Migration, language and loss of culture

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October 2, 2013 By Chiedzo T

Recently a fellow Zimbabwean passed away in my area leaving behind a husband and young children.  Upon first learning of the death, I asked the standard question commonly asked when one learns of a death “Where will she be buried” I asked the question as a mere formality because normally the standard response is “she will be sent home” In this particular case, she was going to be buried in the local cemetery of the town she lived for the past 19 years.

For almost two weeks her body was in storage awaiting the arrival of parents and other family members to fly in from Harare.  The community gathered at the deceased’s residence the day of the initial death announcement but after that life went on as usual for the community. The entire mourning period, though full of gravitas, lacked the emotion associated with such an event had it occurred in Africa.

Is this the new normal? Have we lost that part of our culture already? Pondering on these and other questions brought back memories of an incident that happened years ago when I first came to America.  A patient in a nursing home passed away. Imagine my shock when, upon being informed of the death, her family nonchalantly asked the nurse if the body had already been picked up by the funeral home. Such cavalier attitude towards death, let alone the death of a parent is unheard of in Africa.

I expected the children to at least show up and wait with their mother’s body until the funeral home picked it up.  Is this the path we are headed? Are we Africans becoming like westerners when it comes to death? In the African context death is a serious issue, treated with fear and respect whereas in the west death is just another next step in the circle of life.

In Zimbabwean culture, like other African cultures, the burial of a deceased is very important because of the belief that when a person passes away, their spirit  moves to a new realm and wanders around until its brought back home and integrated  back in to the family as a  guardian spirit. As such, improperly done burial rites, have repercussions and can sentence the deceased’s spirit to perpetual wondering on this earth as a ghost.

And for the living, a restless spirit can go rogue causing loads of misfortune. Traditionally, a deceased is buried in their ancestral village, even city dwellers are oftentimes brought to their rural home. Customarily, death is greeted by loud grief stricken crying from family and friends who gather at the home of the deceased. Women take charge of the feeding the mourners.

Singing and dancing throughout the night is followed by a church service and body viewing and then burial typically on the third day. The three day waiting period was designed to allow for family members travelling from various parts of the country.  These days the waiting time is shorter due to improved travel and to cut down the cost of feeding an entire gathering of mourners.  Men handle the digging of the grave in the family burial plot.  

Burial usually occurs early morning or  evening, times when the temperatures are cool, because it is believed  that’s spirits  are not active when it’s hot (midday) and so if one is buried at midday there will be no one to receive him in the spirit realm and may end up wandering around. After the burial, most of the mourners return to their homes leaving a few relatives to stay and comfort those closest to the deceased.

The relatives’ role is to support, feed and console and they can remain with the bereaved for months. So back to the death of my fellow countrywoman, obviously due to the capitalistic nature of our new environment, where people live to work, it is impossible to take 3 days off work each time someone from you community passes away let alone taking 2 months to console a bereaved relative.

The stress of death combined with lack of social support in the diaspora can be too much to bear especially with young children to take care of.   In this case, the newly bereaved husband found himself with 4 kids between 16 years old and 18 months, to take care of.  Lucky for him, his wife had always sent his boys to grandma (her mother, his parents are deceased) each summer.  Because his mother in law already had a bond with his children, she was able to provide the children with the support and comfort they needed.    

Another advantage was that the children were fluent in their native language thanks to those summer trips to Harare. In my African community today, very few of the children born in the diaspora speak their parent’s language yet all Latino children and majority of Asian children are fluent in both English and their mother tongues. Unlike Asians & Latinos, we have allowed our language to die in the diaspora.

While it is understandable and expected that we will lose some complex cultural practices like death and burial rituals, we should be able to maintain at the very minimum our language.  We have a moral responsibility as parents, community leaders and opinion leaders to instill in our children especially those born and bred in the diaspora, the virtues of our language because language influences culture.

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