Obedi is the brother or cousin of one of our Congolese colleagues. We hired him as our night guard, but he always did lots of gardening and extra jobs too. He had not been feeling well for a day or two and was taken to the hospital and treated for a bad case of malaria. He regained consciousness and was visiting for two days with various family members when he died rather suddenly. Our kids knew him well, and had not experienced death like this before. So for the past week we’ve had many conversations about life and death. As much as I’d like to shield them from the realities of death here (or anywhere), it is a part of life as much as birth.
So here is my tiny tribute to a great man who is now Home. If you want to read my thoughts on our first Congolese funeral experience, they follow below.
Obedi was a servant-hearted man who was always smiling and full of energy. He planted me 20 pineapples and several banana trees just because I like them. He would stay extra hours after an overnight shift until our cook arrived when Kent was traveling just so I wouldn’t be alone those 30 minutes.
He dreamed of land to leave his family.
He is survived by 5 children and 28 grandchildren.
There were 4 widows and 4 children he took into his household.
Please pray provision for those who depended on him.
Funeral Experience – – – – – – – – –
Due to it being the tropics here (without a morgue), grieving has to be done quickly. The tradition is that family and close friends bring the body back to their home and stay up all night with the body. The next day more people trickle in as they get word. (like 100-300 people)
We found the house and were immediately greeted (handshakes) and ushered into the dark house where many mamas were crowded in and singing on benches. Not until my eyes adjusted to the light did I realize we were being ushered into HIS room (Obedi, our friend) who was lying peacefully dead in the center of it all. They cleared out a few other mourners and gave us the front bench right in front of him! Not quite what I expected.
Needless to say our three kids, aged 3, 5 and 7 were a bit overwhelmed. Then (to save face in this ‘anti-shame’ culture) someone came to tell us the ‘oxygen’ wasn’t good and we should head out the back door. We took the hint. I think people were cycling through like this and then sitting outside for the official service. So event #1: view the body (cry, sing, wail) and say goodbye.
Joel (the 5yr old) said, “Oh. So dead is looking like you’re sleeping, except not moving and not breathing.” Yup. I think Anna expected him to wake up. James and I were the family wailers.
We proceeded straight through the wailing daughters out the back door of the little mud building. The family had strewn up UN tarps on posts to keep everyone seated in the yard/courtyard of the house but still shaded from the sun. They brought out wooden chairs for us right in front while everyone else sat on benches or floormats or their shoes. It is sometimes hard to receive what people want to give you.
There were a couple choirs of mamas singing in Swahili. My Swahili is first semester of first year, but Kent tells me they sang about how we will get to heaven and DANCE! I like that idea.
[Background note: When we were living for a few months in the rainforest we were near a ‘maternite’ or delivery ward and I absolutely LOVE that the Congolese bathe every meaningful thing in music. The tradition is that when a first-time mother and her baby are ready to return home, her friends and family come to walk and sing her all the way home. LOVE it!]
And seeing all those women singing over Obedi’s body reminded me of the same thing. They are singing him home. Something we really don’t do at all. But very cool. So the funeral itself was a lot like church services here. Verses. Sermon. Songs.
Just as with weddings, there was a reading of his biography – a bit on the story of his life. He was 68, had 13 kids, 5 of which are still living due to sickness and war. He was supporting his blind wife, his elderly mother and her sister, his youngest son and a daughter with three children who had been widowed in the war. Her epilepsy prevents her from doing much work.
The coffin (simple pine box nicely decorated with bright contact paper) is nailed together and then wreaths of fragrant juniper topped with bright pink bouganvillia were laid on top. After the first sermon, the wails grew louder and people hoisted the coffin with wailers following and placed it 12 inches from us on the head table.
The close family returns to the house for a big meal together. They repeat this on the third day (or whenever the family declares the fasting/mourning will be over). So he died Tues., wake Tues. night, funeral Wed. afternoon followed by burial and family meal, and then service/meal again the next Tuesday afternoon.
Just before we left the cemetery, as they were shoveling the dusty dirt we said to our friend, “Goodbye! We’ll see you on the other side.”
Dust to dust.
Life is short.
Obedi lived well.
It was an honor to help sing him home.
He was a wealthy man in all the ways you can’t see.