As I drove down the road once again with precious cargo in the backseat I felt so honored as I was driving members of the Fish Farming Cooperative to the funeral of a member who had passed away the night before. I was driving slowly behind the pick up truck that carried the wooden casket, draped in a white cloth with a purple cross on it and I felt like I was in disbelief of what was actually happening. How did I end up here, doing this? It felt so much like I was part of the community, a member being embraced by the event but in a way that is very different than how I usually feel when I do cultural things in different countries. This was not a performance to demonstrate their culture and it was not celebration or something they want to show tourists who come to the country. This was a funeral. This was death and sadness. This is something that I feel not many white people get the privilege to witness, let alone be a part of in this way. I am humbled and honored to have had this experience with these people.
I was told about the woman’s passing last night but still have not gotten any details about it as Justin has been very, very busy with the whole event. He only had 2 hours sleep last night so I wanted to be a quite and ask as few questions as I could. I also became photographer once again which at first felt disrespectful but I was told by Justin “take as many photos as you want, there is no problem.” After we left the church I felt better about it and realized that I was putting my own cultural bias on the situation, there were people walking up the casket taking pictures throughout the whole service and I was there to help Justin document the event so I stepped up and began to engage in my task.
The burial site was a hike up a hill into the trees, the air smelling like fresh Eucalyptus accompanied by people in brightly colored outfits singing and clapping beautifully. There was a line of people walking on red dirt for at least 2 Km’s, maybe more, against the backdrop of the lush green fields of tea and jungle. We all moved slowly and somberly up into the hillside to the large hole that had been dug by hand. It was probably 10-12 feet deep and 7 feet wide at the top, getting narrow towards the bottom. A few men jumped down inside to await the casket being lowered with a rope, which made for a few loud voices and men at work kind of sounds. They were pulled up by strong hands reaching down to them and the shoveling began. The hole was filled completely in less than 20 mins. It is so nice to see community working together like this. The woman sang and the men shoveled, hard and fast, handing the shovel to another man when they tired. They were on a mission to get that hole filled as fast as they could so the funeral could move into the next phase of honoring the deceased, which was more singing and a few words from the Church, then flowers being laid in a circle on top of the grave site. It felt so natural to put a wooden box in the ground with a human body and cover it with dirt and to do it so soon after the death. It felt so connected to the earth and to the natural cycle of life. It was beautiful to watch.
There were two young men who came in late to the service and were ushered to the front and then put their heads in their hands, bent over and wept. One was immediately brought over to another bench where he was embraced and soothed by the men who sat there. I watched these two boys to see if I could figure out where they fit into the puzzle. All I know for sure is that they were comforted, allowed to cry, to be very sad and that they were about 14 or 15 years old. Wherever they fit, whatever their story or connection who the person in the casket, it was the way they were embraced during their time of emotional vulnerability that struck me and will stay with me. The people of Rwanda are so real, so human, and so wonderful to be with because of this. They are teaching me to be even more alright with who I am as a person, and embrace even more the fact that being human is a wonderful gift.
**Update: Words from Justin’s email about her passing. “She was a widow, her husband died leaving her with 6 children and she had to look after them, she was so courageous and hard working in this co-op. She died the same day I did the final assessment on the new project ideas (expanding their fish farming project).The next step is to think of her children.”
As I sat in the crowd as part of the service and saw how deeply impacted the people were by this one person’s death I immediately thought of the Genocide and how much it would have impacted them. I also thought maybe they were this way because of the fact that they have lived through a genocide. I watched as people hunched over on the benches and cried into their hands, looking up once and a while with big brown” puppy dog eyes”. I notice a lot of behaviors in these people that are very similar to animal behavior and I feel it is part of what keeps them so connected to the earth, each other and a way of life that most other people could not handle. They are so beautiful. I am beginning to notice the impact on my own behavior, which I am very grateful for. I am hearing a gentleness in my voice, feeling a calmness in my body, and a humility in my actions which I am so grateful for and will continue to strive to embody even after I leave here.
After the burial, we made our way back down the hill and by this time Justin had enough and was ready to sleep. He did tell me that everyone now was gathering to “wash hands” which literally meant a washing of hands to symbolize the ending of the burial process. Then there was to be sharing of drink and words from members of the community. My friend and Justin’s sister-in law, Celine, was there as well as one of the leaders from the Pygmy tribe that we were to deliver mattresses to today but will instead see tomorrow. He remembered me and was happy to hear I was staying in the country.
It was a gift to be a part of this community today and I was there as a representation for “Goats for Life” and “World Dance For Humanity”, this was a token of my appreciation for the work they do and how it has impacted the lives of the people in this country as well as my own. I was an honor to be of service.