SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Death in the Diaspora

Body repatriation in African communities remains a complicated, unexplored side to immigration.

by Florence Madenga has published this portion of Florence Madenga's story.

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On the morning of December 3, 2012, Winlaw Muzirwa walked into the Tinicum police station in Essington, Pennsylvania in bloodstained clothes and asked to be handcuffed for killing his Zimbabwean wife. Daisy Jambawo was shot while her 15-year-old stepdaughter, 14-year-old daughter, and eight-year-old son were at school.

For Christine Sabvute, the couple’s Zimbabwean pastor, December 3 was the beginning of a long stay in a hotel with three frightened children, waiting to go back to their home on Third Street.

The first night, Sabvute realized she couldn’t go back to her home in Frederick, Maryland as planned. For one week she had to rewash the clothes she had worn the first day, every night. Her husband took care of their four children at home and could only bring clean clothes for Sabvute over the weekend. “There was no opportunity for me to leave them and do my own shopping, that’s how bad the situation was,” she said.

Three weeks after the murder, and after the police had combed the house for evidence, Sabvute took the children back to the two-story house on Third Street for closure. “All they [the police] did was rip up the carpet and cut the walls,” she recalled. “They left the house just like that.”

The children stood close together for the last time in the battleground where they had lived for most of their lives, and where Daisy Jambawo’s body had been found on the bedroom floor, shot twice with a 9mm Ruger P95 pistol. They tried to grieve with Sabvute, a quiet, petite, spiritual woman they had only met a few times before. They weren’t ready to say goodbye, and not sure of where and when the body, which already had been stuck in a Pennsylvania mortuary for three weeks, would finally go. In the end, it would be almost four months before members of the Zimbabwean community and relatives could send the body back to the only adult surviving members of Jambawo’s immediate family, her two brothers living in Zimbabwe.

Theirs is not only a story of unbearable heartache, but also of death in the diaspora as experienced in this and so many other African immigrant communities around the globe. It usually takes family members or the grace of friends, community members or even near strangers of the same background -- all known as “fictive kin” -- to repatriate the bodies of thousands of Africans who have made their lives overseas. Too often this involves long waits to clear paperwork and organize funding as bodies lie waiting for burial.

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When it became clear that Daisy Jambawo’s case would take much more than an already interminable three weeks to resolve, Sabvute pleaded with authorities not to surrender the children to foster care. With the permission of Muzirwa’s mother, who authorities deemed too unsettled to assume permanent custody, she took the children with her to Maryland.

As a pastor, Sabvute had years of experience giving counsel to grieving families, both in Zimbabwe and later in England and the United States. She knew too well that the mourning process could take years beyond the sending of the body home, beyond court papers, and beyond the grave. As a teenager, she had lost her own father.

She was concerned about how the Jambawo children would be able to grieve in the foster system, in the company of strangers. But getting to Zimbabwe for the funeral, where they could be in the embrace of extended family, was out of the question. There was not enough time to apply for passports and anyway, no one was offering the $6000 cost of the plane fare.

Christine and Richard Sabvute talk about the grieving process, African culture and coping with Daisy Jambawo's murder, three months after her death.
Credt: Filmed By Saamerikes Hetep Anderson

Sabvute also had expertise in facilitating repatriation for the dead. Both she and her husband, Richard, also a pastor, first got involved with the process in London in the 1990s. Their first repatriation case was of a Zimbabwean woman who had recently arrived in the United Kingdom but died shortly after. She had family, but no one could locate papers establishing her Zimbabwean citizenship and they needed help with navigating the two national bureaucracies.

Richard Sabvute stepped in. He contacted Chris Reilly, a British mortician who had lived in Zimbabwe, and had experience with body repatriation through the funeral home at which he worked and through his previous employer, Doves Morgan, the oldest and most respected funeral service establishment in Zimbabwe. While there, he gained experience transporting bodies from the wide, tar streets of Harare to the smaller, dustier township streets of Chivhu and even into remote rural areas.

Reilly took the case and consulted with lawyers, shuffling paperwork back and forth between embassies and the funeral home until the body could leave the country. Several cases later, Richard encouraged Reilly to open his own funeral home, which now serves a rapidly growing African community. Its website, C.J Reilly Funeral Services shows a list of bodies in its care that await return to their homeland. The surnames Marufu, Sibanda, Phiri, are mostly Zimbabweans but other common African names appear. Obituaries accompany every entry, highlighting their personalities and chronicling their journeys in the diaspora. Ezi Nwosu Idika, a Nigerian,“was always smiling, showing her beautiful teeth.” Tendai Vera was a “real people person, enjoyed perusing through Shona novels” and an “expert at cooking derere,” a Zimbabwean dish made from okra.

In 2008, the body of Fortune Maparutsa lay in Reilly’s funeral home. Maparutsa happened to be from Richard Sabvute’s home village in Zimbabwe’s Honde Valley area. He was also a national icon, known for a fusion of urban beats that Zimbabweans call “barbed wire music.” It is different from the more traditional “museve” music, associated with rural life. Maparutsa produced the ‘90s hit “Wangu Ndega,” an anthem for the fun generation of young Zimbabweans that emerged after the independence era of the 1980s. Energetic dance moves, flat-top hairstyle, blazers with padded-shoulders, and colorful lyrics all were emblematic of Maparutsa, as was his controversial death. Zimbabwean papers reported rumors of fights amongst family members over the causes of the singer’s death. A sister allegedly accused Maparutsa’s ex-wife and other family members living in the United Kingdom of murdering her brother. Zimbabwe mourned. In Maparutsa’s memory, television and radio stations played tributes and songs from his earlier work. But the singer’s 54-year-old body would lay thousands of miles away in a London funeral parlor for eight long months. His family could not provide the £2,450 needed to transport his body to Harare.

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There are many reasons why body repatriation has become a complex issue for Zimbabweans who live overseas, especially in the difficult period that has followed Maparutsa’s glory days. From the declaration of independence in 1980 and throughout the 1990s, life in the country changed drastically. It is only now recovering from a decade of record-breaking inflation. The United National Development Program estimates that at the peak of the country’s economic crisis in 2003, more than 70 percent of the its residents lived below the poverty line. Almost three million people, a quarter of the population, left the country.

A 2009 report by the U.N.’s office for The Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that only 480,000 out of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people were formally employed. The country’s land reform program in the late 1990s, as well as a costly war in the Democratic Republic of Congo fought from 1998 to 2002, were catalysts to a shocking level of hyperinflation -- at least a 500 billion percent inflation rate at the beginning of the millenium. Some sources say the peak of the hyperinflation was 6.5 sextillion percent at the end of 2008, before the Zimbabwean government ceased publishing official statistics on inflation. The reserve bank printed a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note in 2009, equivalent to about 30 U.S dollars at the time. It was the second highest inflation rate in world history.

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While the country’s economy recovers, it’s understandable that many Zimbabweans still in the country depend on remittances from relatives living abroad. But those who work in the diaspora and send money back home are often unable to save. There are no funds left for hefty insurance plans or bank accounts to draw on for emergency situations, like repatriating a body. Family structures are evolving across borders, and sometimes things fall apart.

“I used to call the United Kingdom a leveler,” Christine Sabvute said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve come in with a masters degree from Zimbabwe. Now you have to take lower level jobs, you have to follow directions from someone else and not with the respect you were used to.”

In December of 2011, just a year before Daisy Jambawo’s death, the Sabvutes consoled the sister of a Zimbabwean woman who had been murdered by her boyfriend in Seattle. Unlike Jambawo’s body, authorities found the remains of Mary Mushapaidze in a metal garbage can, dismembered and burned in the couple’s garage. A report of the crime on, a popular website for Zimbabweans living in the diaspora, suggests the murder took place after a vicious domestic argument. “U.S: Woman Killed Over Dirty Dishes,” the headline read.

For many Zimbabwean men that Christine knows, “there is this thing in their upbringing,” she said. “They are taught that it’s the wife that does everything in the home. When they enter the diaspora, it’s a different ball game. They are now forced into being a hands-on father. Help with homework, wash the dishes. I know the trend is changing, but that wasn’t prevalent in Zimbabwe. I don’t know if this killing of wives is a part of the frustration, a part of trying to assimilate into the new culture.”

There was a report in the, saying just before Daisy Jambawo’s death, she had scoffed at her husband, who was on disability, telling him to “act like a man.” But Richard Sabvute said there was no way to know exactly what happened between them. “Only God knows,” he said.

The Sabvutes knew the couple well enough to be aware that they had marital difficulties. “When I saw him [Muzirwa] in court, he said he was sorry,” Christine said. “I had no response for that. When you’ve been counseling people in their marriage, and this happens, you feel like a failure. That was the first reaction I felt.”

When you see an African man with a gun in his house, that’s not for his wife, neither is it for his children. We don’t kill women. It’s out of order— demonic.

Remembering a conversation with Muzirwa months before the murder, Richard said, “I had told him, point blank, don’t do anything bad. And he promised that he wouldn’t do anything. We don’t do that. When you see an African man with a gun in his house, that’s not for his wife, neither is it for his children. We don’t kill women. It’s out of order— demonic.”

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Only days before the Jambawo murder in Pennsylvania, five men gathered around a corpse in an East Harlem neighborhood of New York City. The dead man, wrapped from head to toe in white muslin cloth and jammed in a long, tin case, lay in a room at First Avenue Funeral Services. Delicately, the men tried to slide the body out of the case. Ebou Cham supported the neck while the others eased their arms into any small spaces they could find.

There wasn’t much time left. The body had already spent too long in transit from St. Thomas to New York. Now, it had to be transferred from the heavy tin case to a lighter wooden box, more convenient for shipment on a Royal Air Morocco evening flight to Dakar. The men moved the body in silence, faces straight, arms slightly shaking, eyes on the corpse as they lowered the body onto the white cloth at the bottom of the wooden box. “One more thing,” Cham said, as he walked towards the dead man’s head. He took a deep breath and unwrapped a section of the lifeless face for the sake of identification, the last step before closing the box.

For over a decade, Cham has collaborated with funeral directors at First Avenue Funeral Services to arrange the final send-offs for African immigrants. At 59 years old, he has organized the repatriation for more than 300 of the dead. Among them have been cases where he is the only person to turn to, such as when a toddler had to be sent back to Niger, prepared the Muslim way in First Avenue’s basement washing room. Of the bodies he prepares, Cham said, “I’m not scared of them anymore. I could sleep in the cemetery with them. They don’t bother me.”

Cham did not know the dead man from St. Thomas. He had received a call from the Association des Senegalais d'Amerique. A body was stranded in St. Thomas. Cham assured the caller that he would take care of it. The dead man had an expired passport. Cham arranged for emergency travel documents. The body needed to be sent to Dakar and wrapped according to Muslim death rites. Cham alerted the funeral home in St. Thomas and then contacted the deceased’s family in New York about a flight on Royal Air Morocco.

“It’s him,” Cham nodded to the four other men in the room. One of the morticians, Diego Holguin, closed the box with a long wooden plank, cut to fit, then nailed it shut. Cham labeled the box methodically in black marker, first “head” in English, then in Arabic, followed by “legs” in English, then again in Arabic. He covered the coffin with a thin, green velvet blanket, embroidered with yellow and gold Arabic characters. He made sure the body’s head was pointing towards Mecca. Then came the hardest part: waiting for the family to arrive.

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In October of 2012, Cham’s nephew, Lamin Sillah, was shot at a Bronx gas station. At 28 years old, and after eight months of sending much of his paycheck from odd jobs to his 21-year-old wife in Gambia, he lay in an unvarnished box at First Avenue. “I picked this boy up from the airport,” said Cham. Sillah lived at Cham’s home in the Bronx. “He only worked at that gas station for eight days.” Cham flipped through photographs of his dead nephew on his cell-phone. “It was painful,” he said, shutting the phone. When speaking about dead in the diaspora, he also mentioned his son. At age 22, assailants he knew hung him and left him to die in an apartment in Manhattan. “I’ve seen everything,” Cham said. “There’s nothing that still surprises me about life.”

The community relies on Cham’s fearless ability to maneuver through the bureaucracy. He has memorized the series of paperwork needed for a repatriation and can sit calmly next to a body in a hearse for hours. In his little deli on East 116th Street, just blocks away from the funeral parlor, Cham sits perched on a stool behind the counter, scanning lottery tickets, handling money transfers, selling candy and groceries, chatting and joking loudly with neighborhood regulars, but always ready for an emergency call to handle a death.

He is a familiar face for many African immigrants in New York City: from his home in the Bronx, where he holds meetings for the United Gambians Association, which he heads, to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manhattan, where he files paperwork for grieving immigrant families, to the Brooklyn mosques where African imams know him by name. He has answered late night knocks from a young man afraid that he might die in America with no one to send his body home to Senegal. “He just came to my house,” Cham said. “I took him to a hospital in Harlem and he died.”

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If an immigrant’s body is left unclaimed and cannot be identified in a hospital or in the hands of the state, authorities resort to providing the deceased with a pauper death or giving the body away for scientific and medical research. Public, tax-funded cemeteries such as Hart Island, serve as the city’s potter’s field. Authorities from the Office of the Medical Examiner estimate that at least 800,000 nameless bodies in pine boxes lie buried at Hart’s Island. Although in recent years the city has exhumed bodies for identification, it is still difficult to recover the remains at the request of a family once the box has been nailed shut. It is even harder to track down an unclaimed immigrant without signs of any documentation. Those who have lost a loved one want to avoid pauper burials as best as they can.

Burials on American soil cost a lot. Cham estimates that those involved in organizing the funeral need to be ready for expenses that begin at $2,000. National Funeral Director’s Association statistics show that the cost of a funeral for an adult averaged more than $6,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which government statistics on the death care industry are available. That number excludes cemetery costs, grave marker and miscellenous expenses such as flowers, obituaries, and memorial gatherings. The subtotal for funeral costs without a casket, which Muslims preferred, was at least $4,000. Even cremation costs begin at $499.

The average funeral within the United States costs more than $ 6,000. Flowers, cemetery rates and memorial packages can add significantly to that cost.

The average funeral within the United States costs more than $ 6,000. Flowers, cemetery rates and memorial packages can add significantly to that cost.

However, average funeral prices are difficult to measure because prices vary from state to state and reflect what state funeral boards have established. Most funeral homes do not publish their prices on their websites, and there are usually no lists on windows or walls when clients enter the lobby.

Most funeral homes “will tell you how wonderful they are, the years that they’ve been in operation-- that they are third generation funeral directors, or about their wonderful collection of cars or their beautiful building,” but with no forward indication of what they charge for those things, said Sarah Marsden, an expert in the funeral industry and editor-in-chief of U.S. Funerals Online.

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When families or friends are grieving and need to make a time-critical decision, there is usually no room to shop for the least costly option. “I think it’s just an insidious aspect in the industry where at times there are salespeople and what they want is to get the families into their funeral homes,” Marsden said. “It would make it easier for everyone if there was some basic regulation or some basic prices that people could really work with.”

According to the National Directory of Morticians, there are 19,680 funeral homes in the United States, 86 percent of which are family-owned, belong to individuals or are privately owned by closely-held companies. On a national level, funeral associations for industry professional have “funeral rules” that dictate what directors can and cannot do. State entities, however, can override those rules. It is very difficult to regulate funeral home prices. For example, energy levels used for cremations vary by state and resources and funding available for cremation may be so different that there is no way to set a “maximum” price. While cremation in Las Vegas or Miami runs under $500, in Virginia, it can cost $4,000 or more.

With some states only allowing the bereaved to buy caskets from funeral home directors, the price of this mahogany coffin can cost up to two times the price set by the original retailer.

With some states only allowing the bereaved to buy caskets from funeral home directors, the price of this mahogany coffin can cost up to two times the price set by the original retailer.
Credit: Winston Link

The U.S. Census Bureau Economic Census indicates that the funeral services industry is valued at at least $11 billion, and growing. The industry has also seen a rise in cremation rates, from just over 26 percent in the year 2000 to 40 percent in 2010. That rate is expected to rise to 49 percent by 2016. Marsden attributes much of this increase to families seeking more affordable alternatives to traditional burials.

“I find it amazing how some funeral directors still think that cremation won’t take off, that it’s just a fad,” Marsden said. “In a way it’s a real denial. They don’t realize that their industry is on the verge of change, that people are not really doing grand, expensive funerals anymore.”

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Funerals may or may not be grand in Zimbabwe, but they remain the burial of choice. Cremation is still largely seen as taboo. To fund deaths, community members and families typically form informal burial societies instead of investing in burial insurance through the country’s unstable banks. The societies gained acceptance during Zimbabwe’s colonial era. Zambian, Malawian, and Mozambican workers, who lacked the benefits and social services available to Zimbabwean citizens, were the first to adopt the system but over the years, they have become popular with Zimbabwean groups.

In the late 1990s, burial societies became even more prevalent because of deteriorating government health programs and the rising death rate from the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

In 1999, according to an article in the Journal of Social Development in Africa, at least 700 people in Zimbabwe were dying from causes related to AIDS each week. Burials were constant and government officials encouraged cremations as both a cheaper alternative and a way to solve overpopulation in Harare’s cemeteries. Still, most Zimbabweans considered cremations an unpalatable alternative .

In America, community organizations such as The Nigerian Community Help Center, and Cham’s United Gambians Association in the Bronx, offer informal burial insurance plans to pay for repatriations. These can cost between $4,000 and $20,000. Members pay $10 to $20 a month to the society. But the accumulated funds tend to run out if there are multiple requests in the same timeframe.

“In a matter of 48 hours, we may have to come up with $5,000,” said Malik Diop, a Senegalese immigration lawyer. “Everyone wants to have their body repatriated, but the Senegalese Association here doesn’t have the funds or time to cater to everyone’s needs like that.” Diop, Cham, and other West African community leaders are in the process of establishing more formal but affordable insurance plans, in partnership with the Senegal-based bank Banque de L’habitat, geared towards delivering repatriations for African immigrants who would otherwise have to resort to cremation or pauper burials.

In Islam, the body is to be buried as soon as possible, within days. Some funeral homes strongly encourage that immigrants wishing to repatriate a body pay in cash, up-front, for faster service unhampered by more paperwork and multiple bank transactions.

For a body to be sent back home in time for body viewing, people must make fast decisions. The body may need to go through church funeral services. It may require a long trip to a village for final burial, hours away from the nearest airport. If too much time is allowed to pass, the body could decay and become so spoiled that state authorities consider it too hazardous to be flown anywhere.

In 2006, Diop, the immigration lawyer, faced one of the most difficult cases of his career. The son of a highly ranked Senegalese official was killed in Virginia. His body was only discovered in a bush a week after the murder. Its state of decomposition was so advanced that officials refused to let his family repatriate the body. The family wanted a traditional Muslim burial. For a year, the young man’s body decomposed further in a morgue as his family in Senegal attempted to pry the remains out of the hands of U.S. State Department officials. Finally, the Embassy of Senegal appealed to Diop for help.

“When I saw the body, I couldn’t say it was a human being,” Diop recalled. “It was behind glass. I couldn’t fathom that it was even a body. They told me not to bring the father in with me. They insisted, ‘After you see the body, you can talk to the father to convince him that we cannot afford to fly this body.’ So I told the father to be strong. And when he finally saw the body, it was beyond his imagination.” The state had to cremate the body. The father agreed, even though Islam forbids cremation.

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Muslim immigrants handle the body with care from the moment of death to the burial. Preferably, a body should be cared for only by other Muslims as it makes its way from this life to the next.

"We have to treat the body as if it is living, with respect."

The body should be washed and wrapped carefully before burial without a casket. Cham has a directory of numbers to call when a body needs to be washed the Muslim way. He is a devout Muslim himself. “We don’t just let the funeral home do it,” he explained. For the majority of the African immigrants that call him for help, “the whole community is ruled by Islam.” On November 14, 2012, Cham led three West African Muslim women to First Avenue to wash the body of a friend from Ivory Coast who had died suddenly. Ablution is an intricate part of the mourning process. “We have to treat the body as if it is living, with respect,” said Abdi Musa, an imam at Masjid Aqsa on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem.

Only women wash women’s bodies, gently brushing the deceased’s hair and braiding it, removing precious jewelry, bathing the corpse from inside out, making sure to wrap the body in the most dignified way. “You can’t just slam the body around,” said Mona Salem, a teacher at the Islamic Cultural Center, who often washes the bodies of Muslim immigrants. It’s forbidden, haram.

First Avenue keeps extra rolls of muslin cloth for Muslim clients. The funeral home has been popular among West African immigrants for years, as a place that they trust with their loved one’s bodies. Five years ago, nine plain boxes lay in the home, as containers for bodies that had been burned to death in a Bronx fire. They were the remains of children from the Malian Magassa family and their mother, with ages ranging from one to 42 years old. Their heads in the boxes pointed towards Mecca as imams said their final prayers.

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Removed from where the prayers take place, the office upstairs at First Avenue is where the business of death care unfolds in mind-numbing calculations on airline costs per pound of human flesh, lists of travel documents, phone calls to consulates and battles over expired passports. Then there are moments when a funeral director must comfort a family while tactfully handing them a bill, repressing personal feelings about the dead or decaying bodies while on the job. “I don’t even tell my wife what happens at my job. She doesn’t want to know,” said Holguin, the mortician at First Avenue.

The staff cuts, washes, embalms and dresses corpses for hours at a time, for years on end. Sometimes, for outsiders to the business, or passer-byers such as Diop the lawyer, who frequents funeral homes when there is an immigration case to be settled, “when you see these people work, they don’t even talk about a certain person. All they say is ‘body, body, body.’ It smells like death.”

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On a Sunday afternoon in the office upstairs is Tanya Lieb, the licensed funeral director in charge of most of the paperwork at First Avenue. She barely has time to step away from the ringing phone. Piles of notes and receipts and half-filled forms cling to the edges of her desk. She rattles off a number and an address to an assistant. The assistant scribbles the details down, pushing away a half-eaten portion of sushi. In socks, dark slacks and a slightly untucked white shirt, Lieb shuffles past a row of displayed casket segments on the office wall to get to a form on a smaller desk. During a short break, she lights a cigarette and jokes about a co-worker to the assistant. A loud cackle escapes from her small frame.

For Lieb, the funeral home business is not only about bodies, but about families, dry jokes between painful moments, and camaraderie between coworkers bogged down by the smell of death. First Avenue is not really a family business, but its workers don’t consider it a big, impersonal money-making corporation. After nine years of working at the funeral home, Lieb says there are moments when “sometimes it feels like family.” Cham occasionally checks in with the staff for a chat, delivering free coffee in paper cups from his small shop a few blocks away.

Like funeral directors, staff at the embassy also need to be able to gauge when to be sensitive and when to press forward with business. When awkward situations arise, Rwatirisa Matsika, Consular of Political and Economic Services for the embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington D.C., summons his fearless side to encourage the family to open up and to handle urgent business. Over the phone, he speaks in Zimbabwean dialects to comfort those grieving before guiding them through difficult financial transactions. In person, he throws out warm greetings, with an occasional comforting smile, to welcome guests from the small, front yard of the embassy marked with a flag and cold soapstone sculptures flown in Zimbabwe, past the carpeted waiting area, to his office upstairs.

While discussing funeral arrangements, the grieving families may want to talk about their deceased loved one as if they were sitting right beside them. In Zimbabwe, “we treat the dead body in the same way that you talk to a walking person,” said Matsika. “We tell them mufambe zvakanaka [travel well] as if a dead person can make travel plans. Sometimes when a body repatriation is taking too long, I will hear people seriously say ‘I think this person does not really want to be buried in Africa.’ People call me to express this, but I think it’s really about sharing with somebody, it’s really to get someone to comfort them.”

Between reassuring words, Matsika needs to ask the hard questions. Where are your papers? How are you paying? “We have to be convinced that the person is Zimbabwean,” said Matsika. He has had several cases where the deceased has hidden or destroyed all evidence of Zimbabwean citizenship in order to evade being captured by authorities and identified as an illegal immigrant with an expired visa. If it is not clear that a person is a Zimbabwean citizen, applying for a death certificate in the United States becomes very cumbersome. If the body somehow leaves the country, it will be rejected at the border when it arrives.

Sometimes Matsika has had to use his discretion. Foreign affairs authorities in Zimbabwe understand the situation and will make exceptions, so long as there is a family to claim the body at the other side. But the process can still become very complicated.

If the family needs financial aid from the government to repatriate the body, they also need proof of documents to fill in an application. For urgent situations where the family or friends of the deceased cannot raise money to repatriate the body, Matsika tells them to ask the reserve bank of Zimbabwe for assistance. However, with political and economic woes that plague the country, there is no guarantee that anyone will receive money from the government, or that public funds will be approved for something considered a private matter.

“I’ve never heard of someone actually going there and getting money,” Matsika said. “But when they ask me about options, that’s what I tell them.”

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Before a career of handling correspondences between the U.S. state agencies and foreign affairs offices in Harare, Mr. Matsika first experienced the complications of the body repatriation from the other side of the desk. He was a young boy in the fourth grade. Just after the Christmas holidays, his family received the news that his older brother, who worked in Botswana, had been killed in a car accident. The family began to arrange for the body to arrive, alerting relatives around the country to gather at their village, where the final burial would take place. After days of silence, authorities in Botswana told the family that they had decided to ferry the body from Botswana to the United States, because there were no adequate facilities in the country to embalm the body in the manner required by the law in Botswana. The Matsika family waited for weeks. They grew tired of waiting. They finally received the body after a month. “Everyday, people just gathered at our home,” Matsika said. “ We had to slaughter two cows. We were helplessly there. We couldn’t even go to Botswana to get the body, yet it was just across the border.”

Despite the closer distance, moving bodies between African borders is at times no easier than flying them across the Atlantic. When Margaret Mushipe died in the small, dusty town of Arusha in Tanzania, it took two weeks to transport her body to her parent’s home in Harare, only a five-hour flight away. Renifa Madenga, who also lives in Arusha, only learned of the death 10 hours after it occurred from a far-too-casually worded email message about “a dead Zimbo” in Arusha. A friend had forwarded the chain e-mail to Madenga on the chance she knew the woman. She did. Mushipe was her husband’s cousin, and also, mine. Because of Madenga’s travel schedule, she hadn’t seen or spoken to Mushipe in weeks.

“The last time I saw her she was very happy,” Madenga said. “Now I was being told she just slept and did not wake up.” The preliminary post mortem cited a deprivation of oxygen, but the final cause of death was unknown. A housemate said that Mushipe, a secondary school teacher, had interviewed for a new job at Mt. Meru University and had visited a hair salon the day before she died. That evening, she ate dinner with her fiancé, his sister and a housekeeper, and seemed to be in a good mood. At 5:00 a.m., lying beside her Tanzanian fiancé, she stopped breathing.

Upon hearing of the death from Mushipe’s fiancé, a friend took her cellphone to call anyone she could find. “The parents were called by someone they didn’t even know, who told them, ‘We just saw your name on the list,’” Madenga said. Late in the afternoon, when Madenga arrived at the house where Mushipe died, her body had already been taken to the mortuary. “He [the fiancé] seemed very conservative, quiet and secretive,” Madenga said. “But it might have been because of the language barrier.”

When she asked him whether they could get a police report, he said he would wait until the next day. She was furious. “The man’s family was not happy because I was shocked and I was trying to push too much,” Madenga said. “They were now calling me mama mkali [angry woman in Swahili]. At the station, it’s like the police didn’t expect us to report it.”

The language barriers were a problem. Police reluctantly began an investigation of Margaret’s bedroom, but let her fiancé use the key to the room. He neatly folded the clothes that had been strewn on the floor, and cleaned the place up. He could barely speak English and Madenga, even after a decade in Arusha, could only muster broken phrases in Swahili, Tanzania’s official language.The forms were all in Swahili. The repatriation process stalled. Days later, when Mushipe’s parents arrived to help, the fiancé’s family had sent a representative who ostensibly could serve as an English translator. But when Mushipe’s father asked the man in English to give the date and details of his daughter’s death, the translator couldn’t answer the question.

“It was a major cultural shock,” Madenga said. “When we arrived at the house, the man [fiancé] and his family weren’t even there. They told us they were coming quickly, we waited for an hour. We were being bitten by mosquitos, it was in the evening. They didn’t even start by apologizing. They said, ‘That little T.V. was Maggie’s property. You can take it.’ But in our culture, you talk in terms of building relationships . . . but there were so many things that were different. That is what really hurt the parents.”

The parents asked to see the room where their daughter had died. As if invoking her spirit from the walls, her father uttered: “Maggie. This is the life you have chosen and this is what has happened to you. As parents, we are devastated. We have just come to see how and where you died.” Her mother asked, in Shona, a Zimbabwean native language, “I only have one child. This is all I have. My child, how can you die here just like that, where no one can explain what really happened? What am I supposed to do?” She wept for hours after leaving the house.

It took five days for a pathologist to arrive in town. By that time, two other women had died in Arusha and their bodies were decomposing in the same mortuary. “You could not even stand in there. It was so smelly,” Madenga said. “When we took her mother to the mortuary, Maggie still had not been dressed up. We saw blood coming through the nose. She was swollen like she was pregnant and puffed up. That sight made her mother sick.”

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It was not Shona culture for Maggie’s mother to see the body. Madenga explained that ordinarily a sister or sister-in-law of the mother, someone of the same elder generation, would take on those responsibilities. “It should not be the biological mother,” Madenga said. But there was no one else in the country, no older woman to be the substitute mother.

The body needed first to be sent to Dar-es Salaam, the country’s capital city, to be cleared as cargo, which took a few more days. The officials in Zimbabwe demanded that all the forms needed to be translated from Swahili to English. That took more time. For the repatriation itself, money -- nearly $7,000 sent by family members and friends in the United States -- had to be collected in Tanzanian shillings from Western Union, then converted back to U.S dollars for the airline payments. More time. The deceased’s name was wrong on all the forms and had to be changed. More time again. “In Dar-es Salaam, they said her head was not stitched properly and things were falling apart,” Madenga said. “These are the things we could not tell the parents.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

The cost of bringing Jambawo’s body from Philadelphia to Harare partially fell on the Sabvute family and their church. Jambawo’s cousins in the United Kingdom and brothers in Zimbabwe were also involved, but preferred to communicate with the Muzirwa family through the Sabvutes.

When the negotiations came to a standstill, Richard Sabvute asked community members for repatriation contributions. Jambawo’s funds were in the hands of her husband, who was awaiting a trial date and transferring money to a private lawyer. During their tumultuous marriage, Jambawo was not known to confide in many people in Philadelphia and “never complained about much,” said Christine.

“The problem is, when you now try to raise money, people don’t know her [well],” Christine said. “So you tell people we’re looking at $12,000, and people are coming to give you $10, $20 each.”

In an e-mail to dozens of addresses, Richard referred to Jambawo as “our beloved sister and mother,” and stressed she left behind two teenage daughters and an 8-year-old son with learning disabilities. At the bottom of the e-mail, there was a bank account number to deposit any donations and a promise to uphold accountability of the money and offer receipts for the donations. By March, the Sabvutes and their church had raised enough money to send Jambawo home.

The Jambawo family refused to send the body just yet. They insisted that the Muzirwa family also needed to compensate for Jambawo’s death, but paying a fee determined by their family, in adherence to Shona culture. Jambawo’s journey home was, once again, at a standstill.

In many African cultures, marriage and courtship rituals flow easily into burial rites. The relationship between husband and wife, which seals the relationship of the two families, is difficult to break, even in death, and across borders. On the binding ties of Shona marriage, scholar Emily Chamlee‐Wright writes:

“In its idealized form, Shona marriage is understood as a process that takes place over a long period of time, requiring the husband to give the bride’s family small gifts that indicate his intentions, followed by several substantial payments (in the form of cattle in the pre-colonial context and cash in the contemporary context).”

The brideprice, called lobola, can be interpreted as a social contract, a gesture to say that the groom will take care of the bride. It is recognizing that the bride’s family has the right to demand compensation up to the amount that was paid for the lobola if anything happens to their daughter. In this way, the families unite; they, as separate groups from different clans, are married, joined together into one body of trust, until death or compensation.

The question of who owns the body in some African cultures is up to the community and not the individual. Social scientists Chimaraoke O Izugbara and Chi-Chi Undie argue:

“The idea of ‘duty’ tends to greatly overshadow that of the ‘right of privacy.’” For example, in the Ngwa culture in Nigeria, the body is perceived as belonging to the community, to the clan, to make decisions, and to right any wrongs before burial. When a woman is battered, the Ngwa see it as their duty to avenge the victim through collective action, on a local level, especially since pursuing redress through a formal legal system may not always deliver the right kind of compensation. In Shona culture, when a woman is killed, a price must be paid.

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If someone dies in America, the Ghanaian community takes ownership of the body by coming together to show support as soon as possible at the deceased’s home or where the closest family members prefer to mourn. “ It’s just about respect,” said Pamela Otibu, a young Ghanaian-born immigrant living in New York.

At the gathering, there’s usually jallof rice, other Ghanaian comfort food and contributions for repatriating the body. The grieving family sits in the middle of the room while the community dances around them and cries with them. The deceased's loved ones wear the same colorful, patterned, Ankara material and the community stays up all night. Then the community helps the family to get back to normality. “Here, you grieve, then you move on. You’re not supposed to cry too much [about the dead],” said Otibu. "When my father's brother died, he brought all the pictures of the funeral and spread them on the bed, and we all stood there and watched. It was traumatizing. After that, he just went back to work... This isn’t home. People have to go [back] to work."

In the United States, death within the diaspora for African immigrant communities is particularly complicated, a subject often absent from the wider national discussion of immigration. African immigrants comprise of only four percent of the 39 million foreign-born people in the United States. It can be difficult to mourn in a foreign country with strangers, and with so few of your own, and it is essential to find the best way to cope, and to cope quickly.

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When the family of the dead man from St. Thomas, four tall men, arrived at First Avenue to say their final goodbyes before the body left for Dakar, no one cried. They were prepared, they had done their mourning with the community. They walked into the lobby in dark blue, sky blue and tan Boubou attire: long, sleeved robes, with sokotos, starched, elegant trousers. Cham the expediter greeted them at the door, one by one, enveloping his hands firmly over theirs for an elongated greeting, expressing his sympathies in Wolof. The family gathered around the box, and one of them took out a maroon leather book of prayers, with pages marked in flowing Arabic. He uttered these prayers in low, urgent murmurs, as funeral home workers rolled the body out to the hearse. “This is what they use for someone they respect,” Cham said, to no one in particular, about the Hearst Buick Roadmaster model.

The praying family member still moved his lips silently as he walked outside, as the funeral home assistants maneuvered the body into the hearse, and as the cold, early winter New York wind ruffled the hem of his garment. The others confirmed final arrangements with Cham in short, brief phrases about who would be flying the body home as a passenger later, who would pay the $15,000 to cover the costs, and who would sign the papers after the body was weighed for departure as human cargo. They watched in the cold wind, still, eyes fixed on the hearse as it made its way to the airport.

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People were tired of crying when Mushipe’s body arrived at the Harare airport on the 13th of February, weeks overdue. The body was lifted from the cargo storage space into the hearse by forklift. A funeral procession snaked slowly behind the hearse to Mushipe’s childhood home in Kambuzuma, on the outskirts of the city. The next day, Mushipe’s parents held a Catholic mass in the high density suburb where their only daughter had attended primary school and was known in the neighbourhood for her upbeat personality. Then the mourners began the long one-day journey to the countryside, to the “family heroes acre” in Gutu, where Mushipe’s body would finally be laid to rest.

Burials at home in Africa on a family plot, or a family “heroes acres” allow the deceased’s remains to be near those of other relatives, where the village or the community can commemorate the dead without traveling too far.

Burials at home in Africa on a family plot, or a family “heroes acres” allow the deceased’s remains to be near those of other relatives, where the village or the community can commemorate the dead without traveling too far.
Credit: PhotographyByMK

The National Heroes Acre in Harare is a shrine for fallen soldiers and leaders, to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in the liberation struggle for independence. It is also a symbol of identity, of the politics of death, of the government’s goal towards indigenization and self-reliance that has given the country so much, but has also caused so much suffering. It stands for birth and death at the same time, a mourning and celebration of the dead. On a smaller scale, family heroes acres across the country are plots of land designated to bury loved ones in dignity and to cement their identity into the soil.

Mushipe was buried by an anthill, near her grandmother and her uncle. It was only feet away from where she had celebrated a graduation party after a college degree in North Carolina. Under her cap and gown, she had smiled at some of the guests who were now at her funeral, had eaten beside them in the kitchen where the women were now crying and singing songs to comfort each other. Now, the elders in the village had laid her body on the kitchen floor, clapped their hands and told the ancestors, in Shona, “We have come with your child, here she is.” Perhaps now, to some villagers, she was no longer a body long gone, but a body at rest, a spirit, a mudzimu, as believed in Shona culture. She was now finally home, watching over the village.

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When Mushipe’s body landed in Harare, the body of Daisy Jambawo was still in limbo, unavenged by her family, frozen at 34-years-old, stationary in the funeral home in Philadelphia. Her husband sat in a jail cell awaiting a trial date, placing calls to his daughters that always ended in painful silence.

With their house gone and their father behind bars, the Jambawo children have been trying to feel at home in Sabvute’s house in Maryland. They are attending schools in the area, sharing chores with the other four children and living with a new kind of family. Christine and Richard Sabvute are in the process of applying for permanent custody. Several times, the children have been sent to an uncle’s house, or to live with their grandmother for some days, but they return to Christine’s home each time, insisting that they now consider her family.

Christine sees waking up earlier in the morning and going to sleep later at night as her duty as a mother to the new children in her life. She makes sure Jambawo's eight-year-old son doesn’t have to take the school bus with everyone else each morning, because he finds the bus’ groans and screeches too unbearable. She is still trying to find the best way to help with his learning disabilities. She has inherited teenage daughters and speaks about clothes, school and boys in a new language. These adjustments are welcome distractions from the hard questions the children still ask everyday about their mother, the same questions they were asking last December.

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute