A man in a workman’s suit stands at an open grave. A coffin has just been lowered into the freshly dug pit as family and friends eulogise the deceased; a wife, mother, grandmother, probably also an ardent member of a local church group and women’s societies and clubs in her community. In essence, family and friends are gathered to bury a woman of high repute and social standing and speak of her unending kindness and goodness.
But a man stands at that open grave with his granddaughter in his arms. And he is not following the agreed cultural script for mourning the dead. Rather, he is accusing the woman who everyone has come out to celebrate of the highest cruelty and malice.
In the video of a man only known as Lameck that surfaced a couple of days ago and has since gone viral, we see a man visibly angered by what he deems to be hypocritical glorification of the woman. He tells all the mourners gathered of the pain that he has suffered as a result of her actions; that the deceased woman made his daughter – who has a child by the woman’s son – sleep outside their family home, dousing his daughter in the woman’s urine to show her disapproval.
It is this child that he is carrying in his arms; a child he tells all the mourners that he is taking care of, along with his daughter. He then issues an ultimatum to the woman’s family that they have 48 hours to resolve outstanding issues between him and the woman, as well to come to an agreement with him about ongoing maintenance for his granddaughter. No one will eat any food after the burial, he says, until and unless his grievances are resolved.
Lameck’s demeanour is unapologetic and his anger is palpable. But the silence of those gathered appears to betray the fact that his words resonate with them too, that they know that the woman they have been extolling was indeed not as they say she was.
There are many reasons why this video has caught the interest of so many people. Firstly, this is a funeral. Regardless of a person’s shortcomings in their life, funerals are often seen as a final process of redemption, and not as a space in which to recite the offences that the deceased has committed. Secondly, this is a man standing in defence of his daughter who has had a child outside of marriage. While this is increasingly common, it is still something that many Zimbabwean families perceive to be a source of shame. So for a parent – and more specifically, a father – to stand in for his daughter, while holding his granddaughter protectively in his arms, overthrows many cultural ideas, and challenges popular notions of Zimbabwean masculinity and fatherhood.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that this video surfaces the unexpressed anger that so many Zimbabweans live with. For ours is increasingly a culture of silence and resilience; a culture in which suppression of one’s pain is exalted and perseverance celebrated, regardless of what physical, social and psychological harm this may bring with it. And sadly, ours too is a culture where expression of such pain is often only given the gravitas it deserves through something as momentous as death.
If Lameck had attempted to take similar action against the woman while she was alive, the response to his words would have been markedly different; he would likely have been labelled ‘mad’. And the reasons for such a response could be many; including, perhaps that everyone in the family feared the deceased woman so intently that they too had censored their critique of her to protect their own interests.
Lameck shows an awareness of this by saying – in the same video – that he realises that many of the mourners will be surprised by this public expression of his anger because he didn’t speak much of it when the woman was alive, even though they lived within close proximity of each other.
Years even passed as he stewed in his unacknowledged and unresolved emotions. Just like so many other Zimbabweans.
Often, I speak of Zimbabweans as traumatised people. Whether politically, socially or culturally, I believe we are a traumatised nation. And this trauma is exacerbated by the fact that we are usually given restrictive binaries through which to exist and express ourselves. So if you cannot articulate grievances in the agreed language of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, you are systemically silenced and forced to navigate your pain alone.
What Lameck represents to me is defiance of this new normal and disregard for the constricted modes of expressing dissent that are ingrained in our culture and popular discourse. What Lameck symbolises is what is so sorely lacking in our society; a willingness to speak against convention and systems of oppressive power in ways that make sense to us as individuals.
So often, we are asked as – Zimbabweans – to take big public actions against power. And when questions or discomforts are raised, these are deemed to be a betrayal of a cause. And just as often, ‘speaking truth to power’ is constructed as taking action solely against political power, neglecting the fact that the personal is just as political.
I hardly think Lameck had any idea that he would become such a viral sensation; or that his stance would begin a conversation – through memes, jokes and social media commentary – about what really standing up for what one believes is right looks like. And perhaps that is the magic in this; that Lameck did not do what he did for public affirmation or validation.
He asked nothing of any one of us, but he reminded us that individuals standing firmly in their convictions and expressing dissent about the things that matter to them are just as important as collective movements or groups doing the same. Lameck reminds us that speaking up is most authentic, most effective, when we can speak to our own pain and the context thereof.
He reminds us what action – beyond its sometimes hollowed appropriation for political purposes – really looks like.
The identity of the photographer of the main photograph is unknown. It was, however, taken during a mass action effort in Bulawayo in 1997 and features the author (to the right of frame) as a young girl.