Monday, 31 October 2011

Matters of Life and Death

Banji ni lumbu, kuilu ni ku mundi  (This world is a cattle camp, the homestead is in heaven.)

This old Lozi proverb emphasises the transience of life and demonstrates that is a universal theme. The ephemeral nature of human life on Earth with our short entry into and exit from this world is a matter all cultures seem to try to come to terms with.

A cattle camp is a group of temporary wooden and grass shelters built on seasonal pastures. The herdsmen live there while they are looking after the cattle. The closest Scottish rural equivalent from yesteryear would be the ‘bothy’. At the moment there are many of these camps at the riverside around Mwandi as the cattle graze on the islands and floodplains. With the onset of the rains these ‘bothies’ will shortly be abandoned and the herds and herdmen will return to the village or homestead -the permanent settlement. It is this transhumance that is being compared to dying person leaving this world for an eternity in heaven.

On Wednesday evening we received news that Rev Manyando’s father had passed away in Mongu. Rev Manyando is one of our Livingstone Ministers. His father, Mr Green Sitali Manyando, was a former teacher, a former Council Chairman for the District and Village Headman. He was 80 years of age and had been ill for the last 8 months.  So on Thursday lunch-time we set off for the Manyando homestead in rural Bulozi, at Litoya, about half-way between Mongu and Senanga. Rev Manda, Getrude Kambole, the Consistory Secretary, Ida, Keith and Mubita  were the Mwandi Representatives. We picked up Rev and Mrs Nyambe in Sesheke and drove up the back road, reaching the pontoon in good time and then visiting the manse in Senanga. We finally arrived at Litoya at around 2200h.

We were welcomed into a dim and crowded lapa. (courtyard surrounded by reeds). As is the Zambian custom, a substantial marquee, made from a large tarpaulin, had been erected in the yard, and in front of it, the usual three-logged campfire was burning. The sofas and armchairs and any other extra seats from the home or borrowed from neighbours were placed outside for the use of visitors, mourners and those coming to pay condolences.

The lapa, at this time, is traditionally split into male and female areas. The men generally sit on the seats under the tent and the ladies in chitenges, legs straight and out-stretched on reed floor-mats. On arrival at the mourning-house (Zambian-English: the dead person’s home) you are expected to shake hands with all present, then enter the main house where the widow and her entourage of female relatives and neighbours are again sitting on mats. There you shake hands and express your sorrow and this is the time for tears. If the bereaved are Christian, you may be asked to offer a prayer of consolation here. You then return outside and sit with the other visitors who have also come to express solidarity with the family in their time of grief. You may now chat and discuss lighter matters with the people around you.

We were offered some of those ubiquitous white plastic garden chairs in front of the main house and a wooden coffee table was placed in our midst. A daughter of the house brought water, soap and a towel to wash our hands before eating. Then we were offered chunks of stewed beef and liver cooked in gravy and buhobe ( thick mealie-meal porridge). Eaten with your fingers, this was most welcome after our day’s journey. Cool drinking water is always served after eating. It is a breach of etiquette to drink with your meal as Europeans would tend to do.   

It was exceptionally atmospheric after eating to sit and look up at a clear night sky with its tiny electric blue spangles of glittering stars in their constellations, smell the whiffs of woodsmoke and listen to singing of hymns and choruses accompanied too by the rhythmic cadences of the drumming of youngsters from the Church choir.

Most people wrapped themselves in blankets or chitenges and settled down to sleep after midnight, others kept watch and dozed on and off throughout the night. The night-time temperature at this time of year does not fall below the mid-20s Centigrade. We three were very kindly given the privacy of an igloo-tent pitched in the lapa; inside too was the luxury of a mattress. Our middle-aged bones are no longer as good as they once were for sleeping directly on the ground! Incidentally we used our bath-towels as bedding and were perfectly comfortable.

By 0530h next morning most people were up and about. And the choir had started to sing again. Hot water was being prepared and lugged to the ablutions for visitors to wash themselves. Again kind neighbours put their toilets and bathrooms at the disposal of visitors at the mourning-house. We bathed en famille at the neighbour’s bathing area, a  reed-screened rectangle with a plank to keep your feet off the sand and an old maize sack served as the bathmat. Buckets of hot and cold water, an empty basin and jug were  available to make a simple shower.

After washing and dressing, a breakfast of bread, marge and cocoa was served in the main house. In the corner stood a magnificent polished wood coffin with two pictures of Mr Manyando, one as a young man and the other just before he died. After breakfast we were presented with a printed burial programme, as other members of the family and dignitories kept arriving. There were representatives from the Government including the Lady Mayor of Mongu and the Barotse Royal Establishment. During this time the choir and the congregation gathered in the lapa and sang hymns and choruses.

The main Church Service started at 0930h after the arrival of the Presbytery Bishop, Rev Sipalo from Mongu. The Funeral Service followed the Lozi Liturgy with Hymns, Scripture Readings, a short Sermon, Prayers and a Blessing. I was asked to read Job 1:17-22 and Philippians 4:12-13 in Silozi. This is what brought me to ruminate about the transient nature of life and think about the Lozi perspective on this.

At the end of the service is the body-viewing. This is when all present take leave and say farewell to the deceased. It is the Lozi custom that one should be self-controlled in the Church during the funeral service with no noisy outbursts of emotion but it is permitted to grieve freely at the body-viewing. If you cannot contain yourself in Church, you go outside till you have composed yourself then return. Once everyone had filed passed the body the coffin was closed and the bearers carried it to the burial site. Normally this would be the local cemetery.

However, as the founder of the village Mr Manyando was buried next to the special tree in the middle of his village. The Headman’s house is usually about a dozen paces to the east of that tree. This tree symbolizes the existence of that particular village and its people. The area “under the tree” as it is called, serves as a meeting place to resolve disputes. Traditionally too the tree serves as the village shrine and the founder is buried in an unmarked grave at its foot. The dead body next to the living tree is a symbol of the continuing interaction between life and death and the area where the living commune with ancestral spirits when necessary. The village headman is the go-between. It was interesting to witness, to our eyes, this example of animism and syncretism.

Talking about graves I recently learned a new idiom. When Mr Kapui from Kandiana died a few months ago, I asked Julius if he could arrange for some young men ‘kuyepa libita’ literally ‘to dig the grave’. Now to the Lozi ear that sounds incredibly direct, harsh and callous, they use the euphemism ‘kulukisa ndu ya mutu’ literally ‘to prepare the person’s house’.

The congregation gathered round the grave and again the choir sang. The coffin was lowered into the grave and some sticks as tradition dictates were thrown in as well. Mourners may also come at this stage with a handful of earth and throw it in the grave.

If you are unable to go to the grave a young man will circulate with a shovelful of earth that you may touch instead. The young males of the family continue to shovel in the earth, often spelling each other and taking turns on the shovels, until there is a rather untidy heap on top. However, the four corners of the grave are marked with sticks.

The female relatives then come out and ‘pat the grave’. They use their hands to make a truncated rectangular pyramid. When that is done people present at the graveside; family, colleagues and visiting dignitories are called out in order of precedence to place flowers on the grave. These are provided by the family. You take the flower, go to the grave, kneel, stick in the flower and then say a prayer of thanksgiving. There appears little concern here regarding “Prayers for the Dead” that seemed to exercise many of the reformed persuasion in the past!

Then came the eulogies. There were speeches from the Local Authority and the Barotse Royal Establishment then a male family member gave a short biographical life-history of Mr Manyando and thanked all who attended for their care and support. The Minister closed the proceedings with The Grace and Benediction. Visitors then proceeded back to the home to say farewell to the family and set off on their way home.

Visiting a Lozi cemetery comes as a bit of a shock to Europeans who are used to carefully manicured and tended graves with lawns, flowers, shrubs and individual stone gravestones. These you will find in the urban areas of Zambia but not in the rural areas. Mwandi is a typical rural example. Wild, natural and unkempt rural cemeteries tend to be found to the west of the village roughly a mile away from the village centre. Traditionally the bush starts here and the graveyard is found right on the border between the village and the bush and so those who die are buried near to their living relatives. That is why so many bodies are brought home to Mwandi at great expense from all over Zambia to be buried here.

A Lozi village is a shelter for both the living and the dead and animistic belief says they should be able to communicate with each other. The graves are a clear demarcation of where the village begins and where it ends. To some extent you could say the living are placed between the dead at the shrine and the dead at the cemetery.  The fact that you have the dead so close to the living perhaps makes death something less to be feared by the living and more recognizably a process on the journey to heaven as the Lozi have traditionally seen life as a metaphorical journey to a heavenly paradise called Litooma .


  1. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to my grandfather.

    1. I am glad you appreciated it. With every blessing Keith