Tanzanians have a custom called "kilio" or mourning, whereby neighbors, friends, family, etc visit the family of a diseased person. The kilio can last a few days and people just stop by, sit with the family, perhaps offer a condolence gift of money and pay their respects to the family.
I had the honor to attend my first kilio yesterday. A member of one of Caritas's village groups lost their child last week. The family said the child died of malaria, but when the father described how his son died, it sounded like it might've been something else. Of course, I'm no doctor, and I don't speak Swahili well. So I totally could've misread the situation.
It was a beautiful day, with a soft cool breeze (it's winter here) and, in the shade of the mango tree under which we sat, it sort of felt like a picnic. The village was quiet, with the exception of the sound of chickens and baby chicks wandering around in the surrounding grass. The view was spectacular, with fields of corn and other vegetables in the foreground to the rocky hills which surround the Mwanza region. It felt strange to be in such a beautiful, peaceful place under such sad circumstances.
I found myself thinking about how if I lost a child, or any loved one for that matter, I wouldn't want people stopping by. I wouldn't want the obligation of pretending everything is okay or trying to make conversation. The parents and siblings of this child were visibly upset, and they kept getting up from the tarp where we sat to walk away under another bush or behind the house for a minute and then they would return. Yet, at the same time, I didn't feel like we were unwanted and nothing felt forced. The family seemed genuinely grateful that people cared enough to come by. They also didn't seem to hide their sorrow. At one point, the father (who was quite old) sat down between his wife, children and daughter-in-law and recounted the story of his child's death. As everyone listened quietly I wondered how many times this sad story had already been told, even though the child died less than a week ago. When the father finished his story, people shook their head, uttered words of sympathy, or questioned why the doctors didn't do more for the child.
I've been thinking a lot about this experience. And I don't have any profound words or thoughts. I don't know whether Americans handle loss better or worse than Tanzanians. I'm sure it's mostly an individual thing. Sorrow is sorrow, no matter how you slice it. But I feel like there was some healing happening yesterday, just by the presence of family and friends who listened but didn't push, who offered company but didn't judge. Just a shared experience with little fan-fair. I wasn't the one who lost a child or a brother or a friend, so I feel a little sheepish in saying this. But I felt there was a sense of peace there and I feel privileged to be have been present.