I pulled up to the station and got out of the car, I immediately looked over to my right and saw the line of plastic chairs outside Pascaline’s house with the Chefs sitting out front. The last time I had seen this sight was the day we buried Chouchou. My stomach dropped and I immediately knew what had happened yet I held out hope that I was misinterpreting the situation. I gathered up my bags, paid the driver, and headed toward the house. By now Jeanne was standing outside and she didn’t look well, yet I still held out my hope. I greeted her and she gave me the news I already knew but was hoping wasn’t true. During the night Jean, Pascaline’s husband and Jeanne’s brother, had passed away, leaving behind his wife and 4 children.
The week prior Jean had been complaining of headaches, as always I immediately suspected dehydration and asked how much water he had drank that day. Of course it wasn’t much, if any, and I told him I don’t know what’s wrong with him, I’m not a doctor, but usually here when it’s so hot if I have headaches it’s because I’m dehydrated, drink more water, lots of water, and see how you feel the next day. It didn’t seem to get better and soon he was complaining of a fever and went to the hospital. I was glad to see he went to get medical attention, all too often here one avoids going to the hospital due to the fees and when they do finally go it’s too late. He was able to walk himself to the hospital so I figured he was going early enough. A week later he was still in the hospital with no one quite knowing what was wrong with him and his family was refusing visitors, for at this point in Togo one never knows who is good and who is bad and wants to put a curse on the ill.
I dropped by the hospital one more time before my overnight trip to Kara for a meeting. This time Jeanne and Pascaline let me in the room and I was able to view Jean in his bed. He was the sickest person I have seen to date and while Jeanne and Pascaline held out hope that he would get better all I could think was that this man was going to die within hours, there was no way he could survive, he looked like a skeleton under the sheets, how could anyone recover from that?
The next day as I was preparing to leave Kara my friend tried to convince me to stay one more night. I was tempted, I had a lot more work I could do and with the rain threatening to arrive soon I had no desire to get in a taxi and head home, yet something was telling me I had to get home. I got in the taxi and headed home, and upon my arrival was glad I was able to make it home when I did.
After I had received the news of his death and immediate burial I informed the family I would head home to drop off my bags and would return immediately to the house for the funeral. To this day, walking the road to my house in the opposite direction of my entire village coming from the burial has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But in true Togolegese fashion, everyone greeted me, asked how my trip was and informed me of the bad news. I accordingly greeted them and informed them I would be back at the house shortly for the funeral. I eventually made it home, dropped my bags off, changed into some clean clothes, attempted to clean myself up and forced myself to return to the family’s house.
Despite the fact that I have now been to a few funerals in village, I’m still not quite sure of the ritual for funerals. It’s the one time that everyone seems to leave me on my own, as if I know what to do. In most cultural situations here I have a friend with me who goes before me and either guides me in the traditions or at the very least provides me with the means to follow their actions. In the case of funerals so far I get lead to the funeral and then am left on my own to figure out the traditions. I have on occasion asked what I am supposed to do, but am only provided with a vague response that leaves me just as clueless as I was before. So I stumble through the ritual, just hoping to not offend anyone or to at least be excused as a foreigner if I do happen to offend someone.
This time, I walk into the family’s house, I come here everyday, it’s practically my house, it is my family, and yet I feel so uncomfortable I can’t even explain it. The courtyard is filled with so many people sitting around, I have no idea who I should greet first or where I should go exactly. I see some people that I know, I greet them and they inform me Pascaline is on the other side of the courtyard and point in that direction. I take that to mean I can freely walk to that side without having to greet everyone on this side. I walk in that direction, noticing several benches filled with either elderly or people I recognize, I begin greeting everyone on the benches as well. I then am lead to the end of the bench where I find Pascaline sitting on a stool next to the empty spot at the end of the bench where I’m told to sit down. I have no idea what to say to the woman I spend everyday with in village, the woman who is like a best friend, like a mother to me, the woman who has just lost her husband and become a widow with 4 children to raise. I tell her I’m so sorry, and to have courage, I want to hug her, I want to give her a giant hug, but knowing hugging isn’t a part of Togolese culture I resist. So I sit there next to her not knowing exactly what else I’m supposed to do. I now realize I’m a part of the receiving line, as more people come in to give their condolences they give them to me as well. It makes me uncomfortable and I have no clue how I should react. Yes I consider myself a part of the family, they are my family after all, however, I feel that I don’t deserve to be a part of this, I feel like I’m stealing something from those truly affected by Jean’s death.
With time everyone starts leaving the house, and eventually I announce my departure. I say my goodbyes and head back to my house desperate for things to just go back to the way they once were.
Jean died of malaria, falciparum malaria, which is completely curable had it been caught within the first 72 hours and preventable had he been on malaria prophylactics. I know volunteers who have fallen ill with the same severe type of malaria (it is the most severe type), but because we have access to our medical unit 24/7, they have been treated and cured in a timely fashion with no problems. However, the average Togolese don’t have this option and as a result lose their lives because, despite the fact that there is the science to cure or prevent this disease, it’s not readily accessible to those who need it if they can’t afford it. It’s quite possibly the hardest thing I have ever done, living and watching people die from diseases that I know are preventable and curable. Watching mothers lose their children, husbands lose their wives, wives lose their husbands and become widows in a life that was hard enough before they became a widow.