We the Shropshire family have been living in Senegal for over a year now.  These past couple weeks for me have been full of cultural experiences.  Before… before living here, moving here, before relationships and investing, I imagined learning culture as being outside of myself, as part of another person’s life, but as we begin to dive in deeper it is not quite what I imagined.  Yes it is the culture of another life, different from my own.  BUT. As we learn about different cultures, we are also learning about the lives of our friends and why they live the way they do, it is personal because we love these people and they are our friends, some things are wonderful and I want to fully embrace the difference, and some things are sad, and hard, or have eternal consequences and those are moments that make our hearts hurt.  Because we are learning another culture somewhat through the eyes of friends and African family, things that effect them effect us, things that hurt them hurt our hearts too, we are right there with them watching, learning, feeling.

Last week you could say that I got the opportunity to attend a catholic funeral with one of my closest Senegalese friends, but I have a hard time calling it an opportunity because it was a hard day for all involved.  My heart hurt for the family and loved ones.  I will say I got the opportunity to be with my friend “M” throughout the day, it was a blessing for me to be there for her, and to understand a little more of her pain of suddenly loosing a 19 year old cousin.

This is the dress, an old picture, but the dress indeed.

This is the dress, an old picture, but the dress indeed.


I had asked “M” if she could help me pick out a dress for the funeral because I didn’t know what to where, I am still trying to figure out what is appropriate dress here anyway, different dress for different occasions, I wish I had an instruction manual… It’s complicated… (whimpering noises).  So she picked out a dress, it has wide straps but wasn’t covering my shoulders, it was made out of the african wax fabric here, and was darker colors, which is probably why she picked it.  The entire day before, I was nervous about going, and wondered why I had asked if I could go with her, but she had already said yes and assumed I would be coming, I felt committed and knew it was something I needed to do.

The morning arrived and I got ready, still nervous because of everything being new, unknown, and because it was a fragile situation.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I had told “M” to please tell me everything that I need to do because I know NOTHING!!  She understood and promised that she would let me know.  Before leaving the house I made sure to put some money in an envelope for giving to the family because I knew that was appropriate, that’s about all I knew!  I brought water and something to eat, and medicine for the headache I knew I would be getting.  We left the house about 9:30 a.m. and the family’s whose son died lives close to our house so we walked there, when we arrived the family had already left, but we picked up a couple girls and then walked to the main road to get a taxi… a taxi to the hospital.  Of course the taxi-man gave a really high price, and I made a comment that it was because I was white, they laughed, and nodded.  We got the next taxi and arrived at the Morgue (next to the hospital) about 15 minutes later.

We walked across the street, through a big gated area, we came upon a big covered seating area with a rectangle of benches were people could sit facing to the inside as well as to the outside.  As soon as we walked up, “M” handed me her shawl and said quickly “cover yourself, and do not look at ANYONE!”  That was a surprise, I didn’t know why but I just did what she said.  We then walked up to the mother whose son died and I shook her hand (like you do here with anyone you are saying hi to) and I gave her my condolences “mes condoléances” we then sat facing the inside of the rectangle. As I sat there I wondered if I could start looking at people or if I still needed to avoid eye contact with the rest of the 50 women there.  I began to relax, and looked around.  I asked why I needed to put the wrap on and not look at anyone, and she said she was afraid the Older Madjack women were judging me, and she didn’t want that, she said Madjack’s can be complicated… I don’t know what that means but okay. I do however realize the next time I attend an event like this I will be wearing a dress with sleeves.

There were only women sitting in the covered area, most of the women were wearing black and white, and I asked why she didn’t have me where black and white, and she said black and white is for the family to wear.  And so I realized that this was a privilege for me and that I was here with family.  “M” is family and that is why she was there, and here I was also, I understood that this was fragile and difficult for all involved.

The young 19 year old man who died had been playing soccer with his friends on the field near our house and he just fell down, eyes rolling in the back of his head, died only a few minutes later.  It was unexpected and sudden.  He had 7 brothers and 3 sisters, it was a painful shock to all.  This was on a Thursday and he had died the Sunday previous.

As we sat there, “M” explained to me that in the room behind us and to the left, they were washing the body.  Sometimes you can hire someone at the morgue to wash the body for you, but that can be expensive and so this family opted to wash and prepare the body themselves.  After washing and preparing the body, the family would walk through the room to view the body.

So after about an hour and a half or more, slowly, women began trickling into the room to view the son, and suddenly everyone started walking towards the room.  I stood up with “M” and took a deep breath knowing this was going to be hard on all these women.  We approached the door and “M” walked in but then she backed out because I think it was just too much for her, I wasn’t going to hang around, I passed the mother who began quickly leaving the room where her son lay lifeless saying “My God My God My God My God” Tears filled my eyes as I imagined her pain, I walked in the room, saw the boy lying there in his coffin,  his body was covered with white sheets but his head visible with a brace holding his neck up, I’m assuming so that everyone would actually be able to see him.  I exited the second door, and when I arrived outside again I saw a young women in the other doorway crying out, and convulsing… almost seizing, everyone around her began holding her, someone began fanning her.  I have not personally seen anything like it before, but I later found out she was one of his sisters.  I can only imagine she was feeling the pain of grief and it was unimaginable and unbearable to see her brother lying there without life.  They laid her on the ground and eventually she calmed down, she may have fainted also, I’m not sure.

As everyone went in and came out, all the women began crying, crying out… wailing.  As most of the women came back to the seating area, there were those who stayed in the room singing songs.  After a little while, the van pulled up to the room and the men in the van put the casket in the van, and as the van drove out of the morgue property, there was more screaming and crying, I assume from the realization that he was gone.  We walked towards the gate and to the road.  We got another Taxi to head to the Catholic Church.  When we arrived, the church was empty, so we began walking behind the church, as we walked down several steps there was another building on the catholic grounds.

A side note, this was not a french day for me.  Everyone was speaking Wolof the. entire. day.  If “M” or her mom needed to tell me something they would tell me in french obviously, but everything else was in Wolof… sometimes I wonder why we’re learning french! (There is much merit to it, but on days like these, I wonder)

“M” told me that this was where the viewing would be happening.  Inside the building was benches and also where the body lay, so that people could say their goodbyes.  It was not just for family but for anyone who wanted to come.  It came to my attention that we would be waiting here for a few hours sitting under a tree or on the steps.  Through out the hours several people were concerned for me that I needed to go inside and sit down, and that I needed special attention to make sure I was comfortable, and “M” told me every time someone made a suggestion of going inside or something. I told “M” I didn’t want anything special I just wanted to be with her, and do the same things everyone else was doing, “M” obliged me and said that was fine.

People continued to trickle in to see their friend, son, brother or acquaintance for the last time.  There were again different episodes of cries and the occasional person that began seizing and fainting from grief, at one point a woman left the premises and everyone heard her fall to the ground and came to her rescue, she began screaming and seizing… she was also given some special attention.  At one point about 30 at least, young men showed up along with a few girls, and moms all wearing a shirt with a picture of the boy on the bottom saying “RIP”.  Some of them were tough young men, sunglasses on, and headphones around their neck, they went into the room to see their friend and when they came back out, there was a completely different attitude about them.  Some, you could tell were closer to the boy than others, these young men were crying, saddened by the loss of their friend.  It was hard to watch.  People completely normal would go in and when they came out were in another state, of sadness and mourning, you could tell it was an individual process for everyone, but everyone knew him and loved him.  Every once and a while you would hear singing in the room.  After about three and a half hours, the van pulled up again to get the casket, and I could tell “M” needed a minute so I left her there and gave her some space, she moved closer to the van as to witness them putting him into the van.  Every time the casket was moved into the van, it was another realization that he was gone, and there would be cries and more wailing, more crying and sadness, sometimes more fainting and convulsing.  The van drove slowly out as about 30 people, mostly family followed behind all the way to the other side where they put the casket into the church to have the service for him.

I now had that strong headache I told you I would be getting.  I was with “T” (“M”’s mom) at this point who is a believer also, and I decided I needed to get some food while everyone was in the church because it’s not okay to just eat your food in front of other people… very rude! So we went and got some food. I ate it and took my medicine and drank lots of water, I felt a little better, but not completely.  It was a tiring hot day, but I wasn’t about to start complaining.

About an hour and a half later the service was over and we went to the cemetery.  When we got there, we waited for the van, when the van got there with the casket everyone came up close behind the van. The priest was there, he put something on over his head and got some holy water ready I think, and the van began moving forward slowly.  Everyone (maybe 200 people?) not saying a word walked behind the van, every couple seconds everyone would say a prayer for the most recent deceased, a prayer for his soul.  During the walking I was separated from “M”, we walked all the way to the back of the cemetery, and when the van stopped I couldn’t see a thing, so I looked around for “T” finally I found her, she wasn’t too far away but I was afraid to make a scene getting there.  I decided it was worth it and made my way behind some of the crowd, when I got to her I could see everything.  There was the priest, each family member began taking the utensils and shaking holy water towards the casket.  There was also a large wreath of flowers to put on the grave.  After a few words were said, the brothers gathered around casket to put it into the grounds, and one of the brothers fell to the ground weak with grief, began sobbing, unable to lift himself, his brother helped him, but he couldn’t be helped… this is more than a cultural experience but a sharing the sadness of loosing someone close, my heart hurt for these people.

As they lay him into his grave, the wailing, screaming, and crying was overwhelming.  There were others who again began seizing with grief, fainting because of the inability to breath.  I found the emotional expressions of Africans very interesting and almost refreshing, because there was no hiding it.  There was no shame in being sad or showing your grief, maybe a little bit for the men but in general it was very invited and excepted.  “T” next to me also began wailing and being next to her I held her.  As the casket went into the ground everyone began leaving the premises as quickly as possible, there was no hanging around.  As I walked back I found “M” she also was weak with grief, big tears running down her face.  If we were not close I would have left others to care for her, but she is my close friend, and I was there.  I put my arm around her holding her up, and helping her walk out, she began reaching behind her and crying because of not wanting to leave the boy behind… she was having a hard time letting him go, but it was a necessary breakdown… It was important for her to breakdown in order to grieve the way she needed to.

We walked back together not saying a word, when she was strong enough to be able to walk on her own, I just held her hand all the way back to the parking lot.  Here holding hands is a sign close friendship, this was my chance to let her know that I’m here for her.  When we got to the parking lot, we walked out and got another taxi back to our neighborhood.  Being how “T” and “M” are family I stood in the long line that wrapped around the block by myself to give my condolences to the family.  I stood in line for about 45 minutes before getting my chance to shake all the family member’s hands telling all “mes condoléances” and handing the mama my envelope with money for their family as funerals bring a lot of family to town, and is quite costly to continually feed everyone.  There was a dinner that would follow later, but I was very tired, and it was not necessary I stay for dinner and staying for the condolences was the most important for me.

So I got home around eight that night. I recounted the day to TJ and then fell on the bed dead asleep for several hours while TJ put the girls to bed… Good man taking care of the girls so that I could do this.

It was an emotionally and physically draining day, but a good experience for me, to watch, to learn, and to feel.