In Uganda, grieving is a very public process. Immediately following someone’s death, a fire is lit in their front yard by the family, and informal messengers are sent to tell the news to the village. Not only is everyone encouraged to come, but neighbors, co-workers of family members, and anyone of any relation, no matter the distance, is more or less obligated. If you run into someone who’s lost a family member and you didn’t attend the funeral, they will have no problem bringing up your dishonorable absence and making you feel like a bad family member/neighbor/acquaintance.
It’s so different from what I’m used to, where grief is so personal and private, and anyone distantly related who wants to be heavily involved might even be seen as greedy for people’s pity. Here, people stand on their front porch shrieking and crying so as many people as possible will gather.
Today at the school there were a few people who came to tell the news of the death in Lungujja. Josephine, the teacher at the ‘new site‘, got me a long skirt to borrow from her daughter and we headed over after lunch.
When we arrived around 3pm, the fire had died down and was just a pile of ash. There was a big tent and a couple dozen rental chairs under it facing the house. But most visitors sat in what I guess is the equivalent to a driveway. Around the side there was a fire pit and a huge pot of food cooking for the guests.
We walked up to the front door of the house and I had taken my first shoe off when I saw the feet. I was not prepared for seeing the stranger lying under a sheet in the center of the room. The living room was turned into an impromptu wake. I was really nervous at first since I’ve never been to a funeral and was really uncomfortable being in the same room as the body, but Freda assured me her was completely covered, and everyone else’s relaxed demeanor helped. I tried not to stare and to recite the Luganda condolences to the women sitting in the room and then to the widow, who was easy to pick out as she was wearing a black version of the Ugandan woman’s formal ‘gomez’ dress. I think they were all amused and/or thankful for mine and Freda’s fumbled attempts of “So sad, maam.” (something like ngachitolo nyo, nyabo)
We sat on mats which bordered the bed for a while. It was another occasion where I desperately wish I had known Luganda solely for the purpose of eavesdropping. The widow greeted each visitor as if she had known us for years. From what I could tell she recalled to each person the details of her husband’s death as if it were the first time and she was talking to her best friend, which I assume was basically opposite from the actual circumstance.
Everyone greeted Freda and I with kindness and welcoming. Though we had never seen any of them, much less the deceased, and had no actual conversation to improvise. They asked us what country we were from, just from curiosity, and then we kind of sat in silence while they chatted. With some subtle pleas form Freda and I, teacher Josephine excused the three of us and we left after about an hour’s visit.
Richard taught me about the rituals involving death during my orientation, and regardless of how uncomfortable I might have been, it was interesting to see it all play out in real life.