18 November 2010

I’m standing in the rain outside a cinder block house in Mkoba listening to the sound of drums and funeral songs escaping from the open doors and windows. The rain has finally come and shattered the heavy heat that has been hanging over us all.  The storms are spectacular.  The sky turns a sudden, menacing black and the wind picks up, bothering the dry, dead branches of the tall palms.  Rainfall is heavy and insistent.  If you are caught off guard, however close the shelter, however fast you move, you will find yourself wet and cold and shivering by the time you reach cover.  And when the rain comes, making people wet and cold and shivering, these people celebrate.  People here always seem to find a reason to celebrate, even in the midst of grief.

Water gathers in rust-coloured pools around my feet as we wait in small huddles to enter the room and file past the open coffin.  Family and friends have travelled great distances to share this moment of grief together.  Funerals last for several days and cannot start until the most important family members are present.  Traditionally, word of the loss would have spread locally through the haunting sound of women keening.

I stand in front of the mourners and my words of condolences, carefully rehearsed in Shona and word-perfect just moments ago, desert me.  Actually, all words desert me, and I stand mutely, silenced by suffering.  The funeral is not a patient this time, but a colleague, a friend.  I stand and share with people, who did not need to be reminded how cruel and unjust life can be, as they learn new lessons in loss.

I stand there in the wet, trying to remember that the dark, brooding sky, this cold, heavy rain, is actually a benediction.  A reason to celebrate. Trying to remember that there is a life here to celebrate too.  Later today, our friend will be moved to her rural home to spend a final night there.  Tomorrow, at the burial, the community will gather around the grave and share stories.  We’ll honour the memory of our loved one.  Remember her kindness and compassion.  Maybe we will talk about her work with MSF.  Her commitment to a job which ameliorates this grief and suffering that we can never entirely avoid.

Perhaps it will rain again.  The sky will become dark and threatening.  But in the fields all around, full of waiting crops, the rain will be making all things new.