I was introduced to the African way of perceiving death in a friendly manner by going to a funeral in Botswana with an old local lady, very dear and very part of her culture. She asked me to drive her to a village, for a funeral that she had to attend, early in the morning one day as she was supposed to help out there.
We arrived at dawn and the picture of fires under the big three legged black pots in the misty light, with figures moving like shadows in between two worlds, created the environment for what followed. The beauty and the natural simplicity of what was happening took me by surprise. It could have been any other occasion for the busy team preparing the food which is a compulsory part of any event in Africa. People went on with their activity as they did the week before when they were preparing food for a wedding ceremony. The core private feelings have been kept for those who had them as an effect of genuine involvement, in both the occasions, funeral and wedding alike.
Funerals and weddings are important in African culture, monitored by the whole community which comes together for support and help.
It is the occasion of these events that will bring all the members together in a smoothly flowing activity, based on an established traditional wisdom towards its final ceremony. Songs and customary dances or actions create the framework for the release of emotional tension in a manner that is dignified and natural in the same time. The involvement of the whole community gives a special value and importance to these moments. It makes the event to provide the long lasting memory of social support to its participants; it is the base of the structures that keep a society together.
Being participant to a funeral in Botswana made me realize how much I yet have to understand of life.
In African tradition, the moment of death is part of life, reduced to what it is: only a brief moment. The person is "passed on", out of sight but not out of mind, still around, still available to anyone who wants to call the name out for comfort. A strange communication can be established between the person that passed on and the loved one left behind, even though only the one is talking. It is believed and accepted that the other one will be there forever to listen.
The grief becomes of a different form. The sense of loss is split when the perspective grows wider in this context of linking together past periods through the eternal spiritual connection between dead and alive. It becomes easy to perceive the moment of death itself as part of the many others, linked in a thread, moments of times previous and following the event.
African funerals are a process of several days. The burial is only a closing point when those personally involved have been helped go through the psychological stages, guided to understand and accept in practice what they have known in theory through the beliefs and tradition about the passing of a loved one into the world of spirits. The family and close friends are assisted to deal and cope with their feelings in a way that is not intrusive but comforting throughout. The extended family and the community members assume their roles without difficulty. There is little need of coordination, uncles and aunts have well defined spaces to fill in, according to customs. As everybody is placed in the principal position in their lives by turn, they all know and understand the feelings of those just going through it.
As a person with a European cultural background, the experience of an African funeral made me come closer to my own relationship with death and helped me to find a new dimension to the value of living life as a member of a community.
There are various aspects of cultural differences in between mine brought from Eastern Europe and those I came to know in Botswana. There are also deep similarities in both the system of values that I can now use as references. I witnessed the finely tuned traditional African empathy with those in need of comfort when a friend of mine died suddenly in Botswana and the whole community came together to help a handful of seemingly lost foreigners.