Saturday, 1 August 2009

Death Duties

This week has been a bit hectic. One of Brian’s aunts passed away last week, and Nana spent most of last week looking for a place for her children to stay during the deuil (mourning period). Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to find anywhere, so the only solution was for Brian and Nana to move into Brian’s parents’ house, and me to stay elsewhere – luckily Morgan was able to find me some sofa space, so I’ve moved to Mutanga North, in North-West Bujumbura, and should soon be moving in with Pierre Claver (no idea where) for the remainder of the time here. The whole process has been pretty complicated and I’ll be glad to be settled for the last few days. What makes it harder is that the guy who washes Brian and Nana’s laundry for them has lost half my clothes – 3 out of 6 T-shirts, 1 out of 3 shirts, my boardies, and my sarong. Needless to say I am unimpressed, particularly about the shirt and the boardies, which I actually do need to go rafting in. As a result have been alternating between daily laundry and smelling.

Rant over, I feel pretty awful for the family – they all live in Canada and it’s a pretty miserable way to come back to your homeland after absences of ten years. On top of that, they’ve had to organise last-minute leave and pay for plane tickets, which can’t be cheap, and Brian and Nana have been really good to me this summer, so I’m glad to help where I can. I’ve also found it interesting to learn about Burundian funeral preparations – African funerals generally pull out all the stops, to the extent that funeral costs have been one of the major causes of the impoverishment that has followed the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Burundian deuil is also interesting; every night, the family and friends of the deceased person gather to support the family – an illustration of the communality of Burundian living. To be honest, that sounds like my worst nightmare; like most Westerners, I like my personal space, particularly when bad stuff happens, and being constantly surrounded by dozens of people sounds highly stressful and like it would make things worse.

I think this difference is perhaps the most important one between (many) African and (many) (Northern) Western cultures – the insistence on or lack of understanding of personal space. It has physical elements – one of the things Westerners here complain about is that Burundians are very tactile – but also social elements – Burundian friends have tended to express a total lack of comprehension when I’ve said that I like to sit at home and read sometimes. I also wonder if it feeds into things like semi-obsessive church attendance – several Burundians have flat-out refused to believe me when I claim that it’s possible to pray in private!

In case it’s unclear, I’m not criticising this communality – it brings enormous benefits in terms of mutual support, though I think that privacy also has a place – just commenting that despite years and years in Africa, this still gives me a culture shock. And I’m looking forward to getting back somewhere where people don’t feel the need to touch me all the time during conversation!

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