February 11th-12th, 2012
I had my first Swazi funeral experience last night/this morning. My family is going to funerals every month but I had never been to one since none were in my community and Swazi funerals are not just a day trip. This funeral was in my community and was for a cousin of all my host siblings. All my older host sisters came home and I attached myself to them so they could show me the inner workings of a Swazi funeral.
A Swazi funeral is a several day affair. Family and non-family come in from all over and help prep for days. The day before the funeral a large makeshift tent is erected. Its really quite amazing these tents. They just find large tree branches with forked ends. Shove them into the ground so they stand upright and build a structure that tarps are then spread across to create an enclosure. This enclosure is used for sheltering the guests and to house the worship part of the memorial service. Grass is spread over the dirt floor for people to sit on and I couldn’t help at one point imagine that Jesus’ birth manger may not have looked all that different from this. Animals roaming around, wind threatening to take the whole thing down, people coming in and out to pay respects. However, we were participating in a memorial not a birth.
A Swazi memorial service and funeral are combined into what is called a night vigil, and it literally lasts all night. To prove myself as strong African women I mustered up some adrenaline and stayed up all night, from sunset to sunrise. Around 8:00pm everyone begins to arrive and continues to arrive throughout the night. There were probably 200 people there, and if I had just been blindfolded and dropped into the setting I would guess it was a wedding not a funeral. The whole thing was strangely full of energy it was bizarre.
One side of the homestead has the tent, where a nightlong church service is held. Singing, preaching, and testimonials fill the surprisingly crisp night air. The other side of the homestead is a tailgating party. It’s marula season here. Marula is a small tree-grown fruit that Swazis home brew into beer. Women can’t drink at these social events but the men sure can. All the men had gathered around a giant bonfire, they sat on the tailgates of their pickups and drink marula beer all night. Being thee only white person, or mlungu as they call me, I was the main attraction for this drunken group of men. I got at least 10 marriage proposals and hours of unwanted attention. Thankfully I had a safety net in the large group of my female Swazi relatives. They helped me fight them off when it got to be 4:30 am and I couldn’t react fast enough to get myself out of the situation.
In between the drunken men and the tent was the outdoor kitchen. This is where I spent most of the night with all the other women. This is were a Swazi women shines. It’s her safe zone. They can gather, gossip, complain, sing, laugh, sleep, and most of all cook. I spent the first few hours of the evening inside this mud and stick hut that has a thatched roof and dirt floor, very worn from years of everyday use. I helped my host sisters, cousins, and aunts hand grind peanuts, chop cabbage and carrots, and make jelly sandwiches for the 3:00am teatime. There were up to twelve of us in there at a time. I loved listening to them talk. I didn’t understand much but it felt comfortable. We worked under the glow of the single light bulb that illuminated the hut. Gogo (grandma) sat in the corner peeling boiled beetroot. Her purple dyed fingers working diligently form years of experience as our shadows danced around her. Right outside the hut was another 10 women who were managing the three-legged pots that were boiling over a very large fire. The floor became so hot that once teatime came all you had to do was place the teapot on the floor near the fire and it heated up quickly.
At 5:00am, just as the hint of sunrise threatened the dark night, the entire party walked to the cemetery. We followed, single file at times, along the cow paths, guided by the faint sound of singing coming from the front of the procession. At the cemetery, located deep in the African bush under a tree, the crowd gathered around the gravesite. The women in the family had a chance to pay their respect at the site, a prayer was said and then the men took turns burying the casket. I couldn’t really see what was going on as I was standing in the back, but this was the first moment I realized this was a funeral. It felt sad. The man who died was my age. His name was Mduduzi, which means to bring comfort. He discovered or finally accepted he had HIV too late, and only started taking his ARVs (anti-retroviral therapy) a week ago. This one funeral was enough for me to emotionally feel the awfulness of this virus. Swazis are attending these funerals every month, why isn’t that enough to make them want to change their behavior to stop the progression of HIV?
By 6:00am everyone was back at the homestead and the meal we had been preparing all night was served: rice, samp, beetroot, cabbage, potato salad, beef, and chicken. I was on KP duty and washed everyone’s dishes. By 8:00am I was so exhausted, completely filthy, and now that it was daylight I was being shuffled around and introduced to the dignitaries of the community who were there. Thankfully my eldest sisi (sister) saw me when I finally got a chance to sit down and rescued me. She put me in a car and sent me home to bed. I slept for eight hours, woke for four, and then slept for another ten. It was glorious.
My family was really appreciative that I attended and helped with the funeral. I met a lot of relatives, made new friends, and truly bonded with my community. It was a crazy night that feels a bit blurry but a very unique experience.