For the second time in four months we had a funeral for one of our staff. It’s a cruel reality that in this part of the world, death during your so-called productive years is pretty common.
Since I arrived in Burundi in July of 2010, I’ve known Valentine (pronounced Val-un-teen, more or less). Her role in the organization has been one of a cleaner and kitchen attendant. Over the years she probably brought me several hundred cups of coffee and as many glasses of water. While she straightened up my office, she generally instructed me on everything from raising children, to how to live a Christian life, to how to get rid of mice. She regularly inquired about my life and spent considerable time telling me about her own.
Her lot was one fraught with very hard and very real challenges. I said for a long time that knowing people like Valentine is a problem; it takes all the fun out of complaining. Knowing her made me lose interest in talking about my problems because they paled in comparison. She sort of became a symbol for me in that regard. Many times I would come to the office dealing with some particular issue and after seeing her (or simply thinking about her situations) I would retreat from any self-pity and get on with things. Needless to say, it was generally a perspective that I needed and one that will be with me for a long time to come.
A couple of years ago Priya and I attended her wedding. Though she already had a relatively large family by then, it’s customary here to wait on your wedding ceremony if necessary until you have the means to pull off something like what society expects. Years after she and her “husband” built a family in every practical sense, her “husband” became a husband in a legal sense. It was a simple ceremony by Burundian standards but it was relatively elaborate compared to what you might think a cleaner would have. It did have the charm of darkness-by-power-outage and a few awkward moments here and there but otherwise was quite a nice ceremony. I would never have thought that I would be attending this second ceremony in her honor only a couple years later.
I received word that Valentine was sick when I returned from vacation. It sounded serious. She was frequently ill, however, and there was nothing this time that made me feel like this was the big one. But she’d been out of the office for a couple of weeks and it was suggested that she had meningitis. I say suggested since they didn't seem sure and the ability to run tests here is limited. Often doctors (or other attending clinical care givers) use terms like malaria, TB or meningitis even though they’re not absolutely sure.
On Thursday, the day before she died, I was advised not to go visit her. Though she had regained consciousness from being in a coma, she apparently looked like a skeleton with skin. As such when the news came that she had died early the following day, it came as little surprise.
As Director there is not a great deal of time to sit around and grieve since a series of practical things need to happen rather quickly. There generally is no refrigeration for the body (nor electricity even when there is refrigeration) so the planning, the approvals, HR, etc. all kick in and, for the time being, you divorce yourself from the emotions. The burial needs to happen generally within the first 48 hours. Also, given the rather sophisticated customs surrounding funerals, burials and grieving, a team is generally formed which coordinates the events and supports the family along the way. Since seeing this process through for a few of my staff, I have to say it is gratifying to see how impressively my staff step up in situations like this. Regardless of the pain many of them are feeling, they don’t hesitate to contribute time and resources.
The day of the burial starts with a visit to the morgue. In the many times people close to me have died, I have only done the morgue visit once (accompanying my grandmother on a visit to another relative). I vowed that I would never to it again and I haven’t.
Next there is a procession of the body to the cemetery. Usually the simple wooden casket is transported in the back of a pick-up. There is a hearse (maybe two) in the country but it is for the wealthy. The family and friends follow in vehicles, vans and buses with their flashers on. Our office was on the way so we joined in at that point. On arrival at the massive burial grounds, there was some immediate confusion as to where to go. The procession had become mixed up in other traffic along the way and upon arrival at the cemetary, we realized that we didn't see our group. Looking through the palm trees, thorn bushes and various graves and tombstones, we decided we needed to call for guidance. At least two or three other ceremonies going on which made our task even harder. Cell service was almost non-existent which added to the complication.
Eventually we figured it out and we joined the ceremony already in progress. Given my role, I knew that I would be escorted near the front of the crowd and placed in a plastic chair in the shade just behind the family. Though I get tired of the favoritism sometimes, I must admit that I did appreciate not being in the hot sun, particularly given that I was wearing a suit.
Valentine and her family are Pentecostal so needless to say there was no shortage of emotion. Funerals are obviously and naturally prone to displays of emotion but the charismatic believers know how to step it up a notch or two. The singing was quite wonderful and, though it and the preaching was all in Kirundi and Swahili (the Congolese flavor) – meaning I wasn’t able to grasp much – it did appear that there was an attempt to make this as joyous an occasion as possible. The challenge to such an attempt was of course the presence of Valentine’s six children, most of whom are quite young. Ugh. It’s hard to describe how horrible it was to see these small kids coming to grips with the fact that their mother was gone.
Given that the father’s financial situation is precarious (apparently they have primarily been living off Valentine’s salary), questions have been raised as to what either the organization or various individuals can do. Our options are limited, certainly for any sort of sustainable solution, but we’re looking into it.
After the burial, we made our way back to the office. It was a Friday and I had a few more things to do before I called it a day.
In the meantime, life goes on. That morning, before heading to the burial, the lady that has been replacing Valentine dropped a full glass of water and it went crashing to the cement floor of my office. As she vainly reached for the doomed, falling glass, she inadvertently knocked over a full, hot cup of coffee which went pirouetting across my desk. I instinctively grabbed my laptop somewhere during the unfolding of these events and it survived unscathed. However almost everything else was soaked and steaming - including me. After a minute or two of wiping and wondering how it is that a normal-sized cup can miraculously produce five liters of fluid when its contents are spilled, I told the poor devastated woman that she should not worry and that it was not serious. I told her, quite truthfully, that it was a wonderful occasion to go through that annoying stack of papers I’d been neglecting (though more challenging now that the papers were all stuck together). She seemed relieved. Until Monday morning when she tipped over my water as she set it on my desk.
I miss Valentine – and not because she never spilled anything in my office. She was a special person who humbly had a true impact on people around her. Our prayers are with her family.