WHEN solemn occasions do not go according to script, people are least prepared for that.
echoes: CONWAY TUTANI
And so the dreaded departure from the script happened at the burial of a Harare woman about two weeks ago when one Lameck of Mabvuku budged in and dropped a bombshell, telling the stunned gathering that the deceased had been evil during her living days and that all the glowing tributes being paid to her were most empty, hypocritical and disgusting. You could cut through the sense of shock and embarrassment as people were frozen into silence.
Lameck did not just speak out of the blue. The background to that is this: Prior to the woman’s death, Lameck’s school-going daughter was impregnated by the woman’s son, who was still living with his parents. As is customary in such circumstances in Zimbabwean society, Lameck’s daughter eloped to the woman’s home, where, according to Lameck, she faced hell. Lameck told the burial gathering that the woman threw his daughter out of the house, forcing her to sleep outside without any blankets at the mercy of the inclement weather. Not only that, the woman urinated in a tin during the night and splashed the contents on Lameck’s daughter sleeping outside. This was in total contrast to the public persona of the women in that community as good and kind. This “halo effect” could have been at play, where people assume that just because a person is old and grandmotherly, they are sinless, a halo being the circle of light shown above or around the head of a saint or holy person to represent their holiness.
Well, Lameck disabused the mourners from misplacing holiness on evil. Going by what Lameck said and the deathly silence from the gathering, the woman must have been uniquely and outstandingly wicked.
Lameck, instead of being ostracised for breaking funeral etiquette, became an overnight sensation. It’s known that some people are effusive no matter what the occasion, but it’s more so at weddings and even much more so at funerals. And Lameck couldn’t have chosen a more perfect occasion to point out this tendency to lie and exaggerate.
He spoke for many at that burial and beyond, including Zimbabwean families seething with anger at the government after it bestowed hero status on people who brutalised, maybe even killed, their loved ones as recently as last month.
There was also a “Lameck moment” at a funeral I attended some three years ago. The moment — or bombshell — came when a maternal uncle (the brother of the mother) told the large gathering — made up of relatives, friends, various church denominations and all and sundry — that the immediate family had mistreated and neglected the deceased only to give her an expensive burial, saying this was hypocrisy of the highest order. In most African cultures, the maternal uncle is the closest person you can get to a mother. It is no coincidence that Nguni tribes refer to the maternal uncle as “malume”, literally speaking “male mother”. So, can anyone, besides the actual mother, speak more from the heart about a nephew or niece than a maternal uncle?
There was a long silence when the gist and thrust of the uncle’s speech became clear. Then people, after recovering from the initial shock, began to nod in agreement as the uncle continued because what he was saying made sense when they connected this to what they knew about how the deceased lived and the circumstances leading to the death. Laughter and silence are among some of the most reliable guides about people’s feelings in any gathering. In this case, it was most inappropriate to laugh, but to vent their feelings in nodding in silence in spontaneous agreement — not on cue, as happens at political rallies where most reactions are choreographed.
From that “Lameck moment”, many people at that funeral finally got to know that this “model”, “picture-perfect” or “completely flawless” family was actually as dysfunctional as any. They began to see the family for what it really was beneath that outward display of piety — that posturing as being outstandingly and uniquely spiritual and devout Christians — that many people associate with or ascribe to those wearing church uniforms and leading in singing hymns at each and every gathering. People, mostly discerning ones, began to see that pious, holier-than-thou attitude about them.
But, of course, others — myself included, but lacking Lameck’s boldness — had long seen through in that “picture-perfect” family that pious air characterised by a hypocritical concern with virtue or religious devotion; that sanctimoniousness used in the name of pretended motives for some ostensibly good objective. It sucks when people are that falsely earnest, falsely sincere.
That others still fail to see through this can be explained as a function of the “halo effect”. The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person (she is a grandmotherly lady in a church uniform) impacts on your evaluation of that person’s specific traits (from the church uniform and her old age, you can wrongly — and disastrously — associate her with honesty, uprightness and kindness). To simplify the halo effect, appearances are often deceptive. Thus, merely wearing, for example, a Manyano/Ruwadzano uniform or Catholic nun’s habit does not make one holy.
Another example of halo effect is when everything said by a black Zimbabwean is accepted as the truth without question just because it’s spoken with a British accent. Of course, it’s a wrong and ignorant assumption, it’s a non sequitur. Listen to the sense of it all — not the accent. There is no link — direct or tenuous — between accent and intelligence. If it were so, all in the British Royal Family would be PhDs.
Another wrong and ignorant inference is that because someone is good at doing A (running his business), he should run the family and the wider clan likewise, instructing someone to take minutes and all the jazz that goes on in a boardroom. Or because someone is neat and well-groomed, he knows everything and should be listened to without question
Says clinical psychologist Kendra Cherry: “One great example of the halo effect in action is our overall impression of celebrities. Since we perceive them as attractive, successful, and, often, likable, we also tend to see them as intelligent, kind and funny.” Well, 1970s celebrity Gary Glitter is serving jail time for paedophilia.
Lameck, without using scholarly language, has told us not to have our judgment contaminated by the halo effect, overvaluing certain attributes while undervaluing others.
Added to that, it does look like Lameck has caused a long overdue cultural paradigm shift and funerals will no longer be the same. In Italy, they have professional mourners, so it would not be that unprecedented to suggest that Lameck be for hire for a fee to make no-holds-barred graveside speeches.
Hypocrites of the world, beware of what Lameck of Mabvuku has started!
Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org