16 May 2009

Rest in Peace

This year, the estimated life expectancy rate in Angola is 38 years (37 for men, 39 for women). In other words, a baby being born in Angola today can expect to live, on average, to age 38. In fact, of 191 countries in the world, Angola ranks 190th in terms of life expectancy – only tiny Swaziland is worse (due to the country’s AIDS crisis). To give you some perspective the US ranks 30th in the world with an average life expectancy of 78 years (75 for men and 81 for women).

When I read that statistic before coming to Angola I thought surely it was a relic of the war years, and that the data needed to be updated to reflect the reality of peace that arrived in 2002. After ten months here, I’m no longer surprised. Death is all around, and not a week goes by without news of someone’s cousin or aunt or parent or child passing away. The war may be over, but the battle to survive still isn’t easy. There are car and motorcycle crashes too numerous to mention. Colleagues forward gruesome photos of crash victims by email and somehow manage to look at them without wincing (I couldn’t). Every week someone is coming down with malaria (called paludismo here) and there are plenty of other illnesses to worry about. A rabies outbreak in Luanda killed something like 80 people one weekend earlier this year. This is especially worrying since there is a worldwide shortage of the rabies vaccine and I was told I couldn’t get one before coming here. I was told I had to contract the disease first, and then I could be treated, which isn’t the most comforting thought. It’s also not comforting to know that the streets of Benguela are full of stray dogs – some aggressive – and since I don’t have any transportation here I’m walking amongst them daily. I have to check my usual appreciation for my canine friends and usually cross the street to walk on the other side if I see suspicious-looking animals. I’m digressing, but you get the idea.

At least several times a week when making client visits or bumming rides with friends on the weekend, we will pass a funeral procession. This usually involves a lead truck with the grieving parent or partner or next of kin surrounded by dozens of others in the truck bed with the coffin, followed by a trail of cars and motorcycles, and sometimes other trucks full of friends and extended family of the deceased, all heading to the cemetery. After someone dies, the funeral is usually held the following day, although it could be delayed by a few days to give relatives in other parts of the country time to travel.

Following the funeral, there is a period known as the “óbito” or what westerners might consider a wake, except that it happens after the deceased has been interred. The period for the óbito varies depending on the age of the deceased and ranges from a few days to up to a week according to my colleague who explained all this to me. During this time friends and relatives visit the family of the deceased and offer condolences and specially-prepared food. In the event of a woman who has lost her husband, traditional cermonies are sometimes performed to make her “marriable” again. A month after the death occurred, another event is held, this time usually more of a party or picnic to commemorate the deceased. Yet another event is held a year following the death. Understanding these traditions helped make sense of the frequent absences from work with “óbito” as the stated reason.

It’s a sobering fact of life here, but as someone that’s no stranger to death (there are no living relatives on the matrilineal side of my family) I thought the traditions were interesting.

Rest In Peace:

A common sight - black cross on door means closed for funeral/óbito:

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