This isn’t an easy subject to write about. If you have been watching our Facebook page, you will already know it hasn’t been a great week for Footprints in Zambia. Three boys who live on the streets have died of various causes over a very short period of time and our team is now heavily focussed on organising dignified burials as well as supporting all of the children we work with to help them through this difficult time.
Why do we devote precious resources to funerals when there is so much unmet need amongst the living? Footprints co-founder Nikki wrote an article last year explaining why a respectful burial rather than the alternative of being thrown into a government mass grave is so important to show street living children that their lives have value.
In the Zambian context, funerals are a very important rite of passage. When somebody dies, the funeral takes place immediately and will start with a gathering of mourners at the family home. Men and women will separate into different areas of the property—the women will alternate between wailing and cooking food for everybody, and the men will sit together and make plans for the burial. Part of this involves the identification of the body at the mortuary. They will also discuss any dependents left behind and how best to support them. This will happen over three days and many people will come from all over to pay their respects—some staying for a couple of hours, some the whole night. On the third day the body will be buried. Family members usually dig the grave at the graveyard and a ceremony takes place. Women and men are still separate at the graveside and women wear traditional chitenge with a scarf covering their head. It is not uncommon to see trucks full of singing mourners driving slowly through Lusaka in a funeral convoy from the mortuary—the first vehicle in the chain carries the coffin.
If a body is not claimed at the mortuary, it will eventually be slung into a mass grave. For Zambians this is a shameful scenario and children on the street used to remark to Vasco that their life wasn’t worth anything because when they died they would not have a proper funeral. We feel that it is important that children know we value them as human beings and this is why we aim to provide a dignified burial when a child’s life comes to an end.
It is also hugely important for the children left behind to have a formal outlet for their grief, led by Vasco. They often have questions about why their friend had to die, which we want to answer from a religious and medical perspective, and how they can stop the same thing from happening to themselves. Funerals offer us a great opportunity to discuss important issues with the children and reach out to them, showing them love; there are few other situations where we would find as many children together at one time, wanting to chat about important life issues and take the first steps towards finding a better future for themselves.
It is very difficult with so many deaths in such a short period of time, please pray for all of those involved: Vasco, the rest of the Footprints team and our Team Hope partners as they organise funerals and support all of the children touched by these sad events.