It’s very sad but there seems to be at least one funeral every Saturday in my village in Lesotho, Africa, and I experienced my first Basotho funeral yesterday.
My counterpart, the 7th grade teacher at my school, lost her husband to TB. He was only 37.
Funerals are important community events in Lesotho, and I’ve become aware of the multiple billboards in the capital city, as well as the ads on local television for funeral insurance.
It seems that even the poor, spend at least 10,000 Rand, or $700 on a funeral, and that is a ton of money for a family that cannot feed itself. I admit, I’m not familiar with the details, however, my first Basotho funeral, was elaborate, with numerous priests, a choir, and a brass band.
Mary, my host “mother,” wanted me to wear the traditional Basotho blanket, and I’m glad I did, as it was important to fit into the community.
Numerous tents were set up in the compound where my teacher and her mother-in-law live, and women were busy breaking twigs to keep the fire going under the cast iron pots. They prepared a traditional meal of beef, samp (like hominy), rice, carrots and beetroots, to feed everyone after the service.
Lines of buses and cars flocked the dirt road, and Mary and I arrived a little late, at 10:30. The grieving wife and mother-in-law, sat on a mattress, next to the coffin, and at one point, the wife covered her entire body and face with the blanket.
When she spotted me, she gestured for me to come and sit next to her on the mattress. I was embarrassed, as I had to walk in front of the entire congregation, including the choir and the priests to reach her.
“Can you please take photos of the coffin and my husband’s photo,” she said. “I do not have a camera.”
Her husband’s framed photo sat on top of the casket, with a bouquet of artificial flowers propped up next to his picture.
I did what she requested, but being the only white person in the entire congregation, I felt conspicuous, especially acting like a paparazzi standing in front of the coffin.
A man distributed the folded program listing the names of the speakers at this Basotho funeral, and I had no idea this would be an all-day event.
The choir sang intermittently while the brass band played, and everyone stood, swaying to the music. I watched my teacher in tears, and it seemed more like a festive celebration for the attendees, while she sat, distant and numb, in her own thoughts.
After everyone had spoken, we followed the pallbearers up the hill where the casket was laid to rest in the ground. Two beautiful marble headstones were unveiled, while mourners sobbed at the graveside.
“Let’s go home,” Mary said.
I was expecting us to go back to my rondavel, but then Mary said, “We need to wash our hands.”
She led me back to the tent where the food was displayed in various oversized plastic bowls.
“Follow me. We have to wash our hands first,” Mary said.
She showed me what to do. I had to bend over a plastic tub, scoop cold water into my cupped hands and throw the water onto the dirt, so as not to contaminate the water in the bowl.
With wet hands, we proceeded to get a plate of food.
Mary was proud of me wearing her blanket, as her friends complimented her on the way I looked. It means so much to the Basotho when you wear the same as them.
The funeral ended around 4:30 p.m., when the choir ladies boarded the bus, and the brass band, priests and local chief, headed home. I asked Mary if this was a traditional Basotho funeral, and she said yes, apart from the brass band. That was different.
I cannot imagine attending a funeral every Saturday, however, when I ask the teachers at my school how they are spending the weekend, I often get the following response, “I’m going to a funeral.”