Not All Cultural Lessons are Celebrations

Living as a Foreign Service Officer overseas, there are certain elements to the job that are just a little different to living in the United States.  One of the differences is the need for a security guard to protect me, my family and my home.  We currently have 2 day time guards and 3 nighttime guards.  Our day guards have become like family to us, they have taught us the Sesotho language and Basotho culture.  We don’t see the other guards quite as often, just because they scheduled rotation often happens after we are fast asleep, their service is no less appreciated.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that one of our guards passed away.  Talk about feeling helpless.  The economy in Lesotho is tough enough as it is, we couldn’t imagine what this was going to do to a family relying on even a modest income.  Our plan was to give some contribution, but first we had to figure out how to do that.  Then we found out that we were afforded the opportunity to go to our first Basotho funeral so that we might pay our respects.

My guess is that attending a funeral may not be what one may consider to be an opportunity to look forward to, but at the same time we were grateful to have the chance to express our sympathy and also to take a look at a rarely piece of Basotho culture.  So let me describe the events.

The funeral was in a town called Mafeteng.  It was about a 45 minutes drive.  When you imagine a road trip, you may not fully appreciate what driving in Africa is like.  While there are certainly paved roads connecting city to city, most anything beyond that consists of dirt roads filled with boulders and rocks that you must maneuver and to do so  requires a 4×4 vehicle.  The funeral takes place at the deceased’s home.  There were 2 tents raised and seats set up inside with a table at the front and a platform in front over to the right.  The funeral was to begin at 10 AM and it’s important to keep in mind that it is winter in July.  We are in the heart of winter, so at 10 AM it was rather cold.

basotho blanketSo let’s talk about funeral attire.  Many from Security Unlimited, the company that all the guards work for, were wearing their uniform, a regular suit with the logo on the breast pocket with a sweater underneath.  Most (men and women) were donning  their seanamarena, or the Basotho tribal blanket.  The funny thing about this garment is that it is worn all year round, regardless of the season.  It is worn by the herd boys in the fields, it is worn by women carrying their babies, woman carrying babyand it is worn by all during formal events like weddings and funerals.  The other common clothing worn by Basotho are dresses and shirts made of shweshwe material.  In the early 1840s French missionaries presented Moshoeshoe I, the father of Lesotho with a gift of indigo printed cloth, establishing a cloth preference that grew during the 19th century, and still prevails today, hence the term shoeshoe or isishweshwe.

Around 10:30 a procession began, leading into the house where guests who wanted to pay their respects, created a single file line moving through the home where a closed casket rested with a glass top.  The casket was surrounded by much of the immediate family that sat on the floor of the house.  The procession lead everyone back to find seats in the tent.

Security Unlimited provided somewhat of an honor guard in the same way police officers would do for one of their fallen.  Guards helped carry the casket out and rotating officers  stood guard around the casket for the duration of the ceremony.  Meanwhile, the first two rows of seats were filled by what appeared to be choir members carrying musical instruments.  The front table was reserved for the minister and the village chief and the platform for all the immediate family members.

As the ceremony commenced, family members and friends began to speak and share their parting words for the deceased.  The choir stood poised and ready to sing any time an individual showed signs of “breaking down”. They would sing just long enough to allow the person to gain their composure.  This went on for hours.  Rob was invited to say a few words.  Being the only non-Basotho in the entire place, people seemed to sit up and pay attention when he spoke.  He said that the deceased was a good man and that he protected our family and kept us safe and for that we were grateful.  He was a good friend and he would be missed.  His words were translated into Sesotho by one of our other guards and everyone seemed genuinely proud and grateful to have us there.  Then, the mass began.  I say mass because 90% of Lesotho is Christian and 50% of those are Catholics.  Even though everything being spoken was Sesotho, I recognized many parts of the service such as the Passing of Peace, the Lord’s Prayer, prayers of intentions, the Apostles Creed and of course the breaking of bread.  During the Passing of Peace, it seemed as though everyone attending wanted to reach out to us.  Whether it was because they were just grateful to have us there or because of the novelty of having a non-Basotho present, I’m not sure, but we felt welcome.  As the mass portion seemed to come to a close the funeral began to feel much more like a celebration.  It truly seemed like a celebration of life with singing and dancing.  At one point Rob and I realized we recognized one of the songs because it was the Sesotho translation of Joy to the World.

Now it was time to process to the burial site.  Everyone filed out from the tent toward a field behind the family home.  There was an iron frame that looked a little like a bed frame, this was the burial marker in the same way that we have stones.  When we arrived on site, there was the whole that had been dug to put the casket in and next to it the dirt pile that had been displaced with several tools on top.  The tradition is that even the youngest boy in the family and all of the immediate family members would share in the chance to replace the dirt that had been displaced and toss it on top of the casket.  Subsequently, various community members were asked to participate as well and it is a huge honor to be asked.  Rob was asked to participate.  Afterwards, many from the community thanked us for being there and expressed being proud that we had come to mourn with them.

As everyone process back to the home, dinner was served.  It was now almost 5 PM.  It is Basotho culture that the family not only provide a meal for the deceased’s family and friends but also for the entire village, a massive undertaking.  Once we were through with our meal, we were introduced to the widow.  She insisted that we meet her children.  She had a little girl who was about 3 years old and a little boy that was probably 10 or so and he was devastated.  I mean, of course he was.  He was old enough to understand what was happening and he had just lost his dad.  For a moment all I could think of was my own son and my heart was breaking.  We gave his mother the envelope we had brought with a small contribution and all of a sudden I wanted to do so much more.  For one day we were part of their culture, part of their world, and part of their grief.

 

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