By Sarah Sadian
Most people feel frightened by the idea of death. Most people will not like to think of the day when their life ends. Throughout human history, not a single person has returned to tell the others what death is like. Throughout history, human beings have tried to cheat death and to comprehend it at the same time. Each culture has its own ways of dealing with death… Some are trying to cheat death once and for all, pretending to respect life, yet forgetting that death forms an integral part of life. They thrive on security in every single aspect of life, and are unable to accept the insecurity of what comes after life, therefore trying to avoid death – the only real security we have in life! Most people nowadays die a lonely death, connected to pipes and cables in a sterile hospital, far away from their loved ones, lonely, and often even abandoned in the end of their lives.
“I want to take you to the village today,” Mudi says, and his big strong hand grasps mine. We pass by the beach, where little boys are beating octopuses so as to make them soft for consumption. Then we turn right into the village. Mudi here and there greets a Mzee respectfully. Children follow us at a safe distance, whereas a few hens with their chicks continue to pick grains from the ground as if they did not notice us. A group of ducks crosses between the houses, which are built of a grill of wood, into which a mix of limestone powder, sands and water has been plastered, giving them their sandy color.
As we turn to the left, I detect a young woman on the Baraza of her house. Mudi smiles at her as we approach. “Karibu,” she welcomes us, and Mudi explains that she has been expecting us.
We leave our shoes on the Baraza next to the entrance door. The Baraza forms part of most houses in Zanzibar and is the place where people will sit in their free time and chat. Mama Fatuma opens the door and lets us in. We walk through a narrow short corridor, on the right and left side of which there is each one doorframe, closed with a curtain. We enter the one on the left, where there is a big bed, covered with a mosquito net. The bed is very high, and lots of things are stored underneath. It is the parents’ bedroom, she explains, and Mudi adds that the younger children usually sleep there, too. We leave the room and the corridor and enter an open space in the center of the house. It is here where the family usually gathers to eat, all of them together sitting on the ground, taking their food from one big plate. The kitchen is just behind, a dark room in which I detect one of those little chairs that have a knife-like extension on one side, so the woman can sit and grind coconuts on it.
Mama Fatuma now takes us to the room in the very back of the house. Here the children are born, and the mother will spend the first two months in this room with her newborn. The face of the baby is usually painted with Kajal, a strong black color, so as to ward off evil spirits as well as the human evil eye. An unroofed corner, closed with a wall, is the toilet. Not too long ago, people would have used the forest, Mudi explains, but nowadays they have toilets.
We have seen the house and come back to the corridor, enter the room that is opposite the parents’ bedroom, which we have left out before. In it, there is a simple bed of coconut ropes and wood. The floor under the bed is not paved, but made of sands.
“This is the room for the dead,” Mudi explains while Mama Fatuma quickly fixes a few bags that have been deposited along the opposite wall. “Here the body of the dead person is washed and cleaned from the inside, according to Muslim law. In this way, it is prepared for funeral.”
“A room for the dead!?” I am surprised and somehow overwhelmed by an uncomfortable feeling.
“Yes,” Mudi says, “every family has one house with a room of this kind, which means that approximately every fifth house has a room for the dead. The dead body is kept here until all relatives have arrived for the funeral. The room is always in the front of the house, in order to pay the last respect to the departed.”
“I would feel strange staying in the same house with a dead body,” I say.
Mudi smiles: “But dear, death is part of life!”
I think for a while. And suddenly it dawns on me how natural it all is – the woman who gives birth to new life in the back of the house, and the dead who are given their last respect in the front… The cycle of life all under one roof!