From Death to Life: A Day in Togo

I woke up Saturday morning not sure what to expect. Since I've come to Togo, I've learned that nothing ever goes the way you think it will-- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Life here is definitely exciting.
I am very happy to see we will be outside
under the trees.
That day, the plan was for me to go to a funeral with some of the other missionaries while Seth rounded on patients at the hospital. I wasn't sure what to expect at the funeral, or even if I wanted to go, but I had been promised it would be a "cultural experience," and I usually like "cultural experiences," so I went.

The funeral was for a woman known as "Mama" Gnoyi (pronounced “NO-ee”), and she was so honored and loved in the community that her family expected to have a very large funeral, so they held the service in the courtyard of the local school to make sure they had enough room.
As far as I could tell, deciding to have the funeral service outside was a very good idea. There were hundreds of people there. If you've spent any time in this part of Africa, you probably know that A.) outside in the shade is always the coolest place to be, B.) coolness is always the number one priority, and C.) there are very few buildings big enough to hold hundreds of people anyway.
The funeral ceremony was pretty elaborate. Soon after we arrived, a procession of people marched in from the brush and placed the casket, which they had been carrying on their shoulders, in a shady area under the trees. The women of Mama Gnoyi's family walked around the casket a few times, crying and saying their farewells. Everyone was seated in plastic chairs around the casket. Then the service began.
One of Mama Gnoyi's relatives mourns by the casket.

Those who had been close to Mama Gnoyi made no attempt to hide their sorrow. There were some women who threw their arms over their heads and wailed with grief. Others sat silently with tears streaming down their faces.
At the same time, the spirit of the ceremony was one of celebration. Mama Gnoyi had lived a long, full life.  She had six children and forty-two grandchildren.
Mama Gnoyi's son (the man standing to the right) speaks
in French about his mother's life. The man standing on the left
is his translator, translating his speech into Ewe.

Her son spoke of how she had started going to church as a middle-aged mother, walking there with her children, and how she had come to faith in Jesus and been baptized. Her family had been “fetishers,” which is the word they use here for people who worship their ancestors, idols, and the spirits of nature. Some of her family still belongs to this tribal religion, so when the pastor got up to speak, he preached forcefully of how only Jesus can save. “We know where Mama Gnoyi went,” he said. “She is with Jesus now. The question is, where are you going? This tree can’t save you. This rock can’t save you. Your ancestors can’t save you. Only Jesus can save you.”

When I get tired of listening to a thrice-translated sermon, I
spend my time watching the adorable baby in the row behind
me. This lucky missionary lady gets to hold her, but I only get
to take pictures.

Of course, he didn’t say those things in English. He was speaking in the local tribal language of Ewe (pronounced EH-vay). He had a translator who translated everything he said into French, for the sake of those there who didn’t speak Ewe. Thankfully, my knowledge of Portuguese helps me understand most of the French spoken here, but whenever I didn’t catch something, one of the other missionaries helpfully translated the French into English for me.

Here you are never to young to play a percussion instrument!

Part of the celebratory feel of the funeral came from the abundance of music. There were three separate church choirs present, each of which sang several songs. There was also a brass band that accompanied us when we sang hymns as a group. The hymns were all in Ewe, but the tunes were familiar, so I sang along, having no idea what I was saying.

This is a picture of one of the hymns we sang.
This is what Ewe looks like written out.

When the sermon and the hymn-singing and the choir performances were done, the funeral procession to the cemetery began. Several men carried the casket on their shoulders (as they had when they brought it to the funeral service), and the brass band played as we all walked up the road as a group to the cemetery.

The funeral procession to the cemetery.

There wasn’t much to mark the location of the cemetery. We basically walked up the road for a few minutes, and then through the brush to a clearing under some trees where someone had dug a hole in preparation. Two men jumped into the hole to help lower the casket in, and then jumped out.
This was the special meal given to missionaries and other
honored guests; steamed dumplings made of corn and rice flour,
with a meat sauce. The dumplings are called "ablo."
They are delicious.

The pastor prayed, and several people started to throw dirt into the grave. Then we all marched back to the school courtyard where the service had been, this time to eat lunch. It is tradition here that the family feeds everyone who comes to the funeral (even if this means feeding hundreds of people). As guests of honor, we were given seats inside the school-room, and special dishes made just for us. Most of the other guests were fed from huge communal bowls of rice, out under the trees.

As we rode home in the missionary van, I reflected that I had seen the commemoration of the end of a life here, and I wondered idly what it would be like to witness the beginning of a life here as well.

The mother is prepped for surgery.
Back at the hospital compound, I went to the guest house dining area, where Seth was eating lunch. As I sat describing the funeral to him, he got a call from the hospital. One of the other doctors wanted him to come and assist with a C-section.  Remembering my thoughts during the drive home, I asked him suddenly, “Do you think I could come and watch?”
“Sure, I don’t see why not,” he said.
That is how, mere hours after seeing someone buried, I found myself in a surgery room waiting to see someone born.
The mother, who was being prepped for surgery when we arrived, was quiet and calm. When her contractions came, she would click her tongue against her teeth rapidly, sometimes crying out quietly in pain, but her eyes were closed and her face was peaceful. She seemed to trust that she was in good hands, and indeed the doctors prayed before surgery that God would guide them, and I prayed for health for the mother and the baby.

Seth swaddles the baby boy.
In the room was a cart where they would place the baby after he or she was born. Seth’s job was to care for the baby while the other doctors performed the surgery. While I waited by the baby cart, I was surprised to see Seth wheel a second cart in. The mother was giving birth to twins!

Baby boy is very alert and wants to look around.
The surgery went well, and both babies emerged healthy and beautiful, first the boy, and then the girl. It was the first time I had witnessed a birth that was not one of my own children, and I can think of few things that have filled me with more joy. Seth and I were able to introduce the twins to their father and big brother. The pride and happiness in their faces was easy to understand, even though we didn’t speak the same language.

After the girl is born, I get to hold her and Seth holds the boy.

I didn’t know Mama Gnoyi or her family, and I didn’t know this young mother or her family, but in both cases they allowed me the great honor of sharing in their pain and in their rejoicing. In these brief but powerful moments I felt I saw a snapshot of the promises of Jesus. Whether in birth or in death, I saw the glory of God and the fullness of life.

Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly... I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." (John 10:10 and John 11:25, NKJV)

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