Thursday, November 22, 2007


Although most villagers of Seleka live with many uncertainties (will we be able to stretch our food out through the end of the month, can we afford school fees for the children, when will the rain come, etc), one certainty always remains: with the arrival of every weekend there are
funerals to attend. Since our arrival on September 20th, there have been more funerals than we care to count.

We attended our first funeral a month ago. The husband of one of my colleague passed away unexpectedly on a Tuesday, therefore his funeral was planned for the following Saturday.

Preparations for a funeral often take an entire extended family a full week of preparation. When someone dies, extended family will travel to be with the family of the deceased. They will stay through the weekend of the funeral, assisting with all the necessary preparations. Throughout the week, friends will stop by to find a plate of fatcakes (they taste similar to a funnel cake, but without the powdered sugar), and a freshly steeped pot of tea waiting for them. Whereas many of us in the United States may wait for a proper invitation to stop by or attend a funeral, it is an unspoken norm here that if you knew the person, or any member of their family, you are expected to visit that family during the week and attend the funeral.

Towards the end of the week, a tent will appear in the yard, and a cow and/or goats will be slaughtered. All the women will start cooking the meat, vegetables, rice, potatoes, pap (a South African staple–a dense starch made from maize meal and water) and pumpkin using large 3-legged pots. The family will be expected to feed all those who attend the funeral.

On the eve of the funeral, friends and family will stay up throughout the night singing and talking by the fire. Once the first ray of daylight breaks across the horizon, the ceremony begins. Proper attire consists of a blazer and long pants for men, and skirt, and shawl for women. Women are also expected to cover their hair. Once the ceremony has concluded, everyone will travel by foot to the graveyard to watch the lowering of the casket into the ground. Men are expected to stand to one side of the casket, with women on the opposing side. Immediately following the lowering of the casket into the ground, family of the deceased are invited to throw a handful of dirt on top the casket. Although a list of songs to be sung doesn’t seem to be prepared in advance for these occasions, the initiative is always taken by someone to lead the group through a series of songs during the burial process.

Following the burial, everyone will walk back to the house and eat together. It is easy to understand why funerals can be financially all consuming for a family as the cost of feeding an entire village and more can be staggering. Families will often join funeral co-ops; paying monthly dues in order to receive financial assistance when a loved one dies.

To observe the coming together of many to express love and support for family or friends is a humbling experience. It is in these occasions that the spirit of South African Ubuntu, “I am because you are” is unearthed from deep within. To be joined with a people so connected by land, tradition, culture, language, and struggle sheds new light on the notions of community as family, and family as community. We hope to remember and appreciate these experiences long after we have left our new South African home.

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