I had to attend two funerals the other day, not uncommon for me these days. The funerals of my friends John and Mulenga were a contrast. Both had AIDS. But Mulenga was a high-profile businessman and the ‘cream’ of Zambian society was there to mourn him. His wife Anna, a school friend of mine, said she didn’t want his funeral even to hint that he had died of AIDS. So she deliberately made his service an austere, expensive affair.
Anna managed to secure a burial spot in one of Lusaka’s oldest cemeteries and in this city graveyards define status. The old one was set up in the early 1960s. Well-known people, politicians, civic leaders and wealthy families are buried there. It is officially full. However, depending on your social standing and pocket, you can find a space and bury your dead.
The other two cemeteries are known as the ‘AIDS graves’. They are pitiful sites: 90 per cent of the people buried there died from AIDS and had neither clout nor high social standing.
After Mulenga’s interment, people disappeared quickly. I got the feeling they did not want to be around any longer than was appropriate, lest they had to deal with the fact that one of their own had died from AIDS. I on the other hand felt cheated since in Zambia we mourn our dead with tears and lamentations.
As Mulenga’s was subdued, John’s funeral was total mayhem. His family could not find a ‘suitable spot’ in one of the overcrowded cemeteries in Lusaka and decided to cremate him. An exceptional option in a country where burial rites are spiritually and culturally important, as it determines where and how the dead person is going to live in the afterlife. Local authorities say before AIDS, there were 10 to 15 burials a day in the city; today there can be anything up to 40.
A handful of mates from the bank where he worked as a teller, immediate relatives and a few friends made up the cortege. His wife and girlfriend mourned audibly. At the crematorium, relatives fought intermittently about who had taken what from John’s house during the wake. (This is commonly referred to as property grabbing. When a spouse, especially husband dies, his relatives cart away as much as they can carry because it belonged to their relative, often leaving the bereaved family with nothing). Despite all this I mourned my friend and cried with his widow and children.
John and Mulenga represent the two societies that exist in Zambia. Mulenga belonged to the 30 per cent — the rich politicians, business people and employees of international organizations. Stigma against AIDS is entrenched in this group. Their embarrassment runs so deep they travel to neighbouring countries for HIV tests and medication.
The other 70 per cent, like John, are poor, living in sprawling townships on the periphery of the city with erratic water and electricity supply. Those that are unemployed find casual work; their children beg on the streets or the wives hawk wares on the pavements. They know about AIDS and talk about it quite candidly, but their immediate concern is the next meal.
As John used to say: ‘In my community people expect to die, you don’t have to tell them that they will die from AIDS.’
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