Sunday, March 29, 2009

Death and Dying in Northern Namibia

We have been overwhelmed with the pervasiveness of death throughout our time in Rundu. In North America, the death of someone we know is a shocking but thankfully rare occurrence: here, death confronts us unrelentingly. Almost every week, the church choir has been at some sort of memorial service or other in the community, and we have often felt the suffocation of grief that shrouds the community.

We attended a memorial service and burial for the first time last weekend: one of the cooks in the OVC program became sick suddenly and died, which came as a heavy blow to us all. When someone dies here, the proper things is to go and sit with the family at their home and grieve with them. In the time leading up to the burial, someone is always around the family, sometimes simply just sitting alongside them.

The night of the memorial service, a tent-like structure was erected in the midst of the family's yard, and many hundreds of people had crammed in. A friend of ours instructed us as to what was culturally sensitive and required of us, such as paying respects to the father and mother of the deceased. The night was filled with histories and sermons, and many many, songs. When someone dies in the community, choirs from the surrounding churches come, and so boundaries are erased in the face of grief. At many points, different mourners would break down into hysterical wailing, and there were lumps in our throats as we participated with them in their grief. While we returned home after the service, most people stayed the entire night, singing songs and waiting with the family.

The next day was a Sunday and we all reconvened at 8am for the funeral service. The choirs met the “hearse” (a pickup truck with a canopy) which had brought the body from the hospital, and the casket was carried the final 500m into the church on the shoulders of the singing choir. We were amazed at the numbers of people who had gathered for the funeral, several times the capacity of the church. Again, 8 different choirs from different churches had shown up, this time from a wider geographical area, all bringing a song or two as there contribution to the mourning. Each would wait patiently outside the church until it was their time, then would squeeze into the packed building through a side door and sing their songs, then exit to make way for the next choir. After the service, we all accompanied the casket to the local graveyard and said final farewells. We were told that many would be accompanying the family back to their home to spend more time with them sitting and grieving.

Other reminders of death happen nearly daily. When we arrive at the hospital at 8 am, we are usually met by a caravan of vehicles coming from the mortuary, with singing choirs in cars following the released body as the hearse drives slowly to wherever the final destination is.

Another haunting notifier of death heard much too frequently in the halls of the hospital is a “death wail”. This unmistakeable designation of tragedy comes from yet another mother walking/stumbling to the hospital exit from the pediatric ward, sobbing and lamenting spasmodically as she flees the news that her child has just died.

Children die in Namibia at obscene rates, from diseases that should be treatable or preventable. The statistics from 2007 showed that 24,000 children died in Namibia of malnutrition, which is especially shocking when one considers the population of Namibia is only 1.8 million. Many people still look on western medicine with suspicion, and will try all sorts of traditional medicines before coming to the hospital. The patient is usually on death's door and usually has had their conditions aggravated by traditional remedies, but if the patient dies while in the hospital, it reinforces the idea that western medicine is to blame or has failed. We have spoken with many frustrated hospital staff who wish people would seek help when it was needed, not after every other avenue was explored.

Life is hard and altogether too short here in Rundu.

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