Ding! Ding! Ding! The village bell tolls in my neighborhood in Manjacaze. Three slow rings again, signifying another death in the community. Sometimes the bell tolls two or three times per day. By my home being situated close to the cemetery, seeing the funeral processions and hearing the ominous funeral songs are constant occurrences. So with all this death in the air, I was curious, what do the Mozambicans think about this whole concept of dying?
Through many casual conversations with Mozambicans and after attending a funeral procession I feel comfortable to discuss a little a bit of what I learned. First off, I find it of importance to speak of how we treat death within my own American culture. I think for most Americans death is viewed as something terrible, some atrocious monster that comes and snatches granny away in the night, or takes a loved one unexpectedly, whether they are young or old. Death is unjust, uncalculating and unpredictable. Culturally I think we fear death tremendously. We hide death and aging away in nursing homes, the back of hospitals and immediately cover our dead in sheets, body bags and inside of coffins. Corpses are rarer than diamonds in our society. We pump our children, adults and elderly full of chemicals and use a dizzying array of technological wizardry to prosthetically prolong life. We artificially maintain life, to the sum of enormous amounts of resources, of brain dead and comatose individuals. We take vitamin supplements, use anti aging creams and potions, exercise vigoriously and maintain the highest of food and health standards. All to the effect of evading the one inevitable truth to this existence. You are going to die. Yes you.
Here in Mozambique there is a much different approach to this whole subject of dying. Because of its constant presence, death is so much more obviously a natural part of life, and is culturally understood to be so. Children die all the time. Adults get sick and die randomly. Older people obviously die frequently too. Death does not carry the same terrific weight that it does in our culture. A friend of mine here in Manjacaze, his 17 year old son died last week. The son went to the hospital with a bad stomach ache and 3 days later died. His fathers explanation was that he had a problem with his organs. I asked him how he felt about this. “Of course I am sad, I will miss him, but hey, it happened and life must continue.” This is the common response I get from people when discussing death. “It happens” seems to be the best way to sum up the attitudes. And it makes no difference who died, whether they were young or old, it all just “happens”. Funerals are usually followed by raucous parties and celebrations. Families and communities are united around the remembrance of an individual. I have yet to see a tear shed at a funeral.
Death is the biggest secret in the world; it’s the one that every human being wants to know and will one day face, alone and completely on their own terms. “The last dance you dance, you dance alone”. It is completely personal, and it is completely inevitable. Yet it is only by the fault of our own denial and self aggrandizement that we do not see the elegant necessity of death in this cyclical and fractal world. Our lives depend on death at every step of the way, both internally and externally. In the womb, the hands and feet of the human fetus are sculpted from web like paws by the forces of death. The fingers do not grow on their own, but the cells within the webbing are programed to die. We rely on the bacteria and fungi who decompose plant and animal bodies to re-release the once bound nutrients to be reused again by some living being for a brief splinter of time. Without death our world would so obviously not function in the harmonious nature that it does.
So the question then becomes, how do we reconcile the necessity and imminence of death with our own personal ego driven existence within a material body? How do we personally confront the profoundest of mysteries with equanimity and understanding? To fear death is to not understand it.
On a lighter note, ill be doing some traveling in South Africa and am very curious to explore that cultural situation. Ill be spending a good portion of time in Jeffrey’s Bay, surfing, mountain biking, camping and hiking. South Africa has an interesting history and cultural mix between European and African cultures and I am really grateful for the opportunity to travel through this area. Stay tuned and happy holidays.