"Cultural Windows" Essay

"Death of a Neighbor in Lamu" by Anna Plotkin-Swing

[Note:  After each of their homestays, students write a “Cultural Window” paper reflecting on their experience.  This essay was written by Anna Plotkin-Swing.]

Anna -and -lamu -familyDuring our five night homestay in Lamu, Kenya I lived in a small home with my mama, her husband, her mother (“bibi”) and an assortment of her brothers and nephews.  It took me the majority of these five nights to actually determine who these core people were, with whom I was sharing a roof each night.  The reason for this confusion was the role that visitors played in the routine of the house.  Although I spent much of my time at home sitting in the living room or entrance hall space with a book, I was rarely bored.  A constant flow of people seemed to swirl in, out, around, and about the house.  I was continually shaking hands and greeting various women, children, and, less often though still present, men.  Some of these visitors came and went without an introduction, some appeared and then stayed because they lived there (these were the main source of my confusion). Some were introduced as aunts or cousins of friends.  Most often, however, my mama would gesture to the person who had just entered and who I was greeting and say, “Jirani”, the Kiswahili word for neighbor.

At home in the United States I live in a small, family friendly neighborhood.  My family is at the least acquainted with, if not friends with, everyone who lives within a few street radius.  Kids are always playing in the street, and once in a while someone will host a pot luck.  By American standards I had always thought of this as a friendly and somewhat close-knit community. While in Lamu I discovered a whole new scale of neighborliness.  Women would come in, for a minute or an hour, to talk and drink chai, men would often stay for a shorter time, only sitting long enough to exchange a few words before leaving, and children were constantly in and out, sometimes watching TV, always jumping to perform any small task or errand demanded of them by my mama or Bibi. The only warning that preceded these visits was, if anything, a rushed, “hodi, hodi” at the gate to the entry way.  It felt to me that the walls that stood between us and our neighbors were not in fact made of solid concrete, dividing one family’s property from another, but were rather vague suggestions that bled and blended, one into another, as necessary.  Just as my house there seemed to possess unlimited capacity for family who needed a place to stay, it appeared that their definition of “family” and “home” were also expanded from my own, formed by my more contained upbringing in the United States, to include their neighbors and houses in their neighborhood.

What I experienced these first few days was what I now think of as a community at rest.  The interactions I observed were those of coexisting families, each going about their regular routines, of which visiting is an integral part. My fifth day there, however, this changed.  As my mama and I left the house to go to the good bye party she told me that “somebody had died.”  By asking questions I was slowly able to learn that an elderly neighbor woman, who had been ill for some time, had passed away that morning.  She didn’t appear to want to talk about it beyond this, and although I had told her it wasn’t necessary, she insisted on attending the good bye party.  I didn’t hear about it again until that night when, just as I was thinking about going to bed, my mama informed me that we were going to visit with the family of the deceased woman.  We then proceeded next door, past an open door where people sat grouped on the floor.   Later I learned that this is where the body was, and that it would not be left alone until it had been buried.  We hurried past to an upstairs room where we spent twenty minutes or so sitting with the daughters-in-law of the woman who had passed away.  After returning home my mama told me about how the woman used to visit before she fell ill and how kind and warm she was.  I went to bed thinking about how much more a woman may feel the loss of a female neighbor than in the United States.  While many opportunities to socialize and build community outside of her home are available to most American women, for a Swahili woman tied to her house and neighborhood by children, cooking, and religious and cultural expectations.  The community she builds within the vicinity of her home is central and singular.  Perhaps it is because of how small their worlds are expected to be that Swahili women open their doors so welcomingly, so as to absorb as much as possible into their small sphere.

I had assumed that as I was scheduled to leave the next morning,  that would be my last interaction with the post-death proceedings.  However, the next morning my mama informed me that if I was around in the afternoon, she would like for me to come with her to the funeral.  Wanting to support her, I agreed to go. When I arrived at our house in the afternoon, groups of people were milling all around.  In our house two women from out of town were staying, and the volume of visitors had doubled.  Although my family hadn’t appeared overly concerned with my modesty during my stay, I was asked to wear a scarf over my hair before leaving. As we proceeded next door, we passed a procession of men carrying the casket away.  At first I was worried that we were late, buy my mama quickly explained that women don’t attend burials.  At the neighbor’s house we sat outside on a mat, my mama chatting with her friend, and I observed the activity of the dozens of women standing about.  The atmosphere felt almost, cheerful, as friends greeted one another and several people talked on their cell phones.  One reminder of the occasion was the handshake that women used when they came to greet.  Instead of just clasping hands then letting go, the two women would grasp hands normally, then move them up so as to be grasping one anthers thumbs, then return to the original position before letting go.  Amid the relaxed atmosphere, I felt that this handshake was a small acknowledgement, a sort of wordless sympathy for the loss of the family and community.

Inside the house was completely different.  We walked through the door and into a sea of women.  All furniture had been removed and women in brightly colored head scarves covered the floor.  Inside a small bedroom sat the close family.  While the rest of the house was remarkably quiet, the women in this room were crying with abandon, they wailed, they screamed, they sobbed, and they wailed some more.  After my mama had hugged these women, we went back to our house where we sat for over an hour, as people dropped in who were going to or coming from the funeral.

I found myself feeling pretty confused about my experience.  I wasn’t able to parse what I had seen, and everything was worlds away from funerals I had attended in America.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about the seemingly performative displays of grief I had seen, especially since this performance appeared to be expected.  Wouldn’t it be better to let these women mourn in their own way?  In thinking over all that I had observed, I began to think of the funeral as a continuation of what everyday life is like for these women.  Just as there is no hesitation in sharing routines, there is also no hesitation in sharing the unexpected and sudden events that disrupt these routines.  Whether these events bring with them joy or sorrow, the feelings that accompany them are shared just as fully.  Perhaps women here “perform” their grief not to show off, or to compensate for a lack of genuine feeling, but to allow their grief to be shared by all the other women in their community.

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