My Experience With Grief in Lusaka

When my colleague, whom I will identify as Mr. Phiri, comes into my office, people know it. He dresses better than everyone, he’s incredibly enthusiastic and dedicated to his job, and seems like he is always in three places at once.  He gets things done, and he is highly respected for his intense work ethic.

On Monday February 11th, I learned that his two-year-old son had passed away a few days earlier due to pneumonia. I learned this after visiting the field office for a meeting regarding grant opportunities for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) initiatives, and that people were leaving to see him and his family.

An hour after I had learned of the death of Mr. Phiri’s son, I was riding in the truck on the way to his house. I did not know exactly where he lived, and the ride there really opened my eyes to the poverty of Lusaka. It is the rainy season now, and we drove through black water, where open sewers had drained into the streets. Children were running barefoot through the water, and there were small stands where people were selling tomatoes, just two or three meters away from the run off from open sewage that at times was nearly a meter deep. The dirt roads had deep holes in them, and large stones sticking out that we caught our truck on multiple times. As we were driving, I had my window open, trying to take this all in and children were yelling and cheering “Muzungu! Muzungu!”

We arrived at Mr. Phiri’s house around 13:00 hours, and my female colleagues put on their chitenges, which are cloth skirts that females wear in traditional settings, and the men sat in the couches just outside the front door. I was dressed in business casual—slacks, a blue polo shirt, while everyone else had a suit and tie. When I woke up, I had no idea that I would be going to a funeral that day, and yet there I was, supporting my friend that had been crushed by the death of his son. His enthusiasm was gone, and instead of looking at me in the eye like he usually does and cheerfully grabbing my hand, he looked down and extended his hand. I held his hand while he cried, telling me “My son died, Jared.” I just held his hand and tried to be as appropriately comforting as I could. This was my first exposure to grief in Zambian culture, and I was totally unprepared.

The men were solemn and silent, and Mr. Phiri very quietly spoke to us one-by-one, even though were sitting in a circle. My female colleagues went into his house to comfort Mr. Phiri’s wife and to see the body of the child. Around me was his extended family, sitting on logs, with the smell of smoke from a dying fire filling the air as a thin fog. A group of three children were playing outside of another house, playing with wood blocks and beating them into the ground. I could hear their tapping noises along with the crackling of the fire.

As I looked around, and trying to observe to see if there was anything I could do, the men were all stone faced and silent, while Mr. Phiri sat amongst all of us trying to contain his grief. One of the senior managers took him aside shortly after to discuss burial arrangements.

After about 20 minutes of sitting there, my supervisor came out, and said “We can go,” and smiled at me. As we walked to our truck, Mr. Phiri followed, discussing his time off. Then, he looked at me with sunken eyes and said “Bye…Jared.” I told him “Do not worry about work right now, we will do our best. Grieve with your family. I am very sorry Mr. Phiri.”

As we were opening the doors to our trucks, people were then laughing and trying to lighten up the situation. My supervisor said “This is something I thought you should see,” and I thanked her for it.