May God wake us up

Hi all. It’s been an abnormally long amount of time since my last post, and I’m sorry about that. For some reason, this post just wouldn’t come together. It still hasn’t, really, but it’s time to let it go for the moment, just post it, and move on. Life continues to go forward and being bogged down in writing this post means that I’m not able to write about all the new things that are happening. So here we go.

My host community has experienced a lot of sadness recently. It’s been a bit jarring because generally, I find this to be a fairly joyful place to live; people are always laughing and joking and giving each other small gifts, and though there’s no denying that life is hard, they seem to be good at taking things in stride in order to keep on living without getting too bogged down in the difficulties. But sometimes things happen that one just can’t accept as a normal part of life.

There have been a lot of high-profile, sad deaths around here lately. Now obviously, as a general rule, there is relatively more death in the developing world than in the developed world, but I don’t necessarily typically see or hear about a lot of death here. Suffering, yes. Death, no. When I compare this with my Uganda experience, Uganda was much more severe in that sense. This is probably related in part to the generally lower standard of living in Uganda as well as to the fact that it is still recovering from a war. But also, in Uganda I was based in a huge hospital to which all the most severe cases were referred. Here, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum; I am based in a small, rural health center that refers the more severe cases to larger cities. This means that I often don’t see death, and sometimes if I’m not paying attention, I can miss hearing about it too. But in a small community, you don’t need to see things that occur to know that they happened and to be affected by them. News (especially bad news, it seems) spreads faster than a bush fire, and within hours the whole village is talking about it.

This is how I heard about the first death: a young man who was from this town but had been attending university in Cotonou for three years was killed in a traffic accident. As a general rule, when young people die here, they are mourned less than when old people die. I find this to be somewhat reversed from the way people experience death in the states–we see the death of a child or young person as a terrible, tragic thing but accept it better when it comes to an older person because s/he has already had time to live. But perhaps because children die so much more often here, people need to see it differently. It isn’t that the family won’t still be upset if a child dies–they will–it just means that they won’t have a big funeral for him and the mourning will be mostly localized in the family. But if someone older dies, there will be a huge funeral ceremony for which the whole community will turn out. And generally, the size and extravagance of the funeral will be linked to how important the person was, how big his/her family is, and/or how much money he/she/her family had. If the family fails to throw a big funeral after the death of an old person, it means that they did not appreciate him/her and it is highly shameful/disrespectful. A funeral ceremony like this is one of the most expensive things that a Beninese family will spend money on in its lifetime. But this case was different. The news of the boy’s death rocked the village; it was a collective stab to lose someone who was on his way to success like that. The structure of the education system here puts rural students at somewhat of a disadvantage as compared to their urban peers, a problem that is exacerbated by the financial difficulties of paying for school fees, and as such it is extremely rare for students from this community to make it to the university level. Now here was a boy who had made it and was nearly finished, but death snatched him at a heartbreaking time.

It’s hard to find meaning in a death like that and many people here attributed its cause to black magic/voodoo/“sorcery.” This is a common explanation for all sorts of bad things that happen to people–illnesses, death, fires, loss of crops, etc. I guess it is essentially human to wish to find a reason for which bad things happen; in the states, we take science down to the nitty gritty details to explain all of those things, and I think we take comfort in discovering the truth. The end result might not be pretty, but at least we know why–the cells in someone’s brain started multiplying uncontrollably; his heart stopped beating; a broken wire sparked and the spark landed on a dry rug; a specific type of beetle invaded and killed all the corn, etc. We of course still have freak accidents, but even then we will explain them by saying that it was a drunk driver, that someone failed to replace the supports for the bridge, a cable snapped, etc. Here, there isn’t technology available to investigate things to that extent, and in lieu of searching for that type of explanation, many people here will say that the unfortunate event was caused by someone who wished you harm and practiced “gri-gri” against you.

An aside, as explanation of this: the vodun (voodoo) religion has its roots in Benin. Vodun is the traditional religion here, and while many people have converted to Christianity or Islam in recent years, a sizable portion of the population still practices the traditional religion. Missionaries from different places at different times have denounced traditional religions all over the world, and vodun here was no different. Much of the church-going population now scorns the traditional vodun, saying that it is “satanic” or “evil,” and alleges that those who practice vodun are working black magic against others. “Gri-gri” is the term used here in the way that “voodoo” is used in the states–to mean something that someone else has done to you through spiritual power. Through gri-gri, people in my community believe that someone can make you very ill, can set fire to your possessions, or even kill you. Practitioners of vodun will generally acknowledge the existence of gri-gri in the religion, but they will also tell you that not everyone who practices vodun practices gri-gri. Honestly, there is a lot of mystery and secrecy surrounding this religion and many of my questions about it go unanswered for the time-being, so I’m not going to attempt to go into to much detail about that at the moment.

Instead, back to the boy. It turned out that he was the younger brother of one of my friends here–the carpenter with whom I stop to talk several times each day because his ‘workshop’ is right along the road between my house and the village proper. When I discovered this connection, it made it feel more personal for me; I had heard about other deaths, of course, but they had always been rather distant, semi-anonymous people whose lives and deaths didn’t really affect me. This came a little closer and I felt its pain to some extent, but I didn’t really know what to do. I knew that what had happened was tragic and that I should acknowledge my friend’s grief in some way, but I didn’t know how. Even in the states, I don’t do well with this kind of stuff; I personally have been fortunate thus far in my life to have had very little direct experience with death in my family or my immediate community, and I just never know what to say or do for people who have lost someone. Combine that disposition with a different culture with different norms and expectations, and I was really paralyzed with confusion. And so I did what I fear I tend to do when I don’t see a clear path forward: I ignored the situation and waited for the answer to come to me.

Note to reader, even though reader surely knows already: this is not a good strategy. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away; it just makes you look like you don’t care. But I was so afraid of the situation and so sure that I didn’t know what to do that I avoided everything having to do with the death. [Not actually that hard to do, because mourning is usually concentrated inside a family’s compound, and since I don’t have the innate knowledge of who belongs to which family as the people who were born and raised here do, I wouldn’t recognize anyone as part of the boy’s family if I met them elsewhere in the village.] The funeral came and went, and though I heard about it and knew when it was happening, I didn’t attend. But later that day, I ran into my friend on the road. I was surprised to see him out, because families usually stay inside the compound for about a week as part of the mourning process, and I asked him where he was going. He said “Didn’t you hear? My little brother died; I just got back from escorting the morgue personnel back to the city after they brought his body.”

And I felt terrible, because of course I had heard, and yet here I was still not acknowledging it. That encounter made me realize I had to do something about this situation. The next day, I asked around and memorized the phrases that people use to express condolences after a death (in French and Fon), took a deep breath and marched myself over to my friend’s house. He wasn’t actually there when I got there (the mourning rule turns out to be loosely enforced for men–it’s more of a woman’s duty, and he had found a small roofing job to do somewhere else in the village and so had left to do that) but I found members of the extended family sitting around outside the compound, and then met another of the brothers, who took me to greet the mother of the boy.

Entering the family’s house was like being hit by a huge wave of grief; it was palpable in the air and carved into the faces of all the women in the room. Part of the mourning ritual here is that women remove all decoration, weave, or braids from their hair, and so there was hair sticking out haphazardly in all directions, which added to the general look of disheveled distress. The son pointed out the mother to me (though I probably could have figured it out–she was clearly the most sorrowful of the group); I greeted her, bowed slightly to show respect, and presented my two “sorry for your loss” phrases in Fon. She accepted my condolences, thanked me for coming, and we made some awkward small talk before I took my leave and retreated. Altogether not too difficult, and though I was certainly later than I should have been, I think it was an important thing to do. And now I’m more prepared to act gracefully in similar situations in the future.

As I was planning this post, I thought I would write about more than just this boy, but now I see that this is already pretty long and morbid and I’m not sure how many pages I want to write about death right now. So I think I’ll stop it here for the moment. I’ll just say that being surrounded by so much death makes you appreciate each day a little bit more. One of the ways to say “goodnight” or “see you tomorrow” in Fon is to say mawumifonmi, meaning roughly “may God wake us up again,” and I see the sense behind this phrase more and more. Tomorrow is truly not promised to anyone, and whereas in the states, I feel like we try to ignore that fact, here they embrace it. Interesting.

I’ll try to post again in not-so-long, but I’ll just say that things are going well (if slowly), we’re preparing for GLOW, our girls’ camp, which will take place at the beginning of August, and I might be getting a puppy soon. My friend in village saw the photos of my dog at home on the walls of my house and decided that he would give me one of his dog’s puppies when the time comes. I’m still deciding if I can handle a dog here, but it’s very tempting. We’ll see.

Rafiki update: Last time I was in the big city, I splurged and bought cat food for Rafiki. I figured that though it was a little pricey, it would be much easier than having to cook for him all the time (even if I’d already eaten in town, I still would have to make something for him when I got home) and it would probably be cheaper in the long run, because things that he is accustomed to eating, like eggs, are expensive. I got home, filled up his food bowls with the stuff, and he trotted over, sniffed it, tasted a few pieces, and promptly turned on tail and walked away. Darn cat. He still refuses to eat it; even if I don’t give him other food, he won’t eat the cat food–he just meows and meows until I give in because he’s so annoying. So now I have a massive bag of cat food and nothing to do with it. Maybe a puppy would eat it… Until next time, CMK

2 thoughts on “May God wake us up

  1. You sure handled a tough situation very well. The place of death in our lives and in our culture is certainly difficult. Sometime we might sit and talk about that! I have always spend as little energy as possible on death but when one must mourn, one must give up to it for a while. Donne started a poem once with “Death, be not proud!” A good opening, that! You take care. I owe you a letter and will try to get that written. Meanwhile, all my love. Granny Kathy PS I just saw a CD of your graduation–wonderful pictures of you and Daniel and your Mom and Max as well. I’m sorry I missed the day but delighted to have the images! Love again.

  2. Now I lay me down to sleep,
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
    If I die before I wake
    I pray the lord my soul to take

    Awareness of our own fragility is endemic to the human condition, regardless of culture

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