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Published: August 15th 2013
Arthur and I...
...in September, 2012.
Last week marked probably the lowest part of my time thus far in Malawi. While on a weekend vacation to Blantyre for some iced coffee and pizza, I got a phone call from one of my supervisors informing me that my co-worker, Arthur Chidote, had passed away unexpectedly due to an HIV-related infection. As someone who had never lost a good friend before, the news came as quite a shock. While I had not seen Arthur in a few weeks, he and I were pretty close when I first arrived (he was actually the person who trained me back in September, as he had the same job that I have, but in a different hospital). He and I had also bonded over the fact that we were both the same age (28), and enjoyed occasional jaunts to the bottle-shop together.
The experience of going to his funeral the next day - as well as a wedding the following weekend - inspired me to do a blog entry focusing on these two elements of Malawian culture. Surprisingly, the overall structure of Malawian weddings and funerals are actually quite similar, though the tones of each are obviously very different.
to funerals, what was perhaps the most upsetting part of the whole event was how ridiculously common they are in Malawi. As someone who grew up in middle- to- upper-class America, it is difficult to imagine 15-20% of my childhood peers passing away before adulthood. But in Malawi, death at all ages is just an accepted part of life, and it saddens me that people can tolerate such gross inequities in childhood mortality between here and the West (assuming, of course, that they are even aware that such inequities exist). By far the most painful part of the funeral, though, was learning that Arthur's mom had actually lost two other children within the past year, also to HIV-related illnesses. Though I've never had children before, I have been told that losing a child is one of the most difficult things a person can endure; and I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to lose three in one year.
As for the funeral itself, the event was actually split up into two different ceremonies. The first, which was at Arthur's mom's house in a nearby village, was a religious event that began with a traditional lunch of goat,
beans, and rice. After the meal, the men and women were then divided into two different groups, each going to a different area outside the house. The funeral 'leader' (who I believe was a pastor) then called out different groups of people from Arthur's life (eg primary school friends, PIH coworkers, etc). When the leader called each group, members of that group stood up and one person gave a speech about Arthur. After all of the groups had been called, about eight women then lifted the coffin and began the long (~2 mile) walk to the cemetery. At the cemetery, another ceremony then began, in which two people from each of the 'groups' were called up to put dirt on the coffin. While the event was obviously extremely somber, it was actually nice to see so many people taking part, and I think it was probably also therapeutic for people to be able to share their memories of Arthur from his different phases of life.
The weekend following Arthur's funeral, I was then invited to attend the wedding of one of our Malawian PIH doctors, Dr. Noel. The mental shift from funeral to wedding was admittedly a bit jarring
...looking very happy at the wedding.
but, on some sort of philosophical level, I guess you could also take it as a metaphor for how quickly life can vacillate between our highest 'ups' and our lowest 'downs.' The wedding was held in a hotel in Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi), and a pretty large contingency of PIH staff made the 3-hour drive up for the event. The wedding was definitely unlike any wedding I had been to in the United States (eg no food or drink), but the overall structure actually reminded me quite a bit of Arthur's funeral. As we all sat at our respective tables, the ceremonial leader began calling up groups of people from the bride and groom's lives. When each group was called, its members would then run to the front of the dance floor and encircle the bride and groom while also showering them with money. While the similarities between this ceremony and the funeral were definitely...ironic...both, I suppose, created an atmosphere of inclusivity and support, and provided each of us with an outlet for expressing either our grief, or our excitement.
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