivery system and the ravages of HIV and Aids.
In the event of untimely death, bodies were always repatriated back to Zimbabwe for “decent burial among one’s own people”.
However, years are going by and most of the once youthful Zimbabweans that moved to the diaspora are getting old and inevitably, nature will begin to take its course. These brothers and sisters however, remain locked out there by the prevailing unyielding economic morass in Zimbabwe.
So, for most of them, the hope of eventually coming back home to settle forever is increasingly becoming elusive.
Most of them now have grown up children who have no links at all to Zimbabwe, being naturalised Britons, Americans, Australians etc and do not envisage a life in Africa at all.
So, it is no wonder that a majority of these Zimbabweans, like immigrants from other lands, have given in to fate and have decided they will be buried in their naturalised countries in the diaspora.
Last week, an enterprising Zimbabwean insurance broker wrote an article encouraging Zimbabweans in the diaspora to take up policies with his firm to facilitate their repatriation back home in the event of death.
The brother received a barrage of attacks from Zimbabweans. Over 90% of those that commented on the article said they saw no logic in being buried back home among their people.
Their determination in support of this “new, uncultural, foreign” phenomenon of being buried on foreign soil is buttressed by many “reasonable arguments” which should get Zimbabweans to prepare themselves for a new phenomenon, where they should not expect to bury their kith and kin who are in the diaspora.
Zimbabweans who spoke against their repatriation for burial back home argued that it mattered not where they were buried since their bodies would rot the same way they would back at the village. They said flying their dead bodies to Zimbabwe was an unnecessary expense and besides, it made no sense to be buried in, Africa where their children would probably never visit their graves.
Albert participated in the debate and said: “There is no country without graves. You can’t feel bad about being buried in a foreign land because there are no feelings after death. Your kids will feel it’s better to bury you in Colchester or wherever you are so they can regularly visit your grave now and then. Why deny them that? It will not be fair for one to insist on being buried among their people back home — have you thought about your kids who were not born in Zimbabwe and have no connection with it?”
James said: “Not only that, the cost of repatriation to Gushungo Holdings (Zimbabwe) will deprive remaining family of much-needed income.”
Another reader opined: “It’s a mind game. When you’re dead, you are dead. Family decides for you and our kids will make that choice for us.”
Patrick said: “It’s a complex matter for some people and I’m one of them. I totally agree with you that if you get buried in Zimbabwe you are in a way denying your children the opportunity to express their feelings of loss whenever they want to do so. It’s a tough decision to make.”
Kenny said: “Home is where you can hang your hat. My home and country is United Kingdom and my bones will be buried in Leicester my home town. Forget repatriation!”
Mike joined dozens other commentators arguing against repatriation of their bodies to Zimbabwe and said: “I chose to live in Colchester or London because that’s where I felt I could obtain a better life. I raised children in the UK, but now you want them tied to my dead rotten body in rural Chivhu. Who will tend to my grave?”
One of the few opposing views came from Martin who said: “This is what amazes me about Zimbabweans, we are so negative. To be honest, none of us would have to be in the diaspora if Zanu PF had run our country well. We shouldn’t be talking about getting buried overseas. This is defeatist. We should be positively trying to remove this Mafia regime so that we may go home where our Ngozi wants to be!”
Misheck said: “What is unfair is to demand repatriation without setting up a financial plan prior to one’s death and then leave survivors with the burden of repatriating bodies because all one wanted when they were alive was to be buried back ‘home’.”
Another Londoner said: “When you are dead, it doesn’t matter where you’re buried. That umbilical cord nonsense you’re talking about provided nutrients to grass and trees. Just instruct them to cremate your flesh into ashes. Why worry about a dead body?
Think, especially about those living and do something about it. Moving carcasses from one continent to another is a sheer waste of resources!”
Besides the reasonableness of the arguments proffered by our brothers and sisters in the diaspora, fact remains that it cannot be an easily acceptable phenomena that the millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora are going to be buried there without the participation of their relatives back at the village.
It is not easy to accept that a close relative has died in the UK and that there is not going to be a funeral at the village because the brother will have been buried there in some London cemetery where three people share a grave, one on top of the other because of lack of space.
Much as the brothers and sisters in the diaspora may want to convince everyone, quite reasonably too, that a dead body feels and dislikes nothing, there are known African cultural aspects of death and burial that are known to be followed, although it may be harmless to ignore them.
It would also be dishonest for them to seek to claim that given a choice, minus all the factors including repatriation costs and the issue of children attachment to their graves, our diasporan brothers and sisters would choose to be buried away from home or not to attend the funerals of so many relatives and friends that have passed on in their absence.
Social commentators blame the political and economic maladies afflicting the country for the hard choices that the millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora are having to make.
According to Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, death rituals in Africa are to ensure that the deceased is properly put to rest so his spirit is at peace and he can take his place among the protective ancestors.
They may be inconsequential, but there are rituals that Africans are so used to that it becomes unfathomable that one goes without them.
The loud distinctive crying of relatives as they arrive at the funeral, that red flag by the gate or homestead boundary, the night vigil and the attendant singing, drum beating and dancing, the grave digging and tales that go on there, the slaughter of the cow and women preparing food for mourners and the eventual burial and grave side speeches.
All those little death rituals including the removal of curtains and taking out of sofas in the case of urban burials, are things that the new phenomenon is going to take away.
A research on the African tradition of burial in the ancestral land and its implications for the African Church today, by Joel Kamsen Tihitshak Biwul found that in African tradition, the dead are not buried away from their land of ancestry.
“Burial, to be considered proper, honourable, meaningful and acceptable in most African cultures, has to be done in the deceased’s ancestral land… While some variations in the observances of cultural methodology of burial rituals and ceremonies exist, it is a general phenomenon among African peoples to bury the dead in their ancestral land.
“Those that die outside the continent, their corpses are brought home for proper burial in their ancestral lands,” he observed.
Biwul said the African tradition of burying the dead in their ancestral land and the observance of certain funerary rites and rituals confronted the church in Africa with some theological questions.
“What is the essence of burial and what impact does it have on the deceased? Quite obviously, a befitting burial accords the corpse and spirit of the deceased proper sociological respect and this the church should uphold and encourage.
Nonetheless, the insistence that the deceased be buried in their home town, needs a socio-religious and theological reinterpretation.”
Such reinterpretation should retrace its root to Scripture which has always been, for generations, the basis for spiritual transformation. The church must consistently preach and insist upon placing premium on the destiny of the human soul rather than the destination of its burial. As Kunhiyop rightly points out, “the critical issue around death is not the method of burial, but the spiritual condition of the deceased”.
He said to act otherwise would be lavishing money on a corpse that should rather have been used to support the deceased when he or she was alive.
“If, as the Psalmist posits, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Ps 24:1), then land is land and it is good for burial wherever,” he said.
In the circumstances, Biwul observed then that land considered culturally foreign still did not reject a corpse, nor did it degrade the dignity of the personhood of the deceased.
“What is material here should be the socio-anthropological attitude with which a corpse is treated than the place of its final interment,” he said.