Death, Cultural Customs and the Interaction between a Mourning Period and Social Entrepreneurship

December 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

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In 1997, a Makerere University study reported that for a widow to be socially integrated into local support systems, she needs four factors in her favor. The first factor is the composition and culture of her society. Second is her community, and how it can help her overcome her sadness. Third the widow’s recovery from her problems depends on the support she gets from the family of her late husband. Fourth is a favorable neighborhood and working environment.

I was in Uganda three days after the World Cup bombings. An explosive ripped through a city restaurant and sports club in Kampala. 74 people were dead. Yoweri Museveni declared a one week mourning period.

There are ways to be born, there are ways to celebrate love between two people, and there are ways to die. Our cultures and our families collectively dictate the way we do these things, and I believe we can learn more than we often realize from the way someone else does any one of them.

I remember sitting on a stoop in a compound, listening to seven women talk about their favorable conditions after their husband died. He left a long, U shaped building, with single apartments each owned by a single wife.

“Thank God he provided for us,” one told me. “He was a good man.”

I never thought more about the legacy a person leaves behind than I did in Uganda, that year. It showed itself in the material provision that individuals left behind, in the way communities mourned and in the manner in which the deceased’s family treated any relatives joined to them through marriage. We have elements of this in my culture too. But the societal expectation behind customs of mourning in Uganda seemed to put color and honor to death.

Here, you know, we “need to start moving again.” We know that, “life goes on.”  The emotional expectation is that grieving will change the way we perceive our lives, but we laud pushing through as normally as possible. Society does not provide a widow or grieving mother protection from work, from the ripping feeling of time moving forward, from responsibilities. But, in Uganda, they demand that it all come to a grinding halt.

Ugandan surgeon and politician Speciosa Kazibwe wrote in 2008 that, “Most of us spend [more of] our time doing burials than any other thing, especially because of HIV/AIDS and malaria which is very prevalent in Uganda.”

Doing business in a culture takes customs from the classroom to life, so to speak. And, I believe that one of the benefits of “trade versus aid” is that business forces you to engage customs, while aid often provides an excuse for dismissing them as unimportant.

Mourning periods provided scattered timetables in my life this winter, pouring in and taking over weeks at a time. It’s been four this season: three artisans and our lead artisan’s son, three weeks ago.

“This will change things, this week,” my manager’s voice was apologetic, while we discussed our lead artisan. “We can’t reach her during mourning.”

How many days? I ask.


“You didn’t expect that, working in Africa?” someone said to me recently. Like I should have expected death to come climbing in and hunker down on my desk while I run my business.

No. I didn’t. With ARVs and money in my partner’s pockets for treatment, I thought we’d avoid so many deaths. Somehow I ended up blaming myself – like I should have started my business sooner, grown it faster – done something. As if my business could act as some kind of Messiah, saving a community through the sales of accessories. And, that’s never what this was about. This was about a mutual celebration of the beauty of a culture’s craftsmanship, and sustainable development through it.

“This isn’t just fucking normal just because its East Africa,” I threw out. “It’s not normal. Death never becomes normal.”

And, so, I came to an impasse. Either I pushed to have women work through mourning periods, or I created a plan around them. And I came to the conclusion that traditional practices are higher dictators than the business practices a social entrepreneur like myself is attempting to implement – its not my job to change that.

There are local minds working on issues like these already – minds that understand their importance, and what their erosion might give or take to a culture and its economy. In 2003, BBC Africa discussed the pros and cons of ending costly funerals. Ms Kazibwe suggested, in her piece, that funeral practices are moved to Saturdays, and that each constituency within Uganda should have a mortuary with a fridge that could preserve corpses. Burials take up lots of time as well as productive vehicles, she noted.

“The idea sounds good if more time is to be saved for the sake of work. However, given the strong cultural rituals attached to death and burial of a relative, it is practically impossible to keep the body,” George, a gentleman from Musaka, argued in the comments below Kazibwe’s piece. “I know, for example, from the traditions of Buganda that it is unacceptable in society to go to work when someone has passed away in the same village until the body is buried. It is a strong belief that has existed for ages. So to change the status quo requires a lot of effort. Remember that traditional practices are not easily eroded in society!”

I think its rude to act like death is more acceptable at a certain latitude and longitude, bit of my friend’s head for insinuating it – and yet I caught myself doing the same thing – wondering why our lead artisan wasn’t on her game as usual, and then remembering her son just died. As if five days, in any case, could possibly be enough to be back upright.

I read and I struggled and I oscillated on these issues. And I landed on the truth that they have nothing to do with me. I can debate the economic effects, but I am not in the midst of the affected economy. I can wonder about funeral rituals, but I will never bury a family member of mine in a similar way. And, so, I’m learning that what matters is my cultural respect – my smart movement around these things, out of an acknowledgement that I have chosen to run a business in a society unlike my own.

We decided that, for us, its important to allow customs room to breathe, until they prove harmful. And, what I mean by that is causing immediate physical harm. Like the time I helped name my cook’s baby, and noticed a thin, white film of amniotic fluid that was never washed off his body. My village partner, Agnes, explained to me later that this was because of his mother’s family, and their superstition surrounding a newborn child being touched by water. That week, a friend of mine bought the family a baby kit as a gift, and Agnes took it to them and explained the health concerns surrounding following the custom.

I was pleased to find out how successful she’d been in explaining the risks, and how receptive my cook’s girlfriend had been in accepting a new way of doing things – one that was best for her child. But this line is a tight rope – you get that? It’s not my place to question traditions surrounding death, and its not my place to challenge the Shaman or to debate the way that a bride price might affect a family’s well being. And, it was Agnes’ place – a woman in her own community – to explain to her someone how she might be harming her kid. This is why I partner equally with locals. This is why I am not the one always on the ground.

It’s my place to give due honor to – show respect within – a culture that has different ways of giving birth and celebrating love and giving life over to death – and to allow that culture room to figure out these things on its own.

And, perhaps these rituals, in themselves, are teaching me something. These ways of being run like deep rivers beneath the women who work with me, carrying them along. I picture the erosion, like the caving in of deep banks of Ugandan red dirt, taking a culture with them. And I want to tread ever so lightly when it comes to inadvertently stealing tradition from a place – from a life running beneath a people who teach me how to stop, pay attention and appreciate all the new things I never knew about the world outside my own culture’s way of being.

And, so, we factored an extra week into our lead time, after this season – allowing for death, should it creep up, steal from my partners and sending them from their work for a week to honor the way that their traditions ask them to celebrate and honor the passing of life.

(Photo: Edward Echwalu for Nakate Project).

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