Thursday, September 15, 2016

What is this madness?

When I was 17 my great grandmother died. I was not living in Ethiopia at the time, but she died 1 week before I was supposed to go to Addis for a visit. When I was growing up my parents kept us secluded to the nuclear family so much that there were very few people I grew to know and truly feel like they were family... and my great grandma was one of them. She stayed sharp to the end. She was fun and funny. By the time she passed away she was in her mid 90s and she had no business dying as far as her body strength and health was concerned. But she fell asleep on a chair, had an accident, and so she went.

My mother decided not to tell me of her death until after I landed back in Addis, i.e. a week post death. She whisked me straight to the leqso bet  from the airport. I don't recall having much time for emotions or processing the news. Things were just happening. I don't recall crying that day, or after. When I think of that day I have an image of somebody from geTer visiting a big city and everywhere s/he turned, having car after car honk at them. Everybody else was in on a joke that was on me. I remember noise, incongruent images, people talking at me, and just general confusion.

At the leqso bet I was bombarded all the leqso bet guests who I had not seen in years. As soon as we entered the gibi, I could hear as 'ah! she's back' comments made their way to the house . Soon there were faces looking out from the door. Of course I had to greet my way to the house, and how shall a 17 year old raised in Addis and abroad react in this occasion? I sure wasn't going to follow the wailing and prostrating route. The people who were greeting me, who'd digested the news for the past week, were smiling. So I smiled back.

 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."
 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."
 "Deha nesh? Dehna. Sam. Sam. Sam."

.... times 30, or whatever was required! By the time I was inside the house, I guess I had a resting smiling face. My mother came to my side and said, "Don't smile!".  I don't remember anything else from this day. I don't even remember a single face who I greeted that day, though I can guess who had to have been be there. I am still not sure why that day had to unfold as it did, but it's apparently something to do with our culture. Deaths are announced not as they happen, but at some later date to benefit ...who knows who it benefits.

I hadn't thought about that day until today -- earlier today I learned that my grandmother passed away last Monday. Today is Wednesday end of day. My parents apparently "forgot" (read: in their infinite, mysterious wisdom decided to postpone) to share the sad news with the extended family.

So began a series of unfortunate incidents as various family members found out. The first victim was a sibling who received a condolences call for a grandma he still assumed to be alive. I got mine via a whatsapp from a friend/family who was afraid I'd be left out of the news loop (which works for me, but I doubt this was the intention when parents withheld the news). A traditionalist cousin (let's call him TC) found out when he called to say "hi" but was instead told everybody was out at her funeral. Another cousin was told the news earlier but was afraid to share it because he once told the TC of a close family member's passing, and TC disowned him because the news was shared in daylight (apparently merdo should be reserved for 5am).

Instead of feeling sad, I found myself getting angry with how the news was (not) handled. I personally think my grandma, who was probably in her mid 90s or older, is now in a better place. This is not a sentiment that should ever be shared with Ethiopians, so I wouldn't dare utter this in public.

When I think about how my parents handled this news, I am at a loss to explain why they thought secrecy (which ends up becoming morbid carelessness with today's technologies) was the way to go. Was it so that we'd not be disturbed by the passing away of our oldest family member? Was it so that we don't insist on leaving work to attend the funeral? Or was it because they were afraid we wouldn't offer to attend the funeral, and the best way to save face was not to let us have the option?

As I was telling a friend after my discovery that there are somethings in the Ethiopian culture I wish I understood, even if I didn't agree with the concept. Like FGM. I understand its origins, and what society was trying to do with women through the cultural process. I vehemently disapprove of it, but at least I understand it. She told me my parents weren't the exception, and I should not try too hard to understand -- this is an enduring game.

But the fact that I don't understand bothers me. A lot. It doesn't serve to reduce the blow. It doesn't serve to respect the dead nor the living. It irks me that I don't understand how these ideas formed in their heads, and their questionable judgement was released upon the world. The fact I don't understand it all raises serious practical concerns.

For example, my husband's parents have a tradition of taking in their grandchildren for a week during which time the grandparents get to enjoy the kids while the parents get to enjoy short periods of freedom. If I had children, I'd have serious reservations about leaving them alone with my parents even for a few hours. What do I know? If I go away for a week, I might come back and they may tell me "Oh, we didn't want to worry you, but your daughter died last week and we buried her."  My husband said, "Aaaaaaah!", in protest when I gave this example. But when I pressed on how he can figure out if what I said is not within the realm of whatever convoluted reasoning is going on through my parents minds, he didn't have a response.

And that is my point!

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