A few weeks ago I met a woman in the road- she and her friend sort of bounced into my range of vision-they were laughing. I didn’t recognize her at first, but she asked me how my son Justis was. He was fine. OH! She was the one in the hospital bed across from ours when Justis had pneumonia last month. Her daughter had it too. I asked her "mtoto hajambo?" meaning, "how is your child?" She died. I was a little stunned and offered my sympathy, but I saw no sadness in her face at all. She said that it had been God’s will. She bounced back out of my day.
That same day, my neighbor Sina, who is HIV+ and has birthed 5 children, told me that she had just lost her second. She had asked me two days before for bus fare to go see the child (staying with a relative) because he was ill. I didn’t have it and was in a hurry and wanted to research the matter further because Sina had been asking several people for money lately. It turns out that by the time she asked me, the child had already died. Sina told me this news in much the same way one would report the contents of one’s lunch. My arms wanted to hug her, but I held back, deciding it wasn’t appropriate. Since then I have seen her dancing and laughing as she always does.
I recall an anthropological study of mothers in Brazil who do not name their children for a full year after they are born. With such a high infant mortality rate, they hold back on naming because to name them is an investment of hope, a recognition of their humanity. I always wondered how that worked- is love therefore held in store for a year? After a year, if the child is still alive, then it gets a name. A week after my friend died last year, I ran into her young son for the first time. Tears flooded my eyes to think how many orphans she’d helped and now her son was one. People were shocked that I was crying a full week later!! How long would I cry for?? Since then I have felt hesitant about showing my grief especially when a child’s own mother tells me "it’s ok".
When I used to work in the childbirth industry in the United States I met mothers who had lost their children. The grief consumed them utterly. They shut down for months or even years, they formed associations, celebrated birthdays annually, and always referred to the deceased child by name. In many ways they just did not recover-refused to recover because if they ever got back to "normal" that would somehow devalue their child’s life. Here, there is no time for protracted grief because too many people die. If people grieved for months or years for each child, the whole country- most of the continent- would become paralyzed. But whereas I must stifle my grief here, the Tanzanians I meet truly seem released from it quickly. Where does it go? I am not judging such persobnal emotion as grief, nor am I saying that there is no variation to the pattern I have seen, there is. I am just in awe at how different humans can be.