Last Sunday, March 10th, marked a devastating day for the world based on the tragic Ethiopian airline accident that left 157 deceased in a field now filled with remains, tears and heartache. This event has affected the world including over 30 nationalities awaiting word as to what really happened on the fatal flight. Non-stop world news coverage calling out Boeing doesn’t appear to help, but that’s another story. Right now, real talk, all I can think of are the dearly departed and their loved ones and how in the world will they recover, not only remains for future burial, but recovery of the deep psychological impact of such a loss.
I have experienced various forms of mourning and celebration of life over the decades. For instance, growing up in Jamaica in the ‘60’s funerary traditions know as “Nine Nights” provided spaces and rituals for family, friends and community to gather and grieve over food, strong drink, and music, all rooted in West African tradition, post slavery. While nine nights were for mourning, they have evolved into celebration of the life of a loved one. By the ‘70’s when I moved to New York I witnessed the African American community’s “repast” or “Homegoing” ceremony. This tradition was also rooted in memories of African culture and the notion that loved ones will join ancestors in a return to Africa. The repast was very important as the inhumane system of slavery refused enslaved Africans from gathering to bid farewell to their dead. The Homegoing was seen as a somewhat joyous occasion as the life in slavery had now ended and the freedom to return “home” was now achieved.
In the ‘90’s, during my time in Ghana I witnessed huge weekend funerals with bus loads of people dressed in red and black and outpouring of emotions, food, drink and drumming, much like the Nine Night but on a whole other level. It appeared to be more a celebration of life than a space to mourn, with relatives and friends and community members sharing stories, meals and memories. Many funerary traditions exist in Ghana much like Ethiopia. By the 2000’s my Ethiopian experience was yet another unique expression in bereavement. I recall hearing the lone brass horn one early morning in my Sidist Kilo neighborhood, followed by a poetic like announcement of the deceased. This was swiftly followed by the setting up of the large “luxo” tent, arrival of bus loads of lamenting women with natalas draped in a special manner over their heads and distraught men wrapped in white cotton gabbies. Also included are usually large framed pictures surrounded by flowers of the loved one, who is typically interred within 48 hours after passing.
There are countless traditions to help not only the perished to pass over but to help the loved ones left behind to manage the grief of the loss. But I cannot help but wondering about the 157 who lay unceremoniously, near Bishoftu area in what may become a final resting place based on the circumstances. My heart aches for the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and the long list of those left behind post the crash to create funerary plans. What does one do in the absence of remains to bury? How do they reconcile the feeling of never having said good-bye? How do thirty-something nationals live with thought that their loved ones will not be in a space where they can visit periodically? How will they fulfill cultural, religious or traditional ceremonies with the deceased interred in Ethiopia, by default? How do you heal from such a tragedy? Where does one turn for answers?
One thing I know for sure, the pain is deep with seemingly no comfort in sight. However, as time goes by and family, friends and even strangers share love and support in great and small ways, the grieving process will lead to healing. Healing may or may not lead to “closure,” whatever that may mean, but one thing is for sure; we will never forget the 157 men, women and children from Africa and around the world whose lives were senselessly lost on a bright and sunny Sunday morning in rural Ethiopia. May their souls rest in peace.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.