I was woken up by a phone call at 6:50am this morning. It was Francoise, calling to let me know that Moussa, one of the employees at the Centre for the Advancement of the Handicapped, had passed away last night. My foggy brain had to scramble to catch up with what was happening so I could know what action would be appropriate on my part. I spent about 30 minutes trying to get a hold of the rest of our missionary team to let them know. Dale and Ounteni are still at a conference in Nigeria. Matt Walsh left yesterday morning to take the video team back to Ouaga to catch their flight. Text messaging wasn't working, cell phone connections were fuzzy, not everyone was online, etc. Eventually we got the word out. Because Moussa's brother, Diamouadi, is an employee at the mission station where we live, and also because Dale is not here to represent the Centre, the mission, our family, I decided that if I could find a way, I should try and attend the burial. So I called Francoise back and asked to her to let me know when they were ready to start. A little more scrambling and I managed to figure out who should care for the kids while I was gone: Liz came over for a little bit, and was eventually replaced by Buama, my house helper. So, without a clue of what to do, I set off.
Moussa was not old enough to be a "patriarch". He was not the oldest son, and his 3 daughters are still young (probably 10 and under). So, rather than burying him outside the family compound like they often do, the burial took place in the field behind SIM's medical dispensary. I had a general idea where to go, but I knew I was running late and I felt incredibly conspicuous winding my way through the dispensary toward the back exit, people staring as I went by. A couple of times I had to be set straight, and my mind was obviously elsewhere as I kept bungling up my greetings, saying "good evening" instead of "good morning" and asking one young woman how her children were, realizing only too late that she had lost her baby soon after it was born. That's the second time I've made that mistake with her, saying what automatically came to mind before realizing exactly what I was saying. Anyway, eventually I found the back gate and the field, and I wound my way to the back of the crowd gathered around a hole in the ground.
It was a simple burial. The pastor gave a short message in Gourma, so I couldn't understand a lot of it, but I caught enough to know that he was giving a simple, straightforward explanation of the hope we have in Christ, that we need not fear death if we are His children. Afterwards, several other people gave short testimonies about Moussa, how he was a good friend, father, brother, church member and did not turn away from his faith, even at the end.
Truthfully, I did not know Moussa well. He was the orthopedic technician at the Centre, and one of the first employees hired there. He was in his early 40s when he died, leaving behind a wife and 3 daughters. That's the gist of what I knew about him when he first started getting sick, so, though I thought it tragic when I first heard he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, it was easy to maintain a sort of detached, clinical interest in the short months he battled the disease. It was only after we arrived for our 2nd term in August that he was actually diagnosed with the cancer, though he'd been complaining of abdominal pain for some time. Turns out that liver cancer is fairly common in Africa, often finding its cause of origin in Hepatits B, which is probably what happened in Moussa's case. As a child, he contracted Hepatitis B, and over the years cancer cells quietly did their work, though they were not detected until it was too late in the process. Even if it had been discovered sooner, there's not much that could have been done about it here. The shocking part was how quickly he went from a seemingly healthy, strong, relatively young man to dying. Every week at prayer meeting it seemed, Francoise had a new report. He was worse, he was better, he was worse, he was better... And if the swiftness wasn't shocking enough, realizing that he did not have access to the usual medical care: pain meds, etc. to help ease his passing was a new thing to process as we heard details of what he was actually going through...it was a bit like hearing real life tidbits of a scene from House, MD.
I can only imagine what his family must be going through, how they must feel. On the one hand, such tragic loss is not all that uncommon here. On the other hand, it's all the more difficult to bear because life here is hard, and losing your husband, father, head-of-household is a real blow. So on one hand, lots of people have experienced this, so your grief is no worse than theirs. Life goes on. On the other hand, you have absolutely no idea how you will carry on. And I'm just talking from a day-to-day living perspective. That's not even taking into account the emotional blow that such a loss brings.
Yes, it's a tragic story as we would say back home, then shake our heads, say a prayer and move on. It's hard to know what to do in the face of such grief. It reminds me of a blog post a friend of ours recently wrote about the grieving process she experienced after losing a baby. Our culture does not teach us how to respond to such intense emotions, especially negative ones. We send a card and offer to pray. We might stop by or call to offer condolences, or say something in church once, all the while butterflies are flapping wildly in our stomach, our palms are sweaty, and we hope we haven't said anything stupid or hurtful or insensitive, or just plain...trite. Then, we sort of drift away from the problem...give the person "space" in their grief, and in the process, often leave them feeling abandoned. Maybe we have it ingrained in us to try and fix things when they are broken, and realizing that words could never fix such grief, we run away from a problem we can't fix. Maybe it's partly that as a culture we value privacy so highly, and are taught to try and deal with personal problems on our own, making grief a lonely and very heavy burden to bear.
I don't meant to imply that the Burkinabe way of processing grief is better. I can't even claim to know much about grief on a personal level, so who am I to judge what is appropriate? What I do know is that I'm often in a position where I need to figure out how to respond to the grief that is around me - not just in a culturally appropriate way, but on a private, personal level, I have to figure out how I'm going to process the grief and suffering I see in front of me every day. I am American; I instinctively find it easy to shut off my emotions and distance myself from the intensity of the grief, try to find a private place to air out my own feelings, but otherwise keep it to myself. I feel awkward going through the cultural "rituals", attending a burial where I have no idea how I should act, walking back from the burial amidst a crowd of grieving family, neighbors, friends, feeling completely helpless and alone, visiting a grieving family to offer condolences when I haven't the first clue what to say. No wonder my instincts are screaming for me to run and hide!
And yet, I just can't get the image of 3 little girls arriving on a motorbike just as the burial service is ending, silent, but with tears streaming down their little faces. The crowd goes absolutely quiet and parts to let them through to the edge of the grave site. Woodenly, unwillingly, each takes a handful of dirt and unceremoniously tosses it into the gaping hole in front of them. Then they turn around and leave just as quietly. Friends and neighbors finish the job they started and everyone quietly disperses.
I went to the burial because I felt it was the appropriate, the right thing to do so that Francoise would not be alone in her efforts to show the mission's support, to represent my husband since he is away, and to show support to Moussa's brother who works with me daily at the mission station. I did not expect to have such a strong emotional reaction. My heart breaks for those little girls. I know all the right answers about Moussa's hope in Christ, and I have no doubt that his family will have plenty of support from their extended family and the community at large. This is not about despair. It's just sorrow and grief. I imagine that when Jesus wept upon arriving at Lazarus' tomb, He may have had some of the same thoughts and feelings. Sure, He had the power to bring Lazarus back from the dead, in fact Him Himself was/is life eternal and the embodiment of our Hope. Jesus' weeping was not despair. But he still grieved at the sight of the ugliness caused by the wages of sin...the death, the sorrow and pain of those around Him. He offered hope, encouragement, and shared in their sufferings before He "fixed the problem". He is, after all, compassionate, tender-hearted, not immune to our sufferings. Maybe we should be a little more so as well.
Francoise was asked to give the last word of encouragement before Moussa was buried. She chose to read Psalm 23. It's such a well-known Psalm that it can sometimes lose it's power with too much familiarity. But as I heard it from a mourners' perspective, I found such words of comfort and hope...such a powerful Psalm, I hope one day at my own funeral they can read the Psalm with my name inserted where David uses the pronoun "I".
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
"For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)