A few weeks ago, I found myself on a bus with a dead man. He wasn’t always a dead man. At first he was a sick man. Before that, I imagine he was just a man, with no necessary precursory adjectives to describe his health condition. Just a man, a person, like you and me, traveling north to Nampula with his brother to see his family.
I was also traveling north, though not quite so far, with my roommate. We were returning from the Timbila Festival in Zavala (Quissico). The festival was excellent. I worked at the Peace Corps booth for most of it, sitting under a mosquito net on a reed mat with an ever-growing group of kids, reading a children’s book about Malaria and coloring pictures of mosquitos. Working with kids is wonderful. They are so curious, and when in the right environment, they absorb information like thirsty seedlings on a hot day. It made me wish I was working at a primary school instead of a secondary school. Unfortunately most of my students have already surpassed the enthusiastic for learning stage and entered the mischievous teenage phase. Aside from working the booth, I wandered around the festival with other PCV’s, enjoying street food, dancing, and music. It was a great weekend.
So yes, the trip back. We were excited to catch a machimbombo (bus) headed far north, considering that they are usually faster, make fewer stops, and are slightly more comfortable (though often pricier) than the usual chapa. For most PCV’s in Mozambique, catching a machimbombo is the next best thing to catching a good boleia (a free ride – aka hitchhiking) when you’re traveling long distances. We got on the bus, only to stop a few minutes later just outside of Quissico at the local hospital. From there, chaos ensued. We gathered that there was a very sick man at the back of the bus. Nobody knew what he was sick with, but he was extremely dehydrated and not responsive. About ten minutes of arguing passed by – the bus driver and some other passengers wanted the man off, but his brother insisted he was fine and just needed to rest. Eventually we sped off again, with the sick man still on the bus. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I put back in my headphones and hoped for a quick journey home.
A few hours later, the bus turned off of the main highway, headed toward a small town called Chicuque. At first I assumed we were just running an errand or dropping someone off directly at their house, which is not a strange occurrence for public transportation in Mozambique. After fifteen minutes driving down a dirt road, I knew something was off. We eventually came to a stop outside the small health center in Chicuque, and everyone started to get off the bus. Come to find out, the sick man had died, and we came to the health center to leave his body. We filed off the bus in silence, broken only by somber whispers and the hum of the engine.
We all stood around outside the bus in small clusters, strangers thrown together by such odd circumstances. Nobody knew exactly what to say. We made small talk with some travelers from Zimbabwe, and made guesses as to what would happen next. After thirty minutes of waiting, rumors started to spread. Some said the man died of AIDS, others were positive it was Malaria, a few paranoid travelers suggested Ebola, but nobody really knew. At one point, a bird pooped on my roommates’ head. That lightened the mood for a little bit. After another twenty minutes, a man came around collecting money in his hat. The money was for the dead man’s brother, who would have to find a car to take the body to another hospital. Not knowing the cause of death, Chicuque wouldn’t take him. Everyone was generous. Thirty minutes later, and still nothing had happened. Some arguing occurred at one point, and the speculation on cause of death/proper procedures continued.
Eventually, a man showed up with a pickup truck to transport the dead man and his brother to the provincial hospital in Inhambane City. A few men helped carry the body off the bus, wrapped in a cream-colored blanket – not a hospital blanket, just a regular house blanket with some tassels on the side. The dead man’s feet stuck out from under the blanket. Once he was in the truck bed, his brother climbed in, and held him as they drove away. A few minutes later we got back on the bus, drove to a nearby city, and stopped there for lunch.
For the rest of the trip I tried to process what had happened. I tried to put myself in the brother’s shoes. He allowed the death to occur on the bus, instead of going to a hospital while his brother was still alive… but how much is he to blame? In a country where transportation is limited and healthcare is worse, his decision to stay on the bus is much more understandable. That, and he seemed to have no knowledge of the severity of his brother’s illness. I’m sure he was in a desperate situation, having already paid for a very lengthy and expensive bus trip. If they got off, who knows if they would be able to afford it again.
Then I kept thinking about his trip to Inhambane, cradling his brother’s body in the back of a pickup truck. I can’t imagine ever being in that situation. The very idea of it is heartbreaking and sickening.
And what about the dead man? Who was he? I’m sure he never thought he would die on a bus, and that an American would later write a blog post about it. How strange. How humbling. We try and control so many aspects of our lives, but we can’t control death. In death we are all, finally, equal. I wonder what will happen when I die.
These are just some thoughts.
Death is such a very huge part of life here.