I’ve only lived in Dar for a few weeks and only know a handful of people but each week I’ve been here someone I know has lost a family member of friend without warning.
First my roommate’s uncle lost a daughter at the age of 2. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up — no symptoms, no warning. The worst thing is that this is his third daughter ini a row to die before reaching the age of three.
The following week my colleague’s friend’s father died instantly of a heart condition. The next week someone I met at dinner told me about his neighbor who was instantly killed in a car accident. The list goes on, six weeks and six sudden deaths. The life expectancy for Tanzania is only 44 years according to the UN. If my experience is any indication, I have plenty of examples of people who did not live to beyond that age. It’s quite different than the 79 year life expectancy for the US.
This week, the death hit closer to home. Yesterday Cecy told me that Anna, the woman who owned the food shop on the corner, had died the night before. This loss was more personal because I had gotten to know Anna and her husband over the past few weeks. I had purchased many things from Anna and always enjoyed exchanging Swahili greetings with her. Her eldest son was old enough to learn a little English and she would always prompt him to greet me with “Good Morning” or “Hello.” Sometimes he would say “Hello, Muzungu” in the cutest voice and wave. Her youngest son was still breast feeding, and one time she interrupted his meal to take care of my order. The little one looked up at me, slightly forlorn, probably wishing he could return to his meal in peace. I tried to make that transaction very quick! Anna’s husband and I also were on friendly terms and had shared a few beers with him and the other men from the neighborhood one Friday evening. I really couldn’t believe that this young woman could be gone.
Cecy told me the story of Anna’s last evening. She wasn’t feeling well so she closed the stand at 7pm and went to a friend’s house. She decided to go to the clinic to see if she had malaria. So she strapped her baby on her back, left her eldest boy with a neighbor, and set out with a young friend for the clinic. She hadn’t made if far when she suddenly collapsed, hitting her face as she fell to the ground. The friend picked up the baby and ran back to the house screaming that Mama Anna had fallen and was unconscious. Friends found a car and picked her up and took her to the hospital. She had blood coming out of her nose and mouth. Shortly after she arrived she died. The doctors said she had had a heart attack. She wasn’t even 28 years old.
All of this sudden death starts to wear down a person. It seems like there is more death here than I experience in my day-to-day life in the U.S. Life is hard in Tanzania. The tropical climate and limited access to medical care can make small illnesses life threatening. And then there are the other conditions that cause premature death that may have been found and treated with access to the right medical care.
I think about those boys who lost their mother so suddenly and I get very sad. Tonight Cecy and I will go over to pay our respects to the family. It’s tradition to give money to the family as well. But I know all too well that no sum of money can replace a beloved family member, wife or mother.