A Fanta to End the Mourning

(by Eric)

Last week I received a text.  It was from our friend Pastor Luc, who is the assistant administrator at our hospital.  It said that he unexpectedly lost his mother that morning.  I was saddened for him, and touched that he would think to text me at a time like that.  Luc is a very solid guy.  When we first arrived, he drove us around to introduce us to the local administrators and the chief of police.  In light of our coming, he convinced them to add two new police officers to the Kibuye campus.  During a rain storm a few weeks ago, I was trying to get an urgent message to him, but the cell connection was cutting out.  Next thing I knew, he was at my door with a big umbrella and some rainboots.

Sunday marked the seventh day since her passing, and we were invited to a traditional gathering to mark the end of the initial mourning period.

An aside:  As I share impressions of Burundian culture, I'm sure that I'm getting things wrong sometimes.  I'm sure I will be able to re-read this in years to come and think "Wow, I really didn't understand that at all."  In a sense, I hope I will, since that will mean that I've grown in my understanding of this world around us.  But I will share it as I understand it, nevertheless.

We drove out in a little caravan of about 5 vehicles at 1pm.  Everyone was in a suit.  We left the tarmac after a few minutes, but the dirt road remained good.  Luc was in the car in front of us, and was frequently stopping to pick up more passengers.  It was obviously getting full up there, so we signaled that we could take some as well.  We arrived at the parish church, which has a gathering area.  A young mentally-handicapped guy came out and immediately hugged the three white guys in suits, and insisted on introducing us to various even-now-unidentified people.  There were a lot of hospital acquaintances there, and so we chatted a bit.  After a while, they showed us to a shaded area, and gave us the benches of honor, to the side of the head table where the family sat.

They passed out your choice of soda: Fanta Lemon, Fanta Orange, Coca Cola, or Schweppes Tonic Water.  We all enjoyed a beverage, and sang a few hymns.  Then Luc made a short speech, as did another guy from the crowd.  Then they passed out the envelopes.

The envelopes are for donations.  The donations, as I understand it, are for the payments of the debts of the person who has passed away.  In a sense that seems harsh, to come knocking for a debt after a death, but in a land of a lot of debt, and no small amount of death, it's probably necessary to have some security in the lending process.  We were told that, for older people, there is usually a second such ceremony during the dry season, since other people will then come from further away to collect further debts.

This is still uncomfortable territory for us, and probably will be for a long time.  As Americans, the purest friendships are void of financial matters.  We just like "being together".  Africans tend to value interdependence and solidarity in lieu of independence and "freedom".  So, being a part of this process assures them that they are integrally linked into the broader community.  That being said, we're still Americans, and so we feel the discomfort.  However, we took an envelope and tried to guess what would be appropriate for our friend, comforted by the fact that his character assures us that he will steward whatever gift well.

People came and brought them up to a little conical basket which is typical of Burundian style.  Then, before we knew it, they were closing the basket, and we three had to rush up and put in our donations before it was too late.  Thus ended our dream of inconspicuously participating in community life.  There was gentle laughter, and we sat down, chatted some more, shook a bunch of hands, and made our way home.

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