Where grief is routine

AIDS: As the virus claims thousands, attending funerals in Soweto has become a weekly ritual.

October 07, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa - They buried Jabulani Nene on a Tuesday.

That it was Tuesday was no small matter because nearly all funerals in Soweto are held on Saturdays - the day for the dead.

Saturday would have been Nene's day, too. But the funeral directors were booked solid. There were too many dead. Too many graves to dig. Too many hearses rented out. Sorry, the funeral directors told Nene's family. Sometimes the dead must wait.

So Nene was buried on the next Tuesday. And that was about all that was unusual about his funeral. That he was 36 years old, that he left an 11-year-old son behind, that he died of AIDS - those things were not so remarkable here.

Family and friends did not talk about the virus that killed Nene - and that is filling graveyards here - when they gathered in Avalon Cemetery under a glistening winter sun and shoveled spadefuls of red earth on top of his coffin.

But the fact that it was Tuesday generated plenty of chatter. The mourners shook their heads, noting how a cousin or uncle was unable to get off work. For the 200 people who made it, there were meetings to cancel, children to take out of school, events to reschedule.

"Ah, shame," they said with a sigh. A Saturday funeral is much easier.

Sowetans are well practiced in mourning. In this sprawling black township southwest of Johannesburg, attending funerals is a weekly ritual as regular as going to church, washing the car or buying groceries. People attend more funerals more frequently than perhaps in any other community in the world.

It is not uncommon for Sowetans to make an appearance at two funerals in a day, saying farewell to a neighbor in the morning before rushing across the dusty township in the afternoon to pay last respects to a cousin or friend. These long Saturdays often end with "aftertears," evening parties where mourners gather for drinking, dancing and, if they are lucky, a few laughs.

Sowetans bury people of all ages, but they are well accustomed to burying their young. During the struggle against apartheid, they organized huge funerals to honor students killed by police during rioting against the white-ruled government. Today, they mourn the loss of friends and neighbors who are being struck down by South Africa's new struggle against AIDS.

The scale of the health crisis here is staggering. About 4.7 million South Africans, one in nine people, are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS - more than in any other country. By 2010, the disease will have killed between 5 million and 7 million South Africans, according to the latest government statistics.

A number of factors enable AIDS to flourish in this community of 1.5 million people: unprotected sex, prostitution, a high prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases that increase the risk of infection, poverty, migrant labor, illiteracy and a lack of health education.

Nene is the third person to die of AIDS on his street of about two dozen homes.

As startling as the infection rates are, they are only percentages, odds that describe the scale of the tragedy here. The statistics also have names. They have relatives, friends and neighbors. And on this Tuesday, the relatives and friends of Jabulani Nene have gathered to say goodbye.

The funeral services were held at Nene's house in Pimville, one of the oldest sections of Soweto. Nene's two-bedroom brick home is identical to his neighbors' and has changed little since 1968, when Nene's parents moved here from the countryside in search of work. After his parents died in 1996, he inherited the house.

Nene spent much of the last year curled up in bed in the back room, a space no larger than a walk-in closet with one window, a cold concrete floor and water-stained walls shedding their last coat of yellow paint. This was where Nene died and where his body lay in a varnished pine coffin with golden handles on the morning of his funeral. A single candle burned beside it.

The night before Nene's family held an evening vigil, praying beside the coffin in the chilly back room. Outside, friends and relatives peeled carrots and potatoes for the funeral reception and helped pitch an orange-and-blue-striped tent in the front yard to accommodate guests for the service.

In other parts of the world, a flag at half-staff, black bunting strung outside the front door or a torn lapel are outward signs that a family is in mourning. In Soweto, it is a tent. On Saturday mornings, multicolored tents poke out above the township rooftops, as if there were circuses in town.

Johnny Tshabalala, a minister at Pimville Methodist Church, led the 10 a.m. Tuesday service. A thin, bearded man dressed sharply in a blue blazer with a white handkerchief tucked in the front pocket, Tshabalala stood underneath the tent packed with dozens of mourners sitting shoulder to shoulder on plastic chairs and dozens more standing in the yard and street.

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