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When a death is a party

Kufa kwa wengi ni harusi means ‘For many, (a) death is a wedding,’ where wedding is representative of a big party.

When I first heard this proverb, I assumed it was about people who die, that for them death is a happy thing or a release. It’s not that. The ‘many’ are people in the community.

The reason that a death of a loved one is like a party is because many people come for the funeral. You see friends and family you may not have seen in a long time, and as everyone gathers together, there is a party atmosphere. We saw this when our friend’s father died. He had been the head of his clan and a bishop in the Anglican church. There were all night dance parties, t-shirts, processions, a stack of food, and of course a massive funeral. While many of the people there may have been genuine mourners, it also seemed like a number of people were enjoying the spectacle. And some might have been both.

But there’s another layer to this proverb as well. As everyone floods into the village or town where the funeral will be, there’s an economic boost to that place. Those who have businesses experience more customers; there are more people in need of services. Though some may be mourning, it is a good day for others.

Further to that, big tragedies are more profitable than small ones. If a bus crashes, on the way from Mwanza to Dar Es Salaam, most of the people will be from Mwanza. That means that in Mwanza there be many funerals, but also the national attention will result in more attention and people coming to Mwanza, so the event is even bigger and therefore more profitable.

This sounds terribly mercenary to western ears. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense: I’ve been at funerals which are like family reunions; we all know that large influxes of people bring economic benefits to that place. But we don’t say it, and we certainly don’t talk about it as a party. In our individualistic terms, death is about the individual who died, and secondarily about their (close) family and friends. Even community events like state funerals are accompanied by pleas for privacy for the family, and the influx of people into one place is viewed as an infrastructure issue to be handled, not an opportunity for business.

But remember, Tanzania is a collective culture. You cannot separate out one person’s experience from another’s; it is impossible not to see the community dimensions to a funeral. The death does not happen to a person or to a family. It happens to a community. Moreover, because that community is a whole, it does not follow that the benefit of some stands in opposition to the sorrow of others.

Discussing this proverb showed me again how much I still have to learn about Tanzanian headspace. I know I’m living in a collective culture, and yet when I hear a proverb like this, I still default into individualistic thinking and need someone to help me unpack how it plays in a collective culture. There were at least three dimensions that I missed here or didn’t want to articulate because of my cultural background: the family gathering, the economic impact, and the effect of national attention.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

2 replies

  1. Yes, yes, yes. We’ve experienced this many times.

    Yesterday we waited at the Africana junction for about 20 minutes, at a complete standstill. The police had stopped traffic to allow for dignitaries to go through who seemed to have been (so we deduced) the funeral of the Clouds FM guy who had passed recently.

    Another interesting tradition is celebrating the death-anniversary of important people. We recently attended one of those–the man had died 10 years ago and had been an elder of our church. The service/reception was like another funeral service, all over again. Very intriguing.

    1. Oh, we haven’t been to one of those yet! That is intriguing. Would love to learn more about that. It reminds me a bit of our first wedding anniversary here, and discovering that the standard way to mark this wasn’t for us to go out to dinner together but to throw a party. Of course the wedding is a community event, so why shouldn’t an anniversary be?!

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