Vol. 16 #7
Last week we had our regular church gathering at the community on the heights of Mount Makorot overlooking Ngorongoro crater. The atmosphere was very different than it normally is. The people came in greater numbers and they were subdued even somber. There was no talking beyond the minimal exchange of greetings. Our little thatched roof goat shed church filled to overflowing and still they kept coming.
The day before I had arrived with a very old lady and a child just days old. The previous week I had taken Sayanoi, a young girl not sixteen years old with her new born baby just hours old to Endulen hospital. Saiyanoi could not deliver the afterbirth. After traveling the two hours over our bad roads to reach Endulen she was very tired, just wiped out. The sisters and doctor worked through the night to save her but it wasn’t to be. She died shortly after midnight. She was seriously anemic, and giving birth had just about exhausted her last reserves of strength. Then the long trip to Endulen tired her further.
So now I had come with Saiyanoi’s grandmother and the infant back to Makorot with the heartbreaking news of the death of Saiyanoi. The reaction of her family and friends was typically Maasai, disbelief then despair, wailing, tearing their clothing, throwing themselves every which way and thrashing around on the ground. This was all very predictable. I took people from nearby villages with me to help hold on to the people so they wouldn’t hurt themselves. This complex of villages comprises my Christian community. I was disappointed. I had hoped that after all my preaching and teaching about the hope we have in Jesus and about the resurrection of the dead that the reactions of the people to death would show some change from the old reaction of total despair. I together with the neighbors and friends sat together for many hours with the family not saying much but lending what support we could by just being with them.
As evening was coming on and everyone was dispersing to return to their own villages to receive the cattle and goats returning from pasture, the husband came up to me. Tomorrow there will be church as usual will there not? I said yes there would be, and went on my way.
Now it was the next day and time for our church gathering and people were coming in unprecedented numbers. The mother of the dead girl arrived, her husband came, and her father took his place in the front row. It is hard to describe my consternation. The behavior of these Maasai people represented a major departure from custom. That the family of a person dead not twenty-four hours would leave their village and gather with others for any reason is unthinkable. Mourning among these people is carefully observed, and especially in the case of a beloved son or daughter the family goes into seclusion for days. Saiyanoi was beloved by the whole community. It was said that she had “osotua” close ties of friendship among all the villages. The people said we are all “sick” because of her death. We are all “weak” because of her death. I had not expected more than two or three people for our church gather. Now well over a hundred people were crowding into our little church and the overflow was standing outside.
Everyone was quiet. The liturgy proceeded without any of its usual exuberance. The hymns were the usual ones but sung quietly. The elders who prayed never mentioned Saiyanoi by name, never mentioned that there had been a death in the community. Their prayers asked God for help in our time of trouble. They asked God not to tire of carrying us, and they asked his strength that we might carry each other. They prayed that God not leave them alone like a lone man crossing the great Serengeti without a gourd of milk. They prayed that their newfound faith in life, life without end, would be true, and they asked God to help their wavering faith in life after death. The women prayed for strength in their present trouble, and they prayed for the childless ones. It was a funeral that was not a funeral. The name Saiyanoi nor the fact that their had been a death was never mentioned, but the community had gathered for God’s support and to support each other.
Traditionally the Maasai have no belief that life goes on after death. Life and resurrection goes on in their children. They put the body out to be taken by the wild animals and the person’s name is never mentioned again. They do it ritually and respectfully, but that’s what happens. It is a time of wailing and despair. In the case of a rich man with sons, the children may bury him. His name can be mentioned because in spirit he is living on in his children.
That liturgy was, in the light of Maasai ways of doing things, astounding. I was wrong; Jesus and his message are making an impact on the way people view death and what happens afterwards.
Till next month…