I was six and Gogo was showing me how to deal effectively with marauding ants in the little hut where I slept.
“Mana kancane, ngikwenzele isililo sobunyonyo!” (let me create for you an ants funeral wake!) She would crush one or a couple of ants and leave the squashed bodies lying there. In minutes, word would go round and the whole clan of the ant-world would crawl out from their multiple ant-holes in collective horror and converge around the dead body, for some funeral wake and ritual of sorts. It’s actually a grim spectacle.
Gogo would smile in her naughty knowing way, saying to me: “There are your tormentors now… All of them, their fathers, mothers, aunties and uncles…. You can now kill them at will.”
Singafi njengobunyonyo, thina singabantu! Brethren, let us not die like ants, when we are intelligent humans.
This thought struck me repeatedly in the wake of mounting Covid-19 deaths in our community, many of which deaths can be traced directly to funerals and funeral wakes that typically fail to observe and uphold Covid-19 protocols. I do not have statistics, but I am shattered by the number of Covid-19 deaths which I consider clearly avoidable in the past weeks and months.
It seems to me that we are everyday civilians who find themselves in the middle of a deadly war that they are completely untrained and utterly ill-prepared for. We are walking in droves right into the line of fire and allowing this virus to harvest from our own unforced errors!
By the time government, the health sector and NGOs have a comprehensive and socially responsive strategy to combat Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths will have drained and decimated us.
Take the case of my good sister who called me in distress a few days back. She wanted help to stop her mother attending the funeral wake of her own sister’s son. The boy is said to have been murdered most brutally and inexplicably on the outskirts of the city recently.
The horror that accompanies the manner of death and trauma engulfing the family is unimaginable. Most sincere condolences to all affected and we urge the law to act decisively and swiftly.
If you were to place yourself in their shoes, you will probably agree with me that asking the direct sister to the bereaved mother in such a gruesome death to mind Covid-19, to restrain her mourning, to hold back and perhaps only to attend the funeral wake sparingly is a practical joke in our African context.
The old queen is herself shocked, broken and distraught beyond measure. She needs to be with her sister immediately and continuously to enable shared pain and to mourn jointly, to find comfort in each other, to share the loss and the moment and to share that bereaved mattress every day until the child is buried. Our spontaneous pain can’t be postponed. It cannot be placed in some fancy template of masks and distances. This is us and our way as African family and community.
The horror, suddenness and shock visited upon our community by the multiple Covid-19 deaths is such that the fear of the virus itself is way overshadowed by the bereavement emotions of the moment.
The discipline of protective behaviour, the mask, social distancing and continuous sanitisation of hands, things and premises at these highly emotional funeral wakes is another practical joke! When a sister in pain from one end of the country comes face-to-face her own mother’s child and one of them has just lost a child amid horrible conditions or this monster has just stolen a couple of their loved ones, the very idea of social distance or masking seems to them to be utter madness.
It is not only sisters and siblings involved here… The arrival of any fresh mourner is ushered in and received with a fresh wave of wailing, hugging, holding hands and more wailing around the room. Neighbours, cousins, friends, church mates, work mates!
The arrival of every Diasporan mourner is accompanied by a triple share of the tears, twice the hugging and the holding by everyone in the room and in the yard. For so long have we parted and so many miles have been travelled! There is so much more unsaid issues we suddenly want to be warm and cuddly about even beyond the dead body.
All of them come armed with and clad in masks from their homes. All of them have been lectured to by their own families to be most careful around crowds and never risk to bring the deadly virus home, yet dead on arrival, the overwhelming emotions of the occasion, necessarily result in masks being ripped off and shoved into pockets as mourners cry, relate and
re-relate the circumstances and sing and seek that strong physical and facial interaction that confirms our connectedness and our Africanness.
I remember how off-tune and how stupid my wife and I were made to look and feel at grandma’s funeral wake out in Luveve not so long ago. You couldn’t mistake the murmurings and scowling disapprovals of the masks us only two were donning in a crowd of 60-plus in that crammed yard. No one directly accuses you, but soon you seek to fit in by quietly removing and stashing away your own protection. You will be surprised just how successfully our hitherto principled community has grown the knack to connive collectively against good practice and good people, often in defence of some convenient, but obvious social danger.
Typically the living rooms where that “mourner-in-chief” is “mattressed” are small, but somehow some 33 women, all of whom have some “legitimate” claim to filial closeness and camaraderie with the main bereaved, must be crammed all day and all night in that room! Why? Just to repeatedly behold the expression of her trauma and tears every time a new mourner enters. Yekanini idrama mani!