My maternal grandmother died in Zimbabwe this past week of old age. She was in her early 90s, and had long announced that she was ready to go if God called her. She said she had seen everything that she had to see, including her great-grandchildren. She attended our graduations and weddings, where she was treated like a queen. In the rural community she lived in, she was a celebrity of sorts, partly because she had been a nurse in her heyday and people regularly consulted her on their health problems before deciding whether to go to the clinic or not. She also liked to speak English, quite unusual for an old rural woman, and had wild sense of humour. People found that fascinating and liked to hear her speak. Mbuya (granny in Shona) also liked to be heard and took advantage of the willing audience to share stories of her days as a nurse and dish out general advice. All around, she was everyone’s darling – in the community, at home and at her local church.
When she died, in the middle of a raging pandemic, I wept buckets. I had not expected her to leave forever and accepted that she had to go but the circumstances surrounding her death made me overwrought. With borders closed, I could not attend her funeral. Even though air travel is still operational, who’s to say what the next day might bring? It’s just not a good time to be crossing borders. One could wake up locked down somewhere. Even if I could travel, the Zimbabwean government has stipulated that only 30 people can attend a funeral. Mbuya had scores of loved ones. Even if I had been home, I’d probably not have made the list of 30 anyhow. It made me sad that someone of her stature, someone who had touched so many lives would only be buried by a handful of people. That put a lump in my throat. Over the years, she had always freely shared how she wanted women from her church group, especially those that had qualified to wear the United Methodist uniform, to sing and dance for her the whole night as she lay in state. No one sang because there was no night vigil and people were social distancing. My grandmother deserved a thunderous send off. So did many people we’ve lost in the past year. Talk about celebrities such as Sean Connery, Chadwick Boseman, our very own human rights lawyer George Bizos, actress Mary Twala and now songstress Sibongile Khumalo. It is a tough time for families and communities, being forced to follow scripted funerals and not doing things the way you would have wanted. Some families can’t even bury their immediate members because they’re recovering in hospital or isolating at home. People are carrying their grief all by themselves, and that will likely leave scars that will need healing long after the pandemic is gone.
I mourned my grandmother all by myself in a foreign land, occasionally swapping pictures and anecdotes on her life with family members on whatsapp, breaking into peals of laughter between sobs. I made myself my favourite meal of rice and ox tongue and opened the only bottle of wine I had in the house, and prayed for her soul.
I would have preferred to be at her home around a huge fire, be able to hug my family, sing for her, and put flowers on her grave. I do hope one day we will be able to celebrate her life appropriately, but it just won’t be the same.