She was wailing in sorrow. Throwing herself over the casket, sobbing in pain, not wanting to let go. It took several men to unlatch her hands and pull her away from the casket. The biggest man there was gently holding her upright, sort of walking, sort of dragging her away. He knew her anguish, he was the grandfather of the eight year old girl in the casket. He was the reason I was there…
My men start work at 7 AM. That means I get to start work at about 6:45 as I reload the daily work projects note book with today’s work load. Just before 7 this morning I received a phone call from Duke, (not his real name), my primary Chadian maintenance man. My French still isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, so phone calls are always a challenge for me. I understood he was going to be late arriving this morning, but could not understand why. I didn’t need to know why. Duke is a very trustworthy man and I am confident he has a good reason for being late.
It was shaping up to be a normal busy morning for me. I am the supply chain, answer man and decision maker for all of the maintenance going on at this SIL facility. I’m supervising a major plumbing overhaul of one of the SIL eight unit apartment complexes. Its being done by a local Chadian plumbing contractor. I have several day laborers doing some building stabilization projects, painting projects and rough concrete clean up, preparing it for paint. Then there is the normal day to day, leaking toilets, sinks, evaporator coolers, and gas bottles that won’t accept the screw on regulator a resident is trying to install. Our print shop paper cutter jammed and bent a 3/4 inch steel shaft and I’m trying to fix the shop hydraulic press so they can straighten the bent shaft of the paper cutter. This is all before 8:30 in the morning. That’s when Duke walks in and I can see on his face the anguish and sadness. We stop and he explains.
His granddaughter came home from school yesterday, like normal, but during the night became very sick. Uncontrolled vomiting that eventually took them to the community hospital. She died there very shortly after arriving. Death is so much more a part of life here in Chad than anywhere else I have lived. Just because it is more frequent doesn’t make it any easier bear. Its just a more accepted part of life. They have large extended families that remain close to each other. Families don’t normally move across the country or the continent or even out of their villages. They pretty much live and die in a very small geographical area.
Duke needed to borrow the SIL pickup truck to transport the body from the funeral site to the graveyard. He needed a driver as well. This morning, I am the only available driver and so of course I volunteer to do it. He said he’d be back at 11:00 and it would probably take a couple of hours of my time. He had to go and make all the arrangements.
The older women wash, dress and prepare the body for the casket. The correct size casket must be found and brought to where the body is. A city permit must be received to bury someone in the community graveyard. The graveyard must be notified that a body is coming. Family, friends and the pastor must be notified of the ceremony. Food for after the ceremony must be prepared. All of this takes place before noon. About 1PM Duke returns to work and asks if I am still free and the truck still available to go with him. I drop what I am doing, grab a bottle of water, hop in the truck and follow Duke on his motorcycle.
I have no idea where I’m going, but Duke has been working with expatriates like myself for many years and he understands how to lead me through the crazy N’Djamena traffic. In about ten minutes we arrive at a mud brick house on a dirt road. We walk through a narrow gate, Duke greets and shakes hands with people along the way. I follow his lead and do the same. In the center of the property surrounded by more mud brick buildings is a large tarp that has been hung for shade. There are a dozen plastic chairs, three or four wooden benches and several ground mats. All the seats and mats are filled. I think there are 60 or 70 people present. Two plastic chairs right next to the casket have been reserved for Duke and me. He motions for me to sit in one and he follows suit. The group is singing Christian songs. I know Duke is a solid believer and as I watch and listen to this group I sense most of them are as well. The pain, sorrow and grieving is very obvious, they don’t try and hide it. Its not sanitized or done in some polite and politically correct way. The family and friends are free to show their feelings and they do.
One man, whom I guess to be the pastor, is gently leading the program, which is printed out on sheets of paper. People are invited to share their thoughts, words of comfort and words of loss. We obviously came into this ceremony already well under way and it didn’t take long before the pastor indicated it was time to go to the graveyard. Duke motioned for me to go move the truck into position. I headed towards the gate and saw a different pickup was already in place. The casket was quickly loaded and I went to my pickup which was being loaded with family and friends. This is a short bed Toyota Hilux, not a big truck. Five people got inside and eight got in the bed of the truck. I got into the procession and turned on my flashers. In general, the traffic gives us leeway as a group. So many Chadians have to go through this many, many times in their lives. There seems to be respect for the process.
We head out of town, about a fifteen minute drive, and arrive at a large dried dirt flood plane area with very few trees. I see hundreds of people already there. I start thinking, this is one really big family. But as we drive into the middle of it all I realize its several different graveside funerals happening at the same time. I am blown away by what I am looking at. Thousands of mounds of dirt, indicating, thousands of grave sites. Its very well laid out in a grid pattern with just a foot or so wide path between each mound. Each mound is about two foot high, three foot wide and six foot long. It looks like the graves may have started a half mile to the west and the property may go on another half mile or more to the east. Each new grave is dug right next to the last grave. The dirt from the six foot deep hole is piled next the hole and the casket is set on top of it. The graveside service is held and the crying goes on. Duke has some closing remarks, the casket is lowered into the grave and the shovels start moving the dirt into the hole. The 60 or so people all stand there until the last shovel of dirt is placed on the mound and patted into place. A stick with a plastic soda bottle is placed on top of the mount as a grave marker until a formal placard is made. Everywhere I look, I see thousands of home made, hand painted grave markers. The ones right next to me have yesterdays date, last weeks dates and the oldest one I see is in December, 2013.
The trucks, cars, vans and motorcycle’s all load up with our family. We head out in procession once again. Other funeral processions are just arriving. In a city of a million people, this is a non stop process, seven days a week. I am amazed at how well this family can hang on to each other over the bumpy dirt roads I must drive on. It is their life, they must hang on to one another for their very survival through life and death. Most of this family has hope in the after life God offers. Death is real, the separation of death is painful, but the hope from God is real as well. They know heaven is real, the separation is only temporary, they understand life is hard and then we die. But life is lived here, its not hidden away behind closed doors. All of life’s brutality and joy are right out in the open. I think most of them understand its only when we are prepared to die that we can really live. This is a poor nation and these are poor people by any body’s standards, but, they know how to live and die in the circumstances they find themselves. I feel sadness and at some level, joy and contentment as well.
It was a short funeral, I returned to my home about 3:30. Life goes on.