Lessons FROM MOM’S DEATH
After publishing a collection of her late husband Joe Slovo’s writings, struggle veteran, leadership coach and academic Helena Dolny turned to a book on death. She recorded 57 people’s testimonies on ritual, dignity, bereavement and living a rich life. In
Before Forever After: When Conversations About Living Meet Questions About Dying by Helena Dolny
Staging Post 336 pages R290
Ngiphiwe Mhlangu, also known as Mapi, grew up in the township of KwaMashu. Her mother was a lifelong teacher who taught many people in the community. Mapi was her youngest, the love child of a liaison during widowhood, a daughter she treasured and imbued with the deepest sense of self-worth.
By her late thirties, Mapi’s career had seriously accelerated. She became the head of eNCA TV news. As the professional success in her biological family of three sisters and one brother, it’s Mapi who pays what’s called the “black tax”, money dispensed among relatives for school fees, help with rent or for funerals.
Mapi told me the story of her mother’s illness, the challenge to integrate her Zulu traditional rituals with Christianity, and her claim at the age of 25 to the family leadership position in a culture which has patriarchy as its default setting. The first time I knew my mom was ill was around local government elections in April 2004. My mom had already found out that she had cancer, but hadn’t told me – she was waiting for me to finish with that year’s election coverage.
During the rest of April, May and June, I caught the bus home every other weekend. I watched her deteriorating. I took leave in the last week of July and went home, expecting her to die.
I started a conversation with her. “You know you are not getting any better, you know we have tried everything possible and there is nothing more to be done. How do you want your funeral to go? What songs do you want sung? Who is your MC? Who must speak for you?” We got into all those details.
Initially my sisters were completely uncomfortable, so the first talk took place just between me and Mom.
I asked what policies she had and we looked at the files together. About the funeral, she said: “I want to be buried on Thursday because it’s Mother’s Union Day.” That was one thing in her retirement she’d always looked forward to. She would put on her blue church uniform and go around with other mothers who were dressed the same. She said she’d like a blue coffin, the same colour as the uniform. There was a youth leader in her church, and she wanted him to be her MC. She named the reverend to officiate. She named the friends to speak, she named the songs. She was very clear which funeral parlour she wanted to go to. My mom also stipulated: “Do not slaughter the cow in the house because I don’t want the blood in here.”
Later, I called my sisters to sit with us and my mom repeated her wishes. It was difficult for them, but it happened in such a way that when we were finalising the funeral programme – my sisters are great singers – they started to sing the songs our mother chose. They warmed up to that idea of having a plan. My mother dictated her wishes and I wrote everything down in an exercise book as she spoke, witnessed by my sisters.
By Thursday, she didn’t recognise me. She was hallucinating, talking to people, talking to the dead. On Saturday, I had to return to Johannesburg and I stopped at the hospital on the way to the station. She was in such pain as I said my goodbyes.
When I phoned on the Wednesday morning, they told me she had just passed.
When someone dies in our family, the first thing people do is cry. But I couldn’t because I was in that organising mood of, okay things must be done right.
When I landed in Durban from Johannesburg, those meeting me at the airport were crying and falling apart. I was the only one thinking and organising: “Let’s just stop by at Checkers. We need to get juice, chicken and other foodstuff to feed people who will come to pay their respects.”
With all the immediate practical arrangements made, Mapi found herself facing a much more complicated challenge.
On occasions like funerals or the traditional ceremony that takes place a year after someone dies, the elders in the family always take charge. But I just couldn’t let them. People tried to advise me: “You have relatives in Ladysmith and Johannesburg. The relatives proposed that the funeral should take place a week on Saturday.”
There was tension because, culturally, men are used to being in charge. My biological brother had never assumed any family responsibility whatsoever – he never even came to the hospital once. But now he expected that, when the relatives came, they would make sure that we women recognised his role as the eldest male.
For me, it was just one of those things. I could not accept my brother taking over. I needed to step up. I had my own selfish reasons. I wanted to make sure that what my mother requested would be done. I knew that, once I gave power away, they would bury her on the Saturday and do all sorts of traditional things that my mother did not want.
I took out my exercise book and told them: “I have it in writing. These were her wishes. It’s going to be done this way. Our mother will be buried on a Thursday. The coffin will be blue.”
I became this young woman who was stubborn – no one could overrule me. I needed things to be done just the way that my mother had wanted.
Mapi straddles tradition and modernity ... The elder aunties from the Mhlangu family moved in to assume their mourning tradition of sitting on the mattress and praying in the days leading up to the funeral. Mapi assumed her role of dutiful daughter tending to their every need.
When Thursday came, we buried my mother, following all her requests. There were pictures of her and a printed programme. We sang the Zulu songs she asked for, like Dwala Lami Laphakade, which translates as Rock of Ages. They were the songs she used to sing with her friends in the choir. I still remember her funeral so vividly – several busloads of people. My mom the teacher, known by everyone. So many people came. And yes, it worked out just as she wanted.
When her older brother tried to claim his patriarchal space, Mapi, aged 25, had already imbibed her mother’s wisdom. With foresight, she’d secured her mother’s voice, in writing, to support her determination to bury her mother according to the wishes she had so carefully set out.
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE The author, Helena Dolny
FAMILY LEADERSHIP TV news boss Mapi Mhlangu