On Friday, three members of the GHAPE office went to the funeral of one of our members, Bih Josopha. She was 48 years old and left eight children behind, four of whom are under the age of 14. The daughter had come to the office to inform us of her passing on Thursday, immediately after it occurred, and we decided which office members would go and pay dues. For GHAPE members, attendance at a fellow member’s funeral is compulsory, punishable by a fine. Some of the members were a little discontented when the burial was
three hours behind schedule, but most of the members wanted to show their respect for a friend. Many of the women made food to feed the GHAPE members during the funeral and also to contribute to the grieving family. A lot of work that was put into the funeral to make it happen only a day after the death, but it seemed that everyone pulled their strength together, understanding the need for the effort.
When we were doing the training to become Kiva fellows, one section of the training was about being sensitive to social interactions among office members. Maybe, as Americans, we would find ourselves more physically affectionate than locals would feel comfortable being, for example. It was a good lesson to take into the field, to be very observant of the way my colleagues acted before asserting my own personality. After all, it’s better to come off a little cold in the beginning, than to make everyone around me feel uncomfortable with the way I’m acting. It turned out that the GHAPE office members are just as physically affectionate as I am, but I took a couple weeks before letting myself be that open with them. I wanted to make sure that it was ok within office politics to joke around and play. Going to a funeral was a challenge of a different kind for me. Not only was I given little observation time beforehand, I was there as a detached member of the company she owed money to and the only white person in attendance. (The loan was forgiven, as happens upon deaths within GHAPE) I did my best to imitate an appropriately somber demeanor, but not be weepy. I didn’t know the woman, but I was really sad to see her young children so overwhelmed with grief. Part of the Cameroonian burial includes music and dance, however, which lifts people’s spirits and brings some light into the ceremony. In this way, friends and family leave the funeral having grieved for the loss, paid respect, rejoiced in the life of the person, and praised God for what they have remaining in their own lives.
I had been wanting for some time to go to what Cameroonians call a “Cry Die,” which is the commemoration of a person’s death. I haven’t been to one yet, but I hear that many of the tribes come to support the family and dance and play music on the day in honor of the deceased. As a student of African dance, I am very interested in seeing how the Cameroonian tribes dance and drum and a Cry Die has been recommended to me for this particular display of tribal culture. I hadn’t understood that a funeral service would include dancing and drumming as well, but now I’ve seen that it does. Upon arrival at the funeral, Mercybertha, Fointama, and I were shown in to see the corpse of Bih Josopha, before she was placed in her coffin. I wasn’t extremely comfortable with seeing her, let alone photographing her, but my boss at GHAPE said I had to take pictures to make a good journal for the Kiva lenders. Fointama had a camera of his own and was unabashedly documenting the entire event. Somehow I felt a little more self-conscious wielding the camera in light of the fact that I was a foreigner. Later in the process of the burial, there was dancing around the newly-packed grave, and as a GHAPE member, I was asked to come into the dancing circle and sing with the other GHAPE members. I tried to look around and determine whether I should be animated or sad or somber, but I really got no definitive answer from those I saw around me. Some were smiling and singing whole-heartedly, others were doing more of an obligatory march around the grave, while not singing at all. I didn’t want to be too animated, for fear of disrespecting the death, so I did a side-to-side step behind the others and didn’t sing. I hope that I didn’t offend anyone by not participating as much.
Death carries a different tone in Cameroon, from what I have experienced. The family that I live with has nine children, four of their own and five orphans who are cousins or friends of the family. The orphans all lost their parents at young ages. Three of the five are siblings and they lost their father first to an unknown disease and then a few years later, lost their mother to brain cancer. They said they never expected to lose their father AND their mother, but it just happened that way. Medical care is not very good here and for something as delicate as brain cancer, there’s really no hope of being cured. I’ve heard the women here talk angrily and disdainfully about the inaction doctors take for hopeless cases, usually these decisions are made upon little more than a basic inspection of the patient. The orphans who I live with are very sympathetic and wonderful people, but they themselves have expressed how death no longer affects them as it used to. They say they can hear of a death or go to a funeral and feel little more than pity. Death is so common here, and unnecessary, preventable deaths are part of everyday life. It seems to me that people try to make a way of celebrating the person’s life and incorporating a hopeful element into the ceremony, so that the event isn’t so bleak.
Bih Josopha died after six weeks of complaining of chest pain. Her brother explained to me that he had taken her to get an x-ray, but had been unable to diagnose her from what he saw in the results, not being a doctor himself. Josopha had been taking care of her eight children alone, after her husband left her, and the four young children now have to find somewhere to live. The brother has seven children of his own and is already stretching his resources. Maybe Josopha’s older children will be able to take care of the younger ones, suggested her brother. The family is not as fortunate as those orphans living in my house, with more affluent relatives to provide a home, an education and affection for them. The outpouring of support I saw, just for the funeral service, will hopefully carry on to help the family afterwards.
A funeral is not something I can say I was happy to have the chance to experience. A death is always going to be a sad thing for me. I would like to say, rather, that I felt grateful to the family to let me attend this ceremony. I’m trying to be sensitive to where my presence is welcome and where it is not, with the understanding that perhaps not all things should be made accessible to foreigners. With this, I extend to the Kiva lender what I hope is a respectful little glimpse into what happened here on Friday and what happens here in Cameroon./>