Story in 3 parts - Part 1
Mama Sweetie asked that I attended the funeral as part of the family and take photos of the event, now the latter really threw me into a tiz. I couldn’t get me head round photographing a funeral, what was I supposed to photograph. I asked the staff at Scann and was told this was routine and so was videoing the event. My western head found this so difficult to understand but I resolved myself to the task and decided that it would help me through the day.
17th April 2008.....The day itself started with me being picked up by Nick who had agreed to come with me, we drove to where the Sweeties were staying with the husband’s aunt some way from my house. I babbled all the way with Nick hoping to take my mind off the impending event. We pulled up outside the house where a mini bus was parked to take the other relatives and close friends. Lots of hugging of people I had never seen before but who were obviously aware of who I was.
Mama Sweetie and the children were already in the bus but she came to greet me and said she wanted the two girls and herself to travel with us, the aunt came too with a bag containing Baba Sweeties suit to take him on his final journey. We left swiftly to get to the mortuary early so they could dress Baba Sweetie. I was fine watching the scenery fly past until Baba Sweeties Aunt said she and the family wanted me to speak at the burial. I was almost thrown into a panic attack by the thought, I tried to respectfully say that they had totally the wrong person for this job but they said I was the best person for the job. My mind reeled. I spent the rest of the journey thinking of Baba Sweetie and the limited, but great times we had shared, in doing this I opened the flood gates and couldn’t stop the tears streaming down my face luckily the family were in the back and I hope they weren’t aware, this was the cue for me to reach for my sunglasses.. How could I find the strength to carry out this second and what appeared to me as an impossible request? All you who know me would understand the challenge it gave me. I looked out the window and marveled at the clear sky, the sun shining, the landscape and the beauty of the day, I absorbed the beauty of life and took strength.
I was not expecting the crowd of family friends who were gathered outside the mortuary nor for the strong hand that gripped me and took me into the building. Mama Sweetie was not going to let go of me. I appeared to be the only person affected by the stench of death in the building, I had to physically stop myself from gagging, I pulled out a wet wipe and pretended it was a handkerchief and held it to my nose to cover the smell. There were untold delays, other bodies were being tended and we had to wait. A few relatives joined us and I felt very out of place.
The mortuary attendants showed no respect or compassion, but then in Africa death is part of life more so than in the U.K., people here strongly believe that the departed are blessed that they are going to their saviour and a better place. Mama Sweetie left my side and wandered into an adjoining room only to be retrieved by the Aunt and told that they were not ready yet, the curtain to the viewing room had been left open and I saw a row of steel tables with dead bodies on them. Not something that would happen in the UK and I was shaken by the sight.
We were also told that the coffin had not arrived yet and many calls later were told it was on its way. When all was sorted the family was asked to walk through to the viewing room. I hadn’t expected to be ushered in with them and wish I hadn’t, the open coffin was sat on the floor in the room and I found myself beside it. I have to admit I stood with my eyes closed as I wanted to remember the always smiling face of Baba Sweetie. I heard Mama Sweetie sob beside me and turned to hug her and escort her out. We sat together in silence, tears streamed down my cheeks even through I tried to be strong for Mama Sweetie. I am pleased that the children had not insisted on seeing their Father, although Brian his mini look-a-like had continually requested that he see him.
After a great deal of waiting and watching the attendants lack of respect to the family everything was ready and the family, with me in tow, prepared to leave the building. I was passed by an attendant carrying a baby’s coffin, I was already feeling bad this just swelled the feeling.
The family all rode in the funeral vehicle, Nicks car acquired three occupant on the back seat, this we had expected as so few people in Kenya have cars. Somehow we ended up behind the funeral vehicle in procession. Baba Sweeties pick up was crazily overloaded by friends who seemed to be unconcerned that they were literally hanging on to the vehicle as it was so overloaded. The pickup ended up overtaking us and it made my thoughts a little lighter, I concentrated on the major infringements the vehicle in front would be incited for in the UK. After some time, in ignorance I asked Nick where to coffin was, he cast me a sideways look and said it was also in the funeral vehicle in a place beneath the floor supporting the seats the family were sitting on, I was speechless, what a thought… unfortunately that in turn started me off again. There was no talk from the back seat of the car to take my mind off things. I didn’t even have any music to concentrate on, as out of respect Nick had correctly turned the stereo off.
The journey to Mama Sweeties home seemed endless while we were all alone with our thoughts. If I thought there were many people at the mortuary there were even more waiting at the house. Borrowed chairs had been set out and I found a place to sit beside e Diana, the reporter who I had met on two previous occasions and who had done a report on Mama Sweetie when we presented the wheelchairs to the children, she had traveled with us and we lost ourselves in idle conversation whilst things were being arranged around us.
Yet again I was not prepared for a table to be placed in front of me between Mama Sweetie, her children and close family who were sat opposite me. It wasn’t too long before it became apparent that the coffin which had just emerged from the back of the funeral vehicle was to be placed on top of the table. I closed my eyes in dread, when I opened them again sure enough Baba Sweetie was arms length from me in his closed coffin, sat in the sunshine. I eventually calmed myself by chatting in my head to him about things we had all shared.
The actual burial service began with a few words from a relative, Mama Sweetie was asked to come forward and a chair was placed in front of the coffin for her to sit on, a photo of her husband had been placed on the coffin together with a cross with his name and dates placed leaning on the coffin. I realised that a group of people with cameras had gathered and this was to be a ‘photo shoot’. It began with the children gathered with Mama Sweetie, I stood up as I remembered I had been asked to take photos, this in itself caused a stir as the only non Kenyan at the burial everyone stared at me uncomfortably.
Luckily the person who was organising the gathering quickly called upon family members and a larger group of people assembled at the coffin side. I busied myself with the photos and was even more uncomfortable when I was called to his side. It was a very bazaar experience watching the whole gathering coming and going like the waves on a shore, moving but returning to where they had been. I kept thinking of it being a wedding but obviously it wasn’t! It was decided after what was probably an hour and a half of photos that the ceremony should start. Various relatives spoke after the pastor had said a few words and then I was called, my mouth went dry and I forgot all the things I had planned in the car. I took the microphone in hand nervously and looked out at the gathering, my first words were an apology that I would only be talking in English and it was apparent that most of the gathering would not understand me. I took a breath and prepared myself, only to be tapped on the shoulder by a man who proceeded to translate for me, phew, I breathed a sigh of relief as my words would not be wasted.
I talked about Baba Sweetie, the crazy meetings we had had, the impromptu visit that found me sick and he insisted on dragging me out of bed and taking me to a clinic for tests only to succeed in driving around after the curfew (during the clashes) to find that they were all closed. He said he hoped I would be OK and I had said to him that I would be fine as it was not yet my time as I still had too much to do. He had laughed. He took me home and promised to collect me first thing in the morning to take me to a clinic. As promised he appeared smiling as always, we found a clinic and he sat and waited with me, took me to the pharmacy and stopped on the way home to get me some fruit, I had typhoid. Over the next few days he and Mama Sweetie kept appearing with fruit and veg, even though they were homeless and had no money, they shared what they had with me.
I spoke to Mama Sweetie and told her the only reason that he had left us was because The Lord had a bigger and more important role for him, it was to work through Mama Sweetie to give her the strength to continue the amazing work she had been doing, together with the plans they had made together. He had been so proud of her.
I managed not to cry but my voice carried all my grief. When I finished and returned to my seat I realised I had missed many things I had wanted to say, I looked up and was reassured by the smile from Mama Sweetie and his aunt that they were very pleased with my words from the heart.
Sometime later after the Pastor had given his very vocal service, not that I understood a lot but it was a bit like the ‘hell and brimstone’ sermons you see on TV. Close male relatives gathered and lifted the coffin, we all moved to a corner of the ‘compound’ (garden) to where there was an area prepared to receive it. People were silent until the reality of the burial sunk in, the coffin was placed ready to lower, uncontrolled sobs came from various people gathered. The one thing that struck me as strange was the lack of emotion shown by the children, it was as if they were unaffected by the accident and were at a family gathering. Maybe it was their way of dealing with everything, not a tear in sight. Diana the reporter broke down and sobbed uncontrollably and was led away, apparently her father’s funeral was still fresh in her mind. My own emotions were a struggle to control as the coffin was lowered to its final resting place. People close were invited to scatter soil before the coffin was covered, I was too far back to take part but I said a few farewell words to Baba Sweetie before I left the crowd. People I had never seen greeted me like an old friend, hugging and holding me. It became apparent that whilst I sing Mama Sweeties praises for the work she does she has been doing the same for me.
I sat in the shade of some trees and watched, people now circulated and carried out animated conversations. My attentions turned to the two ladies sat directly to my left. They were Baba Sweeties Mother and Grandmother, I greeted them in Kiswahili and they hugged and chatted away, I found Nick to explain that that was actually my limit on the language front, it didn’t stop them, I just smiled. Nick sat down beside me and said that the two ladies, whose faces looked like they had been carved out of old drift wood were now deep in conversation regarding the childhood antics of Baba Sweetie, known to them as Billy.
People now appeared relaxed and smiling as though the actual burial was a release from the sadness, now life goes on. After all Baba Sweetie was now with his maker somewhere they all regard as a better place, so they were happy. After most of the gathering had broken up I wandered to beside the mound of earth that now represented Billy and spent a few moments in reflection. It was time to leave, I found Mama Sweetie and gave her a big hug, she invited us to return to the house we did but only for a brief time. The day had proved exhausting, emotionally and physically, it had been so hot and I had dressed formally in trousers and a jacket, whilst I had taken a bottle of water with me I had found little time to partake of it.
My mind on returning home, (so exhausted I skipped dinner and went straight to bed with a throbbing headache), relaxed in the knowledge that Baba Sweetie had been talking of going back to his home in Kampi ya Moto. He is now HOME.
Mama Sweetie, as she became affectionately known in the district she worked as a district nurse, midwife, HIV and Aids worker, and overall carer for her local community, her real name is – Diana
Baba Sweetie, I have to confess became Baba Sweetie because I kept forgetting his name, his name was in fact Billy Mwangi, he died at the age of 37.