There’s a Hausa myth out of West Africa in which two old men, Life and Death, debate who is older. “How can one speak of Death without Life, from which it proceeds? And how can one speak of Life without Death, to which all things go?” This relationship between Life and Death is weighing heavily on me these days.
Patricia is one of a handful of Tanzanians I know who have recently lost friends or relatives to COVID-19. Her closest friend, Grace, had died five days earlier. I reached her on a Saturday morning, just as she had returned from a trip to the market. She is a 70-year-old retired civil servant who keeps active running a small stationery shop. In a mix of Swahili and English, she told me about Grace.
“Poleni na msiba,” I told her — literally, “Sympathies to you all for the funeral,” but there’s no adequate translation in English. We might say, “Sorry for your loss,” but it doesn’t carry the same affect emotionally. “Asante tumeshapoa,” she replied. Her response doesn’t translate well either. While it literally means, “Thank you, we’ve cooled off,” the sentiment expressed is really more like, “We’ll get through it and already are doing so.” Patricia had just lost a friend, Grace, whom she described as “closer than a relative.” Yet she seemed quite composed.
Grace and Patricia had helped raise each other’s children, such that the four boys Grace left behind — an engineer, an accountant, the third one still in college, and a novice — had grown up calling Patricia “Mama” as well. Careers had scattered them across the country, but they were otherwise close especially in these trying times. Grace’s third-born, Andrew, had gone to stay with his eldest brother in March, when students had been sent home from schools nationwide. He was clear across the country in the southernmost town of Songea when they heard that their mother had fallen ill. He made the 1,400 km trip to Mwanza in two days, as Patricia said, “hanging on cars” (hitchhiking between trucks and buses).
The journey would have taken him through the picturesque mountains of the Southern Highlands, across the windy central plateau, on roads through sunflower and pigeon-pea fields as he continued north and finally along the shores of the southern inlet of Lake Victoria to reach the large port-city of Mwanza, where we live. Tradition, and necessity in a place with little nursing care, demanded one of them be present to care for his dying mother. He arrived Saturday night, and by the time he visited the hospital with his father the next morning she had been transferred to Mwanza’s designated isolation facility for COVID-19 patients. She only lived another 36 hours, and he only saw her briefly twice, on Sunday morning and afternoon.
Grace’s husband is a medical doctor, and Patricia thought that the funeral had, in large part, been kept small because of his diligence in telling friends and family not to come in-person to pay their respects. The church had also been strict about maintaining social distancing and limited the funeral attendance to 35 close relatives only. Grace had been a long-time secondary school teacher of math and biology (at 58 she would have been approaching retirement age) in a government school in the middle of the city. Having touched the lives of many as a teacher and her husband also holding a prominent role of service in the community, under normal circumstances hundreds of people would have attended her funeral.
With traditional African values being strongly linked to ancestral roots, in order to properly honor the deceased, close family members are obligated by custom to take their body back to their home village for burial. It would be common for a delegation of around 40 people to travel together to accompany the body to the village for the burial. In the village, the body would be laid out and people in the area would come and even stay overnight at the household together as a sign of respect for the family. In this case, they had settled for a hybrid arrangement where only the closest immediate family members traveled together to their home village and would couple the burial proceedings with 14 days of quarantine together before leaving.
Typically, Tanzania doesn’t get much attention in international media, but its COVID-19 response has. The president is seemingly prioritizing economic factors in a place where so much of the urban population lives hand to mouth and the rural population by subsistence agriculture. The national lab, which was the only facility for testing, was shut down at the end of April, and no numbers have been announced since. Hospitals are reported to be overwhelmed.
With few restrictions on movement in Tanzania, life on the surface appears normal in many ways. The streets are bustling, and at the time I am writing this (late May), people were out in especially large numbers to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marked the end of the Ramadan fast.
Personal communications, however, belie the appearance of normalcy. After a friend of ours, whom we had been in close contact with, completely lost his senses of taste and smell, my family started quarantine. I called the woman who helps us with housework (which can be quite labor-intensive here) to see if she would be coming back. She hesitated. It turned out that her neighbor, whom she described as really close, had just died from COVID-19. As we were finishing quarantine, she was starting one herself. I wasn’t sure that I found solace in the conclusion of the Hausa myth; “Life and Death are merely two faces of the creator.”
This article appears in the August-September 2020 issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper. Reprinted with permission.