January 5, 2013
On Wednesdays for chapel, often a boy named Senzo would get together a group of boys to lead a worship song. The boys with, Senzo in the front, would sing something low and slow and do a steady march in front of the entire school. They wouldn’t march back and forth in front of the assembly but just slowly march in place. The younger kids loved it. The group of boys would keep their song going as long as they could, making students, and on good days, some teachers, laugh at the absurd length of it. When Senzo would finally lead the boys off the stage, the other students would give a great round of applause to reward their efforts to liven up chapel.
It was clear to us in library and computer classes that Senzo knew how to get a laugh out of others, after all he had 30 siblings, half-brothers, and half-sisters to make himself stand out from. But he could also focus on his work. I remember him typing a report in computer class on Mexico. He did a good job with his notecards and he was a relatively quick typer so he would get to business and soon enough he would be finished, looking around for something new to do.
Senzo was one of the 7th grade boys at our primary school this year. He was funny and a good singer.
Senzo died a few days before Christmas and will never be able to continue on to secondary school, work, or start his own family.
When Oliver and I arrived back to site after Christmas, the third grade teacher, Mrs. Dlamini, saw us walking and offered us a ride. She broke the news to us. Senzo had been having a headache for a week when his eye began to hurt as well. His father took him both to the clinic and to the traditional healer but sadly, Senzo did not get better.
Senzo had just passed out of 7th grade which meant he would no longer be at our primary school. As school ended, we knew we wouldn’t see any of the 7th graders as regularly anymore. But it was a shock for us to realize that we wouldn’t run into him on the road or hear news of him from teachers or other students.
I’ve never really known anyone who passed away before. A long time ago, I had been to funerals of distant relatives. But when the news of Senzo came to us, I realized I will never, never see him again. The finality of it was not a gradual understanding but a sudden bite into my reality. It was hurtful and scary and sad.
The funeral was scheduled soon and on that day Oliver and I went with the principal and three other teachers to offer our condolences. I wasn’t sure how I would be expected to act, so I was nervous.
When we arrived at the homestead, there were already some neighbors and other students there to help with the funeral preparations. Our group went to a small round hut where the family was sitting. We all took off our shoes and entered with a song. Mats covered the floor, the family was crying, sitting on one side, so we sat facing them singing. One of the teachers said a prayer and then another said something in Siswati in memory of Senzo. We offered cards to the family, said another prayer, and left the family to their grief.
Once outside, I went with the two female teachers to where the women were cooking. We left shortly with more women and girls and walked out to a field to collect grass. I was told the grass would be used at the funeral for people to sit on. It wasn’t a solemn event. It was in fact, comforting—the sweet smell of grass in the air, women chatting around me, girls shyly smiling at me.
I found out later that Oliver went with the male teachers to where the men were digging the grave for Senzo. The men took turns using the pick axe and shovels. Oliver says it was difficult to understand what was happening at first and then what role he was supposed to play in the large group of men and boys. I think we both felt worried that in our lack of cultural understanding of this aspect we would do something to upset the family.
After collecting 9 large bags of grass, the other female teachers and I sat on a small wooden bench and ate a small meal that was brought to us. We sat for a while longer talking before we all left together.
The vigil was held that night with community and family members, ending with the burial at dawn.
Going to the family’s homestead that day helped us. We were able to show that Senzo was an important part of the school and were able to do something small to help the family during a hard time. It helped us too, to remember Senzo in the place where he lived, surrounded by friends that he joked with and people that loved him.