Two weeks ago Sunday we learned that Tatu Kabasubabo’s mother died. After our cell meeting the following Wednesday evening, we went to the madilu. The following Sunday Pastor Thierre called me to inform me that his father had just died. The next day, after a long seminar, Pastor Mboyamba and I went to the madilu. Two days later, Pastor Kabue called me from Kinshasa and informed me that Pastor Mukendi’s brother-in-law had just died. We didn’t go to the madilu, but we kept them in our prayers. Within the last two weeks we learned that Tatu Marcel who sells us tomatoes, celery and carrots, had recently died. After church on Sunday, we visited the madilu.
By now you are asking, “What exactly is “madilu?” The Tshiluba word madilu could loosely be translated “funeral” in English, yet ‘funeral’ does not do justice to the full breadth of madilu. Madilu comes from the root word (verb) kudila, which means to cry or grieve. Madilu begins when a loved one dies. In Kananga, where we live, madilu usually lasts for about three days. During these three days there is usually some kind of memorial service either in the home or at church, and then there is the burial. During these three days friends come to the home of the deceased or to the home of the family member who is hosting the madilu to show support, friendship and sympathy. Our language teacher tells us that one of the best ways to reconcile with someone is to visit their family during this period of grieving. During madilu, women stay inside the home while all the men sit and stand outside. During the night, most people host a vigil and do not sleep. The host family is expected to provide refreshments for each guest, usually in the form of coffee or tea. The “official madilu” is finished when the host family disperses everyone by feeding them a meal of bidia (the staple food) early in the morning on the final day. When the ‘official madilu’ finishes, immediate and close family members continue grieving in their home for several weeks and sometimes as long as 40 days. The most striking image of madilu is the long procession of loved ones and friends who carry the coffin to the cemetery. This procession can include as few as ten people, and as many as two to three hundred. People are usually singing as they walk. At the front of the procession is a cross, followed by the coffin. Most people walk, but there might be a few vehicles as well. In our visits to madilu, we have been counseled by a couple of close friends to always enter the home where the women are grieving and pray for them. We are counseled to give a small monetary gift to the host family to offset the expense of hosting visitors. We are counseled to sit and stay with the family for as long as we are able. Staying for a just few minutes or up to an hour or longer is acceptable; showing up and expressing concern and love is what matters.
Last week I had my most memorable experience of madilu. Pastor Mboyamba, a close colleague and friend, called me late afternoon on Friday. Through a cracked voice and a bad phone connection, I heard him say that the child of Pierre, his assistant and close relative, had just died. Hearing all types of wailing and screaming in the background, I could tell that it has just happened. My heart sunk. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He said that I could come and help the following day. The following morning I arrived at Pastor Mboyamba’s home around 10:45am. There were probably about thirty men sitting outside, and thirty to forty women inside wailing and grieving. I embraced Pierre and greeted those present. Twenty minutes later a church leader arrived with a small casket. The child was placed in the open casket, and it was placed on the steps of Pastor Mboyamba’s front porch. White powder was doused over her face and dress. The pastor offered words of comfort, gave a short message from the book of Ecclesiastes, and asked a few church leaders to pray. Because there is only one morgue in the relative vicinity and because this family was poor, we would need to bury her within twenty four hours of her death. Several others and myself had come with vehicles. We were charged with transporting the grieving to the cemetery, about three miles away. The area of the cemetery where we buried five-year-old Marie Louise Ntumba was littered with small graves of children. The casket was placed in the ground as the mother and father shrieked in horror and sorrow. Earth was placed over the casket and some took handfuls of dirt to toss in as well. The pastor shared more words of comfort, reminded everyone that ‘from dust we came and to dust we will return’, and led us in a few songs of lament and hope. The following day Kristi and I visited Pastor Mboyamba’s home again. We greeted Pierre and offered condolences. To our surprise, women were dancing and singing inside the home. A large men’s choir was singing outside. Although subdued, the mood seemed somewhat festive and jovial. We were fed a nice meal and enjoyed good conversation with colleagues and friends. We went home tired after a long Sunday.
Madilu is central to Kasaian life and culture. Death has a way of bringing people together here. Madilu “interrupts” life … or does it? Madilu is life. Madilu reminds one that our days here are short, and that we must make the most of them. With Pastor Mboyamba and Pierre and his family, I grieve the loss of five year old Marie Louise Ntumba. May God bless her precious soul.