It is impossible for me to imagine anything worse than burying a cardboard box containing my dead 2-year-old daughter. Today, I attended the funeral of baby Whitney, my friend Ojwang’s youngest child, where this actually happened.
After tea break, it was my plan to go to Kisumu to run a few errands and meet a friend for lunch. When I was ready for my outing, with windows locked, bladder empty, water bottle full and raincoat in hand, I called my friend Ojwang to come pick me up and take me into Siaya to catch a matatu. Actually, I sent him a text message, because our communication – though much improved – can sometimes be a challenge, especially when he is trying to talk to me through the wind in a moving vehicle. Once he received my text, he responded with a call and explained that today he cannot come for me because he is preparing for the burial of his lastborn. Hold the phone neighbor – did he just say “burial?” as in: dead, funeral, body? And was that really coupled with “last born,” meaning his baby, whom I knew to be just toddling? After stammering out many apologies in every language I know (which is only 3, if you were wondering: English, KiSwahili and Luo, which still didn’t feel like enough), our phonecall ended and I tried to absorb what he just told me.
Naturally, I needed to talk about it, so I immediately went to our staffroom where all teachers were gathered, taking tea. Rather undiplomatically, I blurted out the situation and asked if anyone else was aware. To my surprise, no one had heard about this tragedy, and in fact, Dorine had seen him delivering milk to her neighbor this morning. Jeph said she saw him yesterday night with his wife holding a child wrapped in a blanket on a motorbike, heading towards their home. The teachers admitted that it was sad and went back to their conversations. Unable to let it go, I interrupted again to suggest we take a collection for the family. Dorine made a few phone calls to confirm the time of the burial while Jacky made a round to all teachers and workers, requesting any donations they could make to the family. With money in hand, Dorine, Jeph and I left the school to attend the burial at Ojwang’s house.
When we arrived at Ojwang’s home, several clusters of people were gathered in the shade of the trees edging his compound, seated around tables with mandazi and tea. His house was at the far end of the compound, opposite the entrance. The burial site was right next to the house, facing the entrance, and here women stood and sang around the family and the hole in the earth. At first we could not see the hole, or the rickety box lying next to it. We joined the group of women singing, and before long, someone brought me (and my company) chairs and suggested resting in the shade. From here, I could see through the legs of the women – and this is when I saw the box. And Ojwang’s face. And the box. And the faces of his other children. But most of all, the box.
The singing continued and prayers commenced. After resting in the shade briefly, someone else came and invited us into Ojwang’s empty house for refreshment. All of the furniture had been moved outside of his mud house, so we carried our chairs in with us. Then they brought us a table. And mandazi, bread and tea. While we drank our tea, we listened to them throwing dirt on top of the box on the other side of the wall, just behind me.
After refreshments, we carried our chairs back outside to the shade under the trees. From here I could see them throw the last of the dirt on the mound – and this is when I saw the mother fall to the ground wailing. And the women carry her to the shade and comfort her. And the children following, bawling.
Then it was over. The singing women escorted Ojwang into his house (the mother would have gone too, had she been able) where they prayed for the family. Once the prayers were finished, the women came out and visitors came in few by few to speak with the family, share condolences, give money. We were the first to go in and talk with Ojwang, who, I must say, is an incredibly strong man. He told us what happened with his daughter. She became sick 2 days ago, and last night around 10:30pm they decided to take her to the hospital. She died on the piki before they even reached the paved road. So they turned around and came home. He thanked us for coming and said “Kelsey, you did not go to Kisumu?” and I couldn’t even say anything back. What do you say? What can you say?
We walked back to school where I was finally free to let my guard down, in the comfort of my own house with my mom on the receiving end of my emotional eruption. Glad I went, but so hard to understand.