Last week, the wailing crept through our open windows. I instantly recognized the sound: Someone nearby had died.
The funeral proceedings, which last for a few days, were set up right outside the wall around our yard. A hundred people sat on mats and plastic chairs. Sometimes they sang. Sometimes they wailed. Sometimes they just chatted quietly.
Eventually, I got the story. A young woman had died. She was only 32 years old, was married, and had four children. She lived a bit down the street from our house, but her father and sister live next door to us. We didn't know her, but her children had played in our yard with our kids.
She died suddenly, of a strange illness that came on very quickly. They described it to me as "pressure" in her chest. Her heart? I asked. Yes, they said. I'm not sure what to make of that. Maybe a heart attack? But at age 32? She had been healthy, they said. They just shook their heads sadly and shrugged their shoulders.
It's a story I've heard over and over again. The lunch cook at HOPAC died suddenly this past July. She had only been married two weeks. A student from our training program lost two baby boys when each was only 9 months old. A friend lost twin babies. Another friend lost two sisters within two years. And on. And on. All from strange, unexplained illnesses.
In Swahili, when someone gets better from an illness, you use the expression Amepona. Since it was always used with illness, I assumed it meant He has recovered. For example, if your friend was down with a bad cold and misses a couple of days of work, when he comes back, you might ask him how he is doing. Nimepona, he will respond. I am better.
One day, Lucy (my language tutor) and I were working on the story of Noah's Ark. When we got to the part about Noah and his family living through the flood, Lucy said to me, Walipona.
Walipona! I repeated in surprise. But Noah and his family were not sick! So I got out my dictionary and looked up kupona.
The literal translation is not to recover. The literal translation is to survive.
In English when someone is sick, we would only say He survived if we were talking about a victim of cancer or a heart attack. But when referring to recovery from a common cold, a headache, or the stomach flu, we say, He recovered or He got better.
So what I discovered is that in Swahili, when you recover from any illness, the response is literally translated as I survived.
After living here all these years, after hearing of person after person dropping dead for unknown reasons, listening to the stories of almost every mother losing a child, I am beginning to understand.
Of course, I don't really understand, because I have access to the best health care in Tanzania, and if that doesn't suffice, I have access to better health care anywhere in the world. I really know nothing of the fear and apprehension of imminent illness and death.
The United States has 2.3 doctors for every 1000 people.
Tanzania has .02 doctors for every 1000 people, one of the lowest ratios in the world.
Once again, I am reminded of how privileged I really am. Once again, I ask what else God expects of me for blessing me so much.
Today, thank God if you live in a country where recovery is expected and survival is the norm. And pray for four young children--Vale, Tony, Aaron, and Jackie, who have just lost their mother and may never know why.