Mama Saitun’s Sorrow

samburu-babyAs I took the hand of the grieving young mother, the first words she spoke were “Ninakosa Saitun,”-(I miss Saitun). The seven-year-old boy had passed away in the hospital two nights ago. What could I possibly say in response? “Najua, pole sana,”-(I know, very sorry). I knew that nothing I could say would ease her sorrow. I communicated with a few phrases in Swahili just to let her know my sympathy.

Life is hard and surely the passing of a child marks the worst of times. Few words were exchanged while preparations continued around us.

The service itself was peaceful and reverent, with the exception of the token drunk, crazy woman. It seems no matter where you go in Africa, there must always be one person who is out of their mind and disruptive. Thankfully, no one paid much attention to her and she kept her outbursts at a manageable level.

As is customary in Samburu culture, the men and women stood in separate groups. Baba Saitun did not stand with his wife. Two good women stood beside her; I now stood closely behind. I was ready to catch her at any minute, should she collapse. But the Samburu are a stoic people and prefer to avoid displays of emotion.

A few tears fell silently down her cheeks, and I noticed she stood with her left foot slightly behind and her right foot in front, as if to brace herself.

While the pastor spoke, I looked at the small wooden coffin and tried to control my inquisitive mind. What was the actual cause of death? What if he had been in a different hospital with better facilities, medicines, and staff? Did he really have malaria or pneumonia as they said? Could a strong antibiotic have cured him? Why did they only give him quinine? I suppose it doesn’t matter now, and it is painful quandary on which to dwell.

This is the part of living in Africa that is so difficult. To wonder time and again, “Could this tragedy have been prevented? Why does this continue to happen? Doesn’t the government care about their own people?”

The family had no trouble raising money for the funeral expenses. Friends and relatives were quick to respond, and within two days the funds were collected. The hospital, the mortuary, the casket maker, the grave diggers…all must all be paid. Plus, visiting mourners in this culture expect to be fed.

The ceremony was drawing to a close. Someone produced a rope, and men began to loop it through the handles of the rustic, handmade box. Fervent warnings were given to – “be careful and go slowly.” I panicked to think that the cover might not be nailed properly; what awful thing might happen if they made a mistake.

Once they were in position and the six men lowered Saitun into the earth, his little sister began to cry. It was horrible. Although she couldn’t be more than six years old, she sobbed at the sight of him leaving her forever. Mama drew her close and sheltered her under the covering of her kanga, a colorful African shawl.

Family members walked forward to throw  handfuls of dirt into the grave. Women began to sing traditional songs and hymns while shovelfuls of earth quickly filled the hole. Others walked to a nearby bush and tore off small leafy branches. The two eldest women seemed particularly insistent about this tradition. I supposed this specific species of plant was cultivated in the cemetery for this very purpose. They placed them on top of the mound, and we prayed one last time.

Mama Saitun will not see her son on this earth again. As words of comfort, all I could manage was, “Anakusubiri kwenu Shumataa”- (He waits for you in Heaven). God is truly good, but life indeed, is very hard.

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