The Consistent Sadness of Loss and Funeral Customs in Namibia

In my less than two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia, I’ve already been to an equal number of funerals here in as in my first 32 years of life in the United States. My friend Hamutenya once told me “Here, we die a lot, my dear.” It is the very sad truth. Death is no stranger to the people of the Kavango Region. It feels like it’s always looming around the corner. Josh was working with a rural group to schedule a business training course, and they were trying to figure out a time to meet. He suggested Saturday morning, but the group said that time needed to be free to attend funerals.

Very unfortunately two of our fellow Peace Corps volunteers died during service as well. We were not close to either volunteer, but fellow volunteers are like family here. We all felt the deep loss. My dad passed away while I was here, and our good friend Bill lost his daughter during his service. Grieving overseas was challenging for me, but living in an environment where death is just as much a part of life also gave me new perspective. Most of my learners only have one living parent and they are 20 years younger than me.

Aside from attending funerals myself, I have heard about so many friends of friends that have passed away. The reasons are many: HIV/AIDS, traffic accidents, meningitis, Tuberculosis, eaten by crocodiles, drowning, heart disease, cancer, malaria, and the list goes on. Poor medical care, poor nutrition and poor preventative care are among many reasons why people are taken too quickly from us.

My friend’s colleague passed away earlier this year. Her mother had seven children, now only three are alive. A good friend’s friend died from a traffic accident last week. Their mother buried another son two years ago, and has now only one remaining living child.

My friend and colleagues’ sister (40 years old) passed and left two small children. There was a lot of debate in the family as to who would take the child- The father or the mother’s family. The mother’s family felt strongly the baby needed to be raised by one of her aunties at least for the next year or two (she was only four months old).

At that funeral I felt such pain for my friend as her fiancé’s was not able to attend the service. It was because he was attending the funeral of his cousin.

Namibians understand that death is just a part of life. It is mentioned often in Morning Prayer before our staff meetings start, and prayers in general. It appears to me that Namibians think about heaven a lot, and it gives them great comfort to know God will take such great care of them and their loved ones when this life is over.

I admire their acceptance of death. As an American I always found myself asking my friends “But how, why, what was the cause??” We always need to have an explanation. Namibians aren’t searching for answers as to why the death took place. It appears to me that they begin accepting the new reality soon after it happens.

In town I see adverts everywhere for funeral insurance. It’s very common for people who are working and able to prepare for their death do so from the time they start working. Just like at home, funerals aren’t necessarily cheap. Aside from a coffin, after the late is buried everyone goes back to the family’s house for a meal. When my good friend’s brother died, there were at least 300 people who came back to the house.

It is truly remarkable here how people come together to help when someone passes. Aunties come and begin cooking. Families journey from very far away to mourn with one another. Work colleagues and families come together to collect money and give monetary gifts to help pay for the funeral and its expenses. It used to be custom to get two weeks off for a burial, but now the custom is one week off work. For an immediate family member, it’s not uncommon if someone misses work for an extended period of time, especially if they have to travel far to attend the services.

There is typically a memorial the night before the funeral. The memorial we went to was on a Friday night and lasted four hours. At the memorial people share stories about the deceased. Like back home, people find comfort in sharing. The funeral started at six the next morning and lasted until noon.

Here are some of the customs of the burials I’ve seen at the funerals I’ve attended in Namibia that are different from our own. There are many things that are the same. Each tribe has its own traditions, but I am combining all of them below (It’s hard to remember which tribe does which):

  • When a baby (years 0-3) dies, it is not the same kind of loss we experience at home. Someone buries the baby with no funeral or commemoration, etc. Often times the mother doesn’t know where the baby is buried, she is not part of the process. They see it as the child did not have a chance to really grow up to be someone to mourn. At home, this is considered one of the most tragic deaths of all.
  • No one touches the deceased’s clothing (giving it away, etc.) until he or she has been gone for a year.
  • The term “the late” is very common here.
  • To commemorate the life of the deceased, t-shirts are made and people wear them at the funeral but also afterward, as a reminder of this person who was important to them. The t-shirt usually has the late’s photo on it.
  • The night before the funeral, the body of the deceased will be in his or her family’s home, and the immediate family will stay up all night singing. This happens for weddings too.
  • You have to be careful who you hire to help you bury someone because it’s not uncommon for a coffin to be dug up and stolen to be used for another funeral.
  • Before my friend’s sisters’ funeral, they baptized her deceased sister’s baby. It was strange to me, but also meaningful. It was as if her mother was able to be there for this important day in her life.
  • At home after everyone leaves the gravesite the casket is lowered into the ground. Here, everyone watches the casket being lowered into the ground. Watching my friend’s sister’s niece – she’s 8 years old- staring as her mother was lowered into the ground – is an image in my mind that I’ll never forget.
  • It is the family members and friends who take their shovels or hands and put the dirt on the deceased/their coffin when they are burying them. Not someone from the funeral service.
  • Closed caskets are most common.
  • People typically get buried at the village from which they come. In our town of Rundu, there are many different tribes and people from all over. The graves in our town are divided into sections. Depending on your tribe is where you’ll be buried. There’s a section for Angolans, Vambos, Kavangos, etc. In the village families (sisters, brothers, etc) are buried near one another.
  • Work colleagues and friends visit the entire week at the home before the burial. They greet the family of the deceased and sit with them. Similar to the quote I remember in the sweet movie Lars and the Real Girl when his mannequin girlfriend dies and he asks his neighbors what they are doing there. “We are here to sit. At times like these, we just sit with one another.” Sitting, hugging and being in someone’s presence can be a powerful thing when dealing with unbearable loss.


Filed under Peace Corps Namibia Blog

2 responses to “The Consistent Sadness of Loss and Funeral Customs in Namibia

  1. Pingback: Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of Peace Corps. Numbers 10-18 | Our Peace Corps Namibia Blog

  2. Pingback: Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of my Peace Corps Experience. Numbers 6-9 | Our Peace Corps Namibia Blog

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