On April 6th we went with a beloved Msalato Theological College student, Ayubu Mazengo, to baptize his five-month old son, Martin Nyemo, named for me, the godfather. We meet Mollen, his mother, and the rest of the family in their village. Sandra preaches and does the baptism. It is a joyous occasion. Ayubu relates to Sandra some of his dreams and hopes for Martin’s life. Martin looks just like his father, Ayubu, (Job in English) and is robust and healthy. Slightly over two months later on June 9th, I get a call from Sandra that Martin is very sick. After work I stop at the local hospital to visit. He is getting IV medicine for malaria and is nursing. I am relieved and bring good news of his progress home to Sandra. No one could be more surprised than myself when the next day Sandra calls to say he had died in the morning. How fragile life is. We are devastated. Sandra was asked to do the sermon for the funeral that day. We are back to Martin’s village that afternoon for the sermon and burial. Many faculty, students, and staff from Msalato go with us. The massive assemblage of people from the village was overwhelming. It was too much for words to describe, and we felt photos were not appropriate. Sandra’s sermon was as uplifting as one could be in such a situation.
Martin was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid out on a kanga on the dirt floor of his home. For the funeral service, which took place on the grounds outside his home, his body was placed under a tree on a low table. After the service, we gathered at the gravesite a few hundred meters from Martin’s home. A priest friend of Ayubu jumped down into the grave and received the body, which he laid on the floor of the grave. Some men then handed down to this priest pre-cut tree branches that he wedged into the sides of the grave above the body. The result was what looked like a ladder lying flat above the body. A piece of a plastic feed sack was laid on this wooden lattice upon which were placed piles of beautiful green leafy branches followed by layers of deep red bougainvillea. (While this was happening, a priest leaned over to Sandra and said, This is the way we make our coffins.) Then the red earth was shoveled on top of the flowers after those around the grave had thrown in handfuls of dirt saying, Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. The gravediggers filled the grave to overflowing and meticulously molded and smoothed the heaved-up mound of dirt with sticks. Finally they laid the handle of the shovel onto the molded earth and made the vertical and horizontal imprints of the cross in the red dirt. Men around the grave then gathered small stones and filled in the imprints producing a natural stone cross. At the close of the service- family and friends came and laid more bougainvillea on top. It was all very moving, very beautiful, and very sad.
Death of a child in the West is no less traumatic for the families involved, it is just so much less common. World wide there are 300-500 million new cases of malaria annually. It is the most deadly vector borne illness causing 3.5-5 million deaths annually. Many of these deaths are in children 1-4 years of age. It is estimated that in Africa a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds. Treated bed nets are a priority of the World Health Organization’s program, Roll Back Malaria. A fellow priest wrote to Sandra after hearing of Martin’s death: Guess we need to preach more about sleeping under mosquito nets and making sure that we destroy all breeding places than preaching about soul winning and going to heaven! (6A) A lot also needs to be done to reduce the delays and shortcomings in delivery of treatment. A major problem has been the emergence of Chloroquin resistance in Plasmodium falciparum (the major killer and commonest form of malaria in Africa). Millennium Development Goal #6 is to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
In our grief, Magi Griffin, the other Atlanta missionary in this diocese who had gone to Martin’s baptism with us, reminded us in a sweet note: Death has a name. Precious Martin. How easy it is for us to fall into the terrible trap of thinking that because death is so common here that it is not as traumatic for them as for us. Martin’s death has certainly brought this home to us. Although we have watched his family cope in a very heroic and stoic fashion, nevertheless we have witnessed the picture of deep grief etched in their faces; we have seen their silent tears; we have heard the quiet groans of grief that only a mother could make. I have heard many people from abroad say: Death is different here. People just accept it. It is just a part of life. The latter is a true statement, but the fact that it is common does not in any way reduce the particularity or the pain. As Magi so aptly reminded us, Death has a name.
One of the hardest things to accept about Martin’s death is that we do not think that this would have happened in the west. Poor village families are late to get to a hospital because of distance, lack of transport and money. And even after getting to a hospital, we find ourselves wondering if treatment is appropriate and timely. I think most of the missionaries feel that if malaria were such a huge problem in the US or Europe that even if a cure or vaccine had not been discovered, we would have found ways to successfully control it. We are grateful for the NetsForLife program. We tell Martin’s story not only because it is the one we know but also in the hope that it will encourage you not to forget that it is individuals with names who are make up those overwhelming statistics which can make one’s eyes blur over.
Sandy and Martin McCann