Missionary Diary: A different way to grieve in Tanzania

Tamie Davis and her husband Arthur are missionaries with Church Missionary Society (CMS) Australia in Tanzania. Here they support Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES) staff as they minister to Tanzanian university students.

It’s late afternoon and I am about to leave the house when, DING! A notification comes up on my phone, then DING! DING! DING! Several more in quick succession. My heart drops. I know the first message will be a Whatsapp group notification of a tragedy and the following ones will all be pole messages – pronounced POH-lay, these are expressions of sympathy.

With trepidation, I open the app. I see the pictures of the crumpled car and the road on which it rolled, twice. Sadly, these incidents are common, even though the speed limit on Tanzania’s highways was reduced a couple of years ago to 80km/hr for large vehicles. But this time, a reprieve. Our friend Robert and his family were in this crash but, thanks be to God, they are unhurt. The responses extend their sympathy to Robert for the experience and praise God for his preservation.

I put my phone in my handbag, say bye to my husband who is making dinner for the kids, and set out. I am actually on my way to offer my sympathies to another family. In Tanzania when someone dies, their community go and sit with the family for the days up to the burial. Then for weeks and months afterwards, people come to sit with the bereaved as well. It’s called a pole visit. Andrew is an Associate (supporter) of TAFES and he lost his mother recently, so a time has been organised for other Associates of TAFES to go and sit with him. I do not know Andrew well, but Alice, who is organising the visit, explains to me that it’s not about my personal connection with him but about all of us together representing TAFES, so my presence is required.

Andrew’s home is not far from mine in the northern suburbs of Dar Es Salaam, but it is about double the size. He is one of the generation of Tanzanians who grew up in the village, went to university in the 90s and has contributed to Tanzania’s growing economic stability – in 2020 Tanzania went from being classified as a low-income country by the World Bank to a low-middle income country. He’s an architect, small business owner and investor, as well as running a significant discipleship ministry. He lives in a mansion he and his wife built with her and their three children, plus some relatives and, until recently, his mother.

I am struck by how different this is to my own culture …

There are chairs set up in the paved courtyard and we are offered peanuts and juice. The sun is just going down and I am liberally applying my mosquito repellant (no malaria for me, thank you!) by the time the 20 or so guests have arrived. I don’t know how fellow Associate Mshana was chosen to lead proceedings, but she rises, opens in prayer and reminds us that it is a blessing to gather and comfort Andrew and his family. We sing a couple of pambios (Tanzanian choruses), then go around the circle and each introduce ourselves, saying what our connection is to TAFES and offering words of sympathy to Andrew and his family. Mshana invites another Associate, Matthew to give a short neno (word) after that. He speaks of the parable of the ten virgins and invites us to evaluate our own lives: Are we prepared for death? Are we walking with Jesus and his people now in such a way that will sustain us as we persevere in faith? Each of us is then invited to add our own neno. Some people just give their sympathy words again and assure Andrew and his family that “tuko pamoja” (we are together.) Others speak of God as comfort, one to whom we can turn in times of trouble, the one who can bring us through hardship.

After this, it is time for Andrew and his wife Imani to respond. Andrew gives a lengthy biography of his mother, including the days leading up to her death, and reflects on her great faith. He says she finished the work God had for her to do and was called home, so this is not God punishing Andrew or being unable to save. Imani speaks of how God has provided for their family at this time and how she sees resurrection as God taking them to a new season.

We conclude with prayer and present some money to Andrew and his family that we collected ahead of time. Hospital and funeral costs are extremely high and this contribution adds something practical to our words and our presence. Then there is a meal that Imani and the women of the household have prepared – chicken, rice and a spicy salad of tomato, onion, avocado and mango. Delicious! Chicken is a special occasion food and it is moist and perfectly seasoned.

As I head home around 9pm, I am struck by how different this is to my own culture where we bring food to the bereaved instead of being offered food; where the polite thing is to give people privacy in grief; where the bereaved often feel shy about speaking at length about the person they lost because it might make things awkward. It’s a privilege to be included in this different way of doing things and I feel I have a lot to learn from it.