May 20, 2005
Here in Malawi, funerals are a part of daily life. Everyone you meet has lost a brother, wife, niece, father, cousin, in-law, child or other close relative. Sometimes I wonder how Malawians deal with the loss of so many loved ones.
The death of a friend or family member is so devastating to most Americans that it takes us years to get over the loss, if indeed, we ever do. Even if we know that they are now out of pain and with God, we still mourn.
Here in Malawi a person may loose a spouse, a child, several siblings and a parent within the span of just a few months. The average life expectancy is only 37 years, which researchers say is almost the same as Europe’s was in the Middle Ages. Today, life expectancy in Scotland is 77 years.
The death rate in Malawi is 23.01 per 1,000 people. The US rate is 8.34.
Over 900,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi, and over 84,000 have died from the disease. Other killers are malaria, typhoid fever and TB.
The World Medical Fund (WMF) reports that almost 47% of the population is under the age of 14. In the USA it is just over 20%. Unfortunately, children are some of the most vulnerable people. The infant mortality rate is a staggering 104 per 1,000 live births. According to Worldpress.org, the infant mortality rate in Sweden is just over 3 per 1,000. The average Malawian woman gives birth to six children. One in four children under the age of five dies.
United Nations statistics show that birth and death rates decrease when education increases, but in Malawi less than half of the females over the age of 15 are literate.
On top of that, WMF says that Malawi’s Health budget is only $1.60 per person, per year.
So this is not an easy problem to solve. The lack of proper health care, high birth rates, high infection rates of virulent diseases and lack of education, plus other factors all contribute to the high death rates.
All of this has a devastating effect on the economy as well. So many people are ill or attending funerals (which are a cultural necessity), that absenteeism rates at work average between 30 and 40 percent. (Some estimates are even higher.) In Botswana, weekday funerals have been outlawed because they are so disruptive. All funerals now take place on weekends. At one point this year, five Members of Parliament died during a very short time span. The United Nations estimates that between 25 and 50 percent of workers in urban areas are dying (mostly of AIDS). It is very difficult to run a business, let alone a country, when so many workers are sick and/or dying.
Unfortunately, there is one business that benefits from this. Casket Workshops can be seen everywhere you go. Often they will have several models on display outside their shops.
CCAP pastors and elders spend a large portion of each week doing funerals. Funeral processions can, and often do, involve hundreds of people following the casket, which can be in a truck, or more often, is carried on the shoulders of pall bearers for miles. Traffic in both directions is stopped. Motorists pull their cars over to the side of the road, park, get out of their cars and stand on the side of the road, as a sign of respect, until the mourners have passed. Homes are marked with a large leafy branch outside the gate or front door when a death in the family occurs. Friends and neighbors bring food and comfort to the family. Relatives travel for hundreds of miles at great costs to attend funerals.
Malawians seem to have learned that life does go on after a loved one’s death. They resume work, school and daily life quite soon after the funeral. I often wonder how they cope. One clue might be in the statistic that 75 % of the country is Christian. Perhaps their faith gives them the strength and courage to go on. Besides, someone has to care and provide for all the orphans…