A mother's loss

It would be a tragedy in any part of the world: A single mother loses her son – then three weeks later, her daughter. How does she cope? How can she breathe under the blanket of devastation that smothers her like the unrelenting heat of West Africa’s dry season? How does she answer the incessant questions Why? Why?

On May 31, the day I arrived in Guinea-Bissau, 20-year-old Monimo died. The promising student – fluent in English, skilled in sports, and popular among his friends – had been struggling with a mysterious illness for months. He died after his condition suddenly worsened. Monimo’s mother, Mpili, was distraught when she heard the news.

Besides coping with the loss of a son, Mpili was also torn between two communities with opposing views of how to handle Monimo’s funeral. Her fellow villagers held strong animistic beliefs and wanted Monimo’s body buried in the village – even though Monimo had spent his whole life outside the village. The Christian members of Mpili’s family wanted him to have a Christian burial here in Canchungo, where he had spent most of his life.

In the end, the villagers had their way. Monimo’s body was transported to a place he had hardly ever known. There, the village women wailed and cried for six hours, flinging themselves on the ground. They wrapped Monimo’s body in sheets called panos and hung it from a tree, shouting at it loudly and asking it who was responsible for his death.

For several days after the funeral, Mpili could do little more than stare off into the distance. Her sister, the wife of the local pastor here in Canchungo, shared the same blank gaze. Rumors of a curse circulated among the villagers – there had to be a reason for Monimo’s death; someone was responsible. Mpili’s family fretted over what some of the villagers might try to do.

After a couple weeks, however, life slowly began to return to normal. Mpili gradually returned to her daily routine of cooking and cleaning. In the back of her mind, however, she worried about her 18-year-old daughter, Teresa – Monimo’s sister – who also had been sick for several months and was being treated at a clinic in a village two hours away. As with Monimo, no one seemed to know what was causing her sickness.

Then, on April 21, word spread among the family that Teresa’s condition had worsened dramatically. She was muttering nonsense and no one could calm her. John Klit, Mpili’s younger brother and the computer instructor at our school in Canchungo, decided that night he would visit his niece the next day. He never got a chance.

At 3 a.m. on Good Friday, I was awakened by the news that Teresa had died. The funeral would be that day. Almost instantly, the same debate that flared up at Monimo’s funeral was had again – where would the body be buried: in Canchungo with the Christian side of the family or in the village with the animistic side of the family? This time, the local pastor – buoyed by the presence of several other pastors who came to visit in the morning – made it clear there would be no compromises. She would be buried here.

The house I’m living in is a couple hundred feet away from the pastor’s house. This meant that the all-day funeral overflowed into our veranda and living room. Starting at 5:30 a.m. and lasting throughout the day, many of the village women who traveled here wailed and cried outside our windows without – it seemed – ever catching their breath. When Teresa’s body arrived in a medical transport, the hysteria reached a feverish pitch – dozens of women cried out loud, their voices cracking – and some collapsed on the ground, rolling in the dirt.

For Mpili, it was surely the worst day of her life. She cried uncontrollably. She ran headstrong into the muddy banks of a nearby river and fell flat on her face. Her friends had to stop her from trying to overdose on a handful of pills.

We decided our house would be an oasis of calm in the midst of chaos. We helped bring Mpili – drag her, really – into the veranda where she could mourn with some of her close friends in relative peace. The wailing women were told they could not enter. My job was to keep the small water filter in our kitchen going – supplying a steady flow of clean water for the women in the veranda. In the morning, our fridge was full of bottled water. By the end of the day – with the dripping water filter unable to keep up with demand – I started rationing.

At 5 p.m., Teresa’s body was carried out of the pastor’s house, wrapped in blankets, and placed in a rudimentary coffin along with some of her clothes. More than 200 people stood around the coffin as several visiting pastors spoke briefly in Creole – a mixture of Portuguese and tribal languages. A large number of people from the local Christian community sang solemnly. Then one man with a hammer started pounding nails into the coffin – an act that would seem disrespectful at a Western funeral, but a sight and sound that, in this case, vividly depicted the reality of what was happening: A life had come to an end.

The funeral continued. We walked about a mile to a local cemetery where a hole had already been dug. The burial was brief and almost mechanical. No one spoke as four men lowered the coffin into the ground and then unceremoniously shoveled a pile of dirt onto it – as if they were working at a construction site. We all filed out of the cemetery. The time for mourning was over.

That night, Mpili slept in our house along with a close friend. For the next three days, she sat on a mat in the veranda, surrounded by a handful of women – coming inside only to sleep at night. On Easter Sunday and on Monday, she received several visitors from the Christian community who came to console her – including a busload of 20 women who traveled from a church in the capital, Bissau, two hours away. There was little conversation. Mpili’s voice was hoarse. She said hardly anything. But it was clear by Monday that she was recovering, gradually. The questions she had about why two of her children had died couldn’t be answered – not now. But the sense of devastation, it seemed, was lessening.

On the day of the funeral, I wondered at the irony of Teresa dying on Good Friday. It was two millennia ago that a similar sense of despair settled among the many followers of Jesus as they gazed at their leader hanging on a cross. It seemed as if it was all over. Even Jesus himself cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But, as the story goes, Jesus appeared to his followers on Easter Sunday. In Christian theology, his resurrection represents not only a reason to not despair, but also a threshold moment that guarantees hope in any time of hopeless – the knowledge that there is more to this life than the fleeting time we spend alive. In the moment – when Jesus’ disciples felt at a loss for what to do and when Mpili felt there was nothing more to live for – it’s difficult, if not impossible, to hold on to hope. It’s only the assurance that there is something greater than the tragedies of life we experience – something consistent in the midst of uncertainty – that gives us hope.