A couple of weeks ago, the father of Alan Kumwenda (one of SPRODETA’s founders) passed away. Following Malawian tradition, the SPRODETA team therefore did not come into the office, and our fieldwork was cancelled. Two days after the father’s death, we were invited to the funeral, taking place in the village of Kavizombo at Alan’s sister’s house. We pulled up in the SPRODETA van around 10 o’clock, with the house and surroundings already teeming with people. We took a seat in the shade whilst watching more and more people arrive, bearing offerings of maize flour to be made into Nsima (the staple food in Malawi). Women broke into Christian songs, producing beautiful and sad harmonies, whilst more women danced in a circle, their bodies rising and falling to the rhythm of the music. The time came to pay our respects inside the house, and so we entered into the front room. When our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, we saw the entire space was jam packed with female relatives. The feeling of grief was overwhelming, exacerbated by the wailing cries of the women and yet more wonderful singing. Our community liaison national volunteer, Bryan led us with a prayer and then we exited again, trying not to step on the hundreds of toes as we made it out of the door!

At this point the boys were separated from us, and we continued sitting with all the women in our shady spot outside the house. A table was brought out into the shade in preparation for the wooden coffin, and benches and chairs were brought out too, forming a semi-circle. After a while, all the men reappeared, walking in a large procession to sit opposite the women, with many taking places on the chairs and benches in the semi-circle. At this point speeches about the deceased began, with testimonies from relatives, neighbouring Chiefs, and finally the leader from the African National Church, of which Alan’s father was a member. Traditionally only men are allowed to speak at funerals, whilst the women seemed to express their grief and memories through song and dance. After much speaking the coffin was finally brought out of the house, carried by men through a pathway lined by singing women. As the coffin was balanced on the table people rushed to cover it with foliage and flowers, cherishing their chance to see the deceased for the last time. More speaking and singing followed, with people nipping off to eat the nsima provided for lunch before returning back to the ceremony. Further back from the coffin, the atmosphere was more relaxed and less grief-laden. Women were quietly chatting amongst themselves and we made friends with a new mother, enjoying the chance to hold such a tiny baby and stroke its soft, downy hair.

Finally, the speaking finished and we then joined the huge crowd of at least 500 people to walk from the house to a small mound, out in the open grassland, where the grave had already been dug. As everyone sat down, a pick-up truck carrying the coffin reversed towards the grave, followed by close relatives wailing, holding each other up from collapsing with grief, and seeking comfort from one another. After lowering the coffin into the grave and covering it with a sheet of metal, the hole was filled with earth and built up into a large mound, whilst the church leader led more prayers. Months later once the earth has compressed to ground level again, a grave stone will be added in commemoration. The will was then read out, after which people began to disperse from the hot sun. We meandered back to our van amongst the sounds of singing and more prayers. At around 4 o’clock we drove away, following pick-up trucks and 4x4’s packed with other funeral goers exiting the small village. Although an extremely sad occasion, it seemed to be a cathartic experience for those present, perhaps down to the Malawian tradition of never crying openly except at funerals. 

Written by ICS Team Nyenyezi