September 2017

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News Update from Mark and Diane Vanderkooi

September 2017

Dear family, friends, and supporters;

This is a letter we wrote back in June but which has languished on the back burner of our computer as other more time-sensitive events such as the opening of the Bible School overtook it. However, it is a timeless description of what much of Africa is like and we want you to in some measure feel with us the pathos of it. We hope you enjoy it – at least insofar as gaining new insights into the lives of our fellow humans is an enjoyable, if sobering endeavor.

Your fellow servants,   Mark and Diane

Death among the Kwong

The scene is as alien as it is ubiquitous. One hears it long before seeing it. Initially, it is the panicked wailing, and gasping expressions of incredulity screamed at whatever being seen or unseen might care to hear.  Soon the wailing subsides as the relentless throb of drums channels the grief into a sort of choreography of the bereaved – a slow undulating shuffling of feet and gently swinging arms synchronized with the drum at the center. Hour after hour, round and round they go chanting a dirge for the deceased. Every so often a piercing yelp followed by a series of high trills and a raised fist punctuates the monotony of the dance, as if to defy death itself and declare a victory which by any measure, given the circumstances, is a hollow one.

Some variation of this scene will continue, depending on the stature of the deceased, for several days or even weeks. After the burial in the midst of the family compound – there is no communal cemetery - the drama of the first hours settles into a kind of picnic atmosphere with the men lounging on grass mats, whiling away the days by braiding a new halter for their horse, or weaving a sleeping mat from palm leaves, or chatting about banalities.  The women some distance away stay close to the mound of dirt which marks the grave. Depending on the means or lack thereof of the next of kin, the grave may or may not be identifiable as such within a year or two. In most cases, after a decade, nobody will quite remember for sure where it is.

From time to time a delegation, some 10 or 20 at a time, arrives from a distant village to pay their respects.  As they approach, their placid countenances are wrenched by command into paroxysms of what is in most cases feigned grief and tears which fools nobody, but which if absent, is considered an insult – at least by the living. Each visitor approaches the next-of-kin, who are seated on bare dirt under a tree a stone’s throw from the grave, squats in front of the seated forms, and solemnly takes their hands one by one and holds it – often for a full 5 seconds, as if by doing so he might transfer some of the grief off of them and bear it himself. Having shared thus in their grief, they take their seat among the assembled mourners for several hours, if not for the rest of the day. And if geography is kind to them, they will come back several days in a row. It is hard for the disinterested observer not to wonder what the cumulative economic effect of so many people attending so many wakes for so much time must be.

But there are those with genuine tears to offer, and as they come, they throw themselves on the pile of dirt,  which is the only sign that the one they once and still loved ever was, crying out between their sobs an obituary for the dead and a summons to the Fates as why such a thing must be. Those seated nearby pay no attention. 

The apparent tranquility of the scene after the initial drama is deceptive. Just under the surface in all but the most Christian wakes is a seething undercurrent of suspicions and accusations. No death, however inevitable from a purely medical standpoint, is a no-fault death, and it is incumbent on the living to parse any and all potential perpetrators of it and then to exact whatever retribution the case may require. This is especially the case if the deceased died after a protracted illness. The inevitable question is “who ate her soul” – i.e. who invoked an evil spirit to slowly drain the life out of her? Was it the woman who borrowed some salt from her a year ago and used it as a “key” to fabricate a curse instead of her dinner?  Or was it her in-laws who never did like her anyway? Even in the case of a quick death, questions, often legitimate, swirl around the husband or father as to whether he did due-diligence in getting medical care for the deceased.  In the case of a child, where it is often assumed that one of the little gods or the dead ancestors killed the child in a fit of pique for some transgression of the mother, the recriminations against the mother if she did not consult the diviner can be merciless. In this last case, one can easily imagine the agony of a bereaved Christian mother, who would as a matter of principle not go to the diviner, in the face of her pagan female relatives.

And in any case of a married woman, the claims and counter claims between the husband’s family (who in theory “bought” the rights to bury the woman when he paid the bride price) and the lady’s birth family (who will as a matter of course deny them the right to bury her if the husband is still paying installments on the bride price – something which frequently drags on for 10 or more years) are the stuff of legend. For the body to putrefy in the sun during the haggling that these weighty issues entail is a fairly common occurrence. The fault-finding is epic, and it is not secret either. The last thing that happens before the body is lowered into the grave is that everyone who has an “issue” is given an opportunity to vent it – an opportunity which people avail themselves of liberally.




Round and round they go. While foreign to us who watch, there really does seem to be therapeutic value in the tradition. Grief in a communal society like this is never an individual affair.


We hired Kømø Leah, the lady who died following a C-section, as cashier of our clinic back in 2007 before her husband Adoum was transferred up to Lake Chad where he is a school teacher. She gave birth to her 8th child as she died..


Kømø Leah’s tomb



Death is a huge part of life here – something on the same order of magnitude as sports and fitness would be in the USA. As we write this letter, the forgoing drama has played out five times in the space of 10 days. It began with a woman – a dear friend of ours really – who succumbed to the C-section which was supposed to save her life and that of her baby. (It did save the baby.) This happened in the district hospital of the town where her husband is posted as a civil servant in the north of Chad. She bled to death during the procedure, and there was no blood for a transfusion. Two days later the body, already beginning to decay, arrived in Chageen for burial. It was a Christian burial, so the decorum was fitting for a people of love and hope. Even so, they were not immune to the aforementioned scourge of in-law rivalries.

A day later the brother of another friend and coworker died at the hands of a traditional healer 10 miles to the north of Chageen. He had fallen off a roof in a provincial capital several hundred kilometers away and broke his femur. When the provincial hospital in question demonstrated its incompetence by not even taking an x-ray (probably because it didn’t work), our friend made the long journey to fetch his brother and bring him to our local healer. As it happens, this healer has a pretty good reputation for setting bones, if not for anything else. Not this time. It was another death which shouldn’t have had to happen.

A day later, the mentally handicapped son of our chief passed away after a protracted and unknown illness. He was most familiar to us as the purveyor of the large chunks of scrap iron from motors etc which he loved to deposit unbidden in our yard for safe keeping, and then return, again uninvited, over our compound’s wall to recover them for whatever strange satisfaction they gave him in his own little universe.

A few days later, the death wail emanated from not 20 feet behind our home. A 1-year old baby, unbeknownst to us, had died from what can only have been an excruciatingly painful septic infection in his leg. To their credit, the family had collected enough money to make the 100 km trip to the regional hospital where, as it was too complicated a case, they were told to continue on to the capital – another 300 kms further. But having spent everything they had to get that far, there was nothing to do but turn around and go back to Chageen. A local “surgeon” lanced the infection and drew out an enormous amount of puss, but to no avail.

And then yesterday, the body of another young man arrived from the capital for burial in his ancestral home here in Chageen. He was killed on a motorcycle – another victim of the traffic mayhem induced by the importation of 10’s of thousands of cheap Chinese motorbikes without the complementary number of helmets.

None of these people were even close to being “old”. And this is the healthy time of year.

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