Culture, a Matter of Life and Death

Culture, a Matter of Life and Death

One of the great joys of volunteering is sharing in the real culture of another community. Recently, Anne Chapman in East Timor and Fran Hewitt in South Africa shared insights into family and death respectively.

Anne Chapman

The sacred house represents the family social structure. It is a tall thatched conical shaped building. Every family in East Timor has a sacred house. This new building was to replace one which was about 300 years old. Everyone who was related to John’s maternal grandfather came with meat. Over 500 people, many from Indonesia, came for five days to celebrate the rebuilding of the house.

John’s family had built five dorms, with palm roofs and chest high walls. I looked inside to see the floor covered with sleeping mats and people sleeping, talking, and chewing betel and tobacco.

Outside each dorm there were kids playing a new game which I call ‘pop a lid’. You place the blue lid on an empty water bottle, put the bottle on the ground and jump on it to shoot the lid off and try to kill your best friend. There were about four groups of men gambling, all playing the same game. The men place a bet on which hole a ping pong ball will fall into. Roll the ball and see where it lands.

Maria (my teaching assistant) was assigned to the kitchen as she is not yet welcomed into her fiancé’s sacred house. Maria and Artur’s wedding is planned for December. I’m here at a good time!

Each family brings a particular cut of meat—pig, goat, cow, etc. They then get another bit of meat to take home. It’s like trading but it cements family relationships, consolidates trust, shares wealth, boosts morale and reaffirms each member’s sense of identity and belonging.

Fran Hewitt

The month began with the death of one of our village workers (possibly from AIDS but we cannot be sure as there is still much stigma) and we were invited to his funeral.

The burial began at 6am with a viewing of the body and prayers. There was singing and dancing as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Next, all the males took turns shovelling dirt before building the grave up about to about a metre height with rocks. The deceased’s mother and sister then decorated it with a cross and floral arrangements wrapped in plastic. Finally, there was a eulogy, where various members of the community spoke. There were very few tears or sad emotions; I presume that as it was five days since he died, most of that had been done.

As people were talking, I looked around: we were the only white people present, and I felt really privileged that we were there, that we were invited to share in this family’s and community’s farewell to a son, brother, friend and workmate. As people began to move off, we were invited back to the family home to partake in the feast. A few family members came and sat with us, but wouldn’t eat with us. They can’t speak English so there was very little talking going on. We did try to communicate, but they were sad and kept their heads down. Plus, it wasn’t the time to make small talk.

After a short while we asked if they would excuse us. On the way out many of the villagers came to shake our hands and say hello which was nice. It was a fascinating insight into a private aspect of their lives, and to see some of the cultural practices that accompany death and burial.