An African mum living, learning, and documenting the process.

Marcy Madzikanda: On facing loss in the diaspora

I recall having an emotional moment whilst on the 210 bus in Highgate several years ago. I had received a letter from a friend telling me that her father had passed away. At that time I must have been in the country for about two years and found myself still adjusting to life in the UK. I still desired the life I had at home and longed to be in the African heat. I unexpectedly found myself thinking, what would I do if I got ‘that call’ about my father? There I was in leafy Highgate, an area that always reminds me of home and one I still love to visit, in a packed bus, sobbing uncontrollably about an event that had not happened, let alone one I could control and neither prepared for.

If the call had come about such an event there was very little I could have done. As a student there was no financial contribution of substance I could have made, let alone buying a ticket to be present. That powerlessness, and lack of control was what I believe reduced me to tears on that crisp afternoon.

Culturally it is bad form to talk about or anticipate someone’s death. However, for me I needed to feel that if and when a call came about a loved one I would be in a position to do something.

Over the years I have witnessed people in the midst of their grief trying to gather money to buy a ticket home or being unable to go home because of lack of funds or papers. In the late 1990s I remember many Africans and Zimbabweans diagnosed late with AIDS, in their hospital bed pleading to go and die at home, or making their last requests known that they wanted to be sent home for burial.

My family supported and assisted with some of these requests and I remember at the time thinking but they could just be buried here? The desire to be buried at home and the family requesting the body of the deceased often means repatriating a body can cost anywhere from £3000 – £7000.

I am often frustrated when I hear that in the midst of dealing with their grief, the children or relatives, have to reach out to their community for assistance to raise the money. Often with no funeral plan, insurance or savings to facilitate the process.

In recent years I have seen adverts for funeral plans within the Zimbabwean community but as is often the case, most people have no insurance in place to cover this event. I believe most African governments do not assist with repatriating the deceased except the Moroccan government. On one hand we in the diaspora give people a false impression that we are picking money off trees, in a city paved with gold, when in fact, a lot of people are living pay cheque to pay cheque trying to juggle many balls in a tough economy as well as sending money back home to look after those left behind. This makes it difficult to build contingency funds that we may desire to have for such life altering events.
Entertaining the thought of death is also seen as superstitious when really it is a part of life that we must plan for and with the very best of intentions not leave children with the financial burden of burying their parents.

My grandmother passed away last week. I was on a bus, on my way to a friends birthday party for her sons first birthday when I received that call. I was not shocked as I had been anticipating it for the past seven years since my grandfather passed away a couple of months after I had seen him. I was sad, but strangely I felt at peace as my grandmother could finally rest. Her health and quality of life was not what I would have wished for the vibrant and active person she was. She kept telling us she was tired and was ready to go. In recent months whenever she was told of someone passing away, she envied them. My immediate thoughts went to my mother and as per my brothers instructions was for me to come home as he was not sure how she would take it.

Many thoughts come to me about how we break the news of someone’s passing. In this digital age you wish whatsapp didn’t exist for the speed in which news travels and yet thankful for it connecting you to the gatherings full of traditional hymns back home bringing you closer to your loved ones. Possible future post perhaps.

I hope this post does not come across as disjointed. I felt the need to write this as I often thought about the financial implications of death within the African diaspora particularly when our governments do little in terms of assistance in repatriations and how we can be better prepared.

As I try to live a life with minimal expenses to better actualise my ability to leave an inheritance for my child as well as travel and save for holidays. I had a contingency saved for this. In as much as I could have bought my ticket to accompany my mother and her brother home, say farewell to my grandmother and take my daughter to meet her Zimbabwean family. I was mindful that I wanted her to be older for the trip and when she visits China, (yes she’s a Zimbabwean, Chinese mix – just delicious).

I decided that the money would be better used elsewhere and to make things easier for my mother, uncle and sister. Sometimes the best way to be present for family when dealing with loss is financial. How we then deal with the loss and being away from home for the burial is another matter we have to come to terms with being in the diaspora.

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