Fran Hewitt: A South African funeral

Well, another month has passed by pretty quickly, and the Centre has become home. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt; whenever I’m out in Tzaneen or Calais, I say “I’m going home”, or something  “is at home”. I don’t often refer to Australia, because our lifestyle is not within the children’s (or the local adults’) comprehension, and if I do it’s easier to explain by just saying “where I used to live”. Two weeks ago when I last went into Tzaneen I remarked to Carmel that what I see – the landscape, the villages, the people, and what I do – living at the centre with African children, driving around villages and towns in rural South Africa, now seems so normal.

The month began with the death of one of our village workers*, (possibly from AIDS but no one admits to this as there is still much denial and ostracism about AIDS within the communities), and we were invited to his funeral. It began at 6am on Saturday morning at his parents’ home with a viewing of the body, and much singing, dancing and praying by the local people.  We couldn’t get there till about 7.15 because here the AIDS treatment is given to the kids early in the mornings, but that was ok because he’d been dead since the previous Monday, and I wouldn’t be too sure where and how the body had been stored! The local village workers who travelled with us were disappointed though. After a short while we joined in the walk (though there were quite a few vehicles as well – one baccie (ute) with 16 people in the tray!) to the cemetery where we were given a spot with the women up the front as special guests.

The cemetery near Tzaneen
The burial began with prayers, then singing and dancing as the coffin was precariously lowered into the ground with a very old fashioned contraption consisting of a metal frame, bright purple carpet and webbing. Next all the males there took turns shovelling the dirt into the hole, and when it reached ground level, building it up about a metre height all held in with rocks. It was then decorated with a cross and floral arrangements wrapped in plastic, put there by his mother and sister. Then there was a eulogy, where various members of the community spoke. Sister Mary also was invited to speak, and cried a little bit during the speech, but that was the only time I saw any tears or sad emotion. I presume that as it was 5 days since he died, most of that had been done.

As people were talking I looked around; we were the only white people present, and I felt really privileged that we were there, that we were invited to share in this family’s, and community’s, farewell to a  son, brother , friend and workmate. After all the talking, people began to move off, and we were told we were invited back to the family home to partake in the feast. The home comprised of 3 separate small buildings, and as we were special guests we were put in the “good room” – a single room building, about 4m x 3m, with a small lounge, 2 chairs, a coffee table and a TV (this room did have power). Lilly, one of our colleagues and a friend of the family waited on us; first we washed our hands in a bowl, then she served us chicken and pap with sauce (the local regular meal). The chicken is fried, and pap is the polenta type stuff served with a home-made watery tomato sauce. There are no utensils, and they eat with their fingers, using the pap to scoop up the sauce. A few members of the family came and sat with us for a while, but wouldn’t eat with us. They can’t speak English so there was very little talking going on. We did try to communicate, but they were sad and kept their heads down, plus it’s not the time to make small talk!

After a short while we asked if they would excuse us, and on the way out many of the local villagers came to shake our hands, and say hello which was nice. It was a fascinating insight into a private aspect of their lives, and to see some of the cultural practises that accompany death and burial.

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If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But, if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. - Lilla Watson