On the morning of December 5, 2012, Winlaw Muzirwa, a thirty-eight-year-old former prison guard, walked into the Tinicum Township, Pa., police station in blood-stained clothes, asking to be handcuffed for shooting Daisy Jambawo, his wife of fourteen years, to death.
The police found the thirty-four-year-old woman’s body on the bedroom floor of the couple’s apartment on Third Street. She had been shot twice, in the face and back, with a Ruger P95 pistol while her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, fourteen-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son were at school.
Aside from her husband and children, Jambawo didn’t have any direct relatives in the United States. Her two brothers were in Zimbabwe and her cousins were in the U.K. Informed of the tragedy, her extended family was immediately preoccupied with one thing, aside from taking care of the victim’s children: They had to organize the transport of the woman’s remains from the United States, where she had lived for almost a decade, to her native Zimbabwe for burial.
There is no cheap and dignified way to die in the African diaspora. Funerals and burials in the United States are expensive; repatriation and burials at home, on a family plot—also known as a family’s “heroes acres” in Zimbabwe—are an even more expensive choice, but they allow the deceased’s remains to be near those of other relatives, where the village or community can commemorate the dead without traveling too far. Burying at home means claiming ownership of an identity, marking a belonging that goes beyond a lifetime spent as an immigrant in a foreign country.
While there are no hard numbers on how many bodies are repatriated from the U.S. each year, many immigrants from Zimbabwe and other African countries consider it the only way. Ebou Cham, a Gambian man who has worked with First Avenue Funeral Services in East Harlem for over two decades, says the custom is so common that the funeral home has now made provisions catering specifically to African immigrant families seeking to repatriate a body, and Cham now knows by heart the dollars-per-kilogram of flesh charged by each of the major airlines. Despite the complicated cultural and religious differences between the many African immigrant families who call on him for help, one thing seems to unite them: They do not want to be buried on American soil. Even after twenty-seven years living here and raising his own children in New York, as an African immigrant himself, “I don’t want to die here,” says Cham. “I want to die at home.”
For those who decide to repatriate a dead relative, it’s a race to raise enough money quickly. The cost can be up to $20,000, and in many cases the body ideally needs to arrive in Africa within a week. In Zimbabwe, relatives and friends soon begin to gather at the home village of the deceased to wait for the body to arrive, and culturally, it is considered better to bury the body as soon as possible. Family members must make fast decisions: even after the flight, the trip may be long, along winding dusty roads for hours, many miles from the nearest airport, all the way to a remote village for final burying. If too much time passes, the body could decay and become so spoiled that state authorities would consider it too hazardous to be flown anywhere.
Cremation would be a cheaper option, but it is still largely seen as taboo in many African immigrant communities. “Sometimes they burn bodies here [at First Avenue], but I’ve never had one from Africa,” says Cham on the hundreds of cases he has dealt with since 1989. Most Zimbabweans, for instance, consider it an unpalatable alternative, and many express shame at the thought of bringing only the ashes of a loved one home. Because of the costs, it usually takes the grace of extended family members, friends, community members, religious leaders, or even strangers of the same background to repatriate the bodies of Africans who have made their lives overseas but share the mindset that the afterlife needs to be spent back home.
In Zimbabwe, without a will stating where someone wishes to be buried, the immediate family of the deceased (and the in-laws if the deceased is female and married) are usually given priority in deciding where the body finally rests, sometimes even going over the spouse’s will.
“My people, my family members, particularly my brother, my close relatives, or someone with the same totem [a clan emblem passed down through the paternal line] as me decides where I get buried,” says Judith Mushipe, a Zimbabwean and an assistant professor in business management at St. Thomas University in Florida. Her husband, who died in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, was buried in the family heroes acre in a village in Masvingo, a region in the southeast of the country, near his niece, whose body was repatriated from Tanzania. “It’s like we are giving history to the family. You go back and you see that this is where your grandmother was buried, and your great-grandfather was buried.”
A qualitative study on body repatriation in African immigrant communities published by University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg expressed that families of the deceased often referred to “a deep spiritual connection between the human body and the land from which it originated.” The same study quoted Flavien Nteumagne, a Cameroonian immigrant, as saying he found it hard to believe that a family would not want to repatriate the body of a loved one back home.
“Even when you arrive at the village, with a body, the elders will say tauya naye mwana wenyu—we have come with your child—speaking to the ancestors,” says Mushipe. “It’s like they are now back to the family. They’ve really arrived.”
For this final homecoming, customary throughout Zimbabwe, the village slaughters a cow or a goat, and women prepare food over a fire in a thatched hut. There is sadza, the Shona word for the Zimbabwean staple of thick white porridge made from ground maize meal; usavi, tomato stew; muriwo, green vegetables; mungayi, a medley of roasted groundnuts, peanuts and maize; and sometimes mukomboti, a traditional sorghum beer brewed a week before a scheduled burial in the bellies of large, round coffee-colored calabash pots. Everyone sings and cries together. There are traditional wailers, holding their hands over their heads, singing loudly and skillfully, dancing and stomping their feet into the clay floors of the hut, with tears streaming down their cheeks.
Women wear colorful printed cloth called zambias tied around their waists, and cover their heads. Once the body is buried, everyone can eat and share the beer, scooping it in cups from the large pots. The following day, close relatives wake up before sunrise. Led by the eldest man in the village, they kneel and give the deceased respect. “They are now watching over the entire village,” says Mushipe. They can rest in dignity.
Many families will fight to do whatever it takes to move a body, as long as it arrives home, even when it means trusting someone they do not really know well. In the case of Jambawo’s family, this someone was Christine Sabvute, a quiet, middle-aged Zimbabwean woman with small features and soft, dark brown eyes. Sabvute, a pastor at Forward in Faith Ministries church in Falls Church, Va., met Jambawo only a year before her murder, during one of her visits to the Philadelphia branch of the church. Perhaps because she lived far away, Sabvute became the person Jambawo confided to about her domestic problems in the months leading up to her death.
Jambawo hadn’t spoken about her violent marriage with other members of her community, about the times she felt alone and angry, because of the stress of starting her career as a registered nurse in America. She had told no one that her husband had been on disability for over a year, and that the fights were getting worse. But she told Sabvute on the nights she couldn’t keep it all inside, through panicked phone calls, asking for spiritual guidance and marriage counseling after particularly fiery disputes.
Sometimes Sabvute would wake her husband, Richard, also a pastor, and ask him to speak to Muzirwa, man to man. Richard Sabvute trembles when he remembers those conversations. “I mean, this guy was a corrections officer who looks after people, wicked people in society,” he says. “Then he commits a crime…I was very angry. Because there was a time I had a personal relationship with him. And I told him, point blank: Whatever you do, don’t do anything bad. Promise me that you won’t do anything.”
Christine and Richard Sabvute were at a grocery store parking lot when she received the call, just hours after the murder. “A church elder from the Philadelphia church told us Daisy was gone,” Sabvute says. “I couldn’t move.”
The elder also said the police needed to know who would take care of the children while they sealed the house for investigation. They had no one to call aside from the children’s paternal grandmother, but she did not have a home of her own. She had been living with the family until a month before the murder but moved on to a live-in job as a domestic worker. That night, Sabvute packed a bag of clothes and left for Philadelphia.
The police put the three children, their grandmother and Sabvute up in a hotel as they hunted for Jambawo’s missing cell phone and passport, and combed the house for more pieces of evidence. “The children couldn’t go back to the house,” says Sabvute.
The two teenage sisters tried to console each other. Even though her biological mother still lived in Zimbabwe, Sharon, the older, quieter of the two sisters, had loved Jambawo like her own mother and considered her half-sister, Natalie, her best friend. She refused to leave her two half-siblings to join her father’s family after the murder.
The story of their dead mother and their homicidal father was now public news, displayed for all to see on cable television, and Jambawo’s once full, beautiful face was so disfigured by the gunshots that no one would allow the children to view it. Still, the children frequently asked Sabvute when they would be able to see their mother. As cameramen filmed the bright yellow police tape marking the crime scene around the family home, and as reporters mispronounced their Zimbabwean surnames and speculated on what could possess a man to kill his wife, at the hotel the two girls tried their best not to cry in front of their younger brother, especially when he asked when their mother would come to pick them up.
The children’s grandmother, frail and exhausted from the grief, was finding it difficult to take care of the three children, not to mention take more time off from her job and handle the paperwork, all with her son’s preliminary hearing only two weeks away. Sabvute says that the two girls also expressed to her, in private, that they didn’t want to live with their grandmother. So Sabvute stayed for three weeks while her husband took care of their own four young children at their home back in Frederick, Md.
Three weeks after the murder, and after the police investigation, Sabvute took the children back to their house. She believed it was necessary for closure. But when they arrived, the scene left by the police was a jarring reminder of the details they wished they could forget. “The house was not cleaned up,” she recalls. “All they [the police] did was rip up the carpet and cut the walls. They left the house just like that.”
This was not the same home the children remembered leaving on December 5, after breakfast, before going to school; the last place where they had seen their mother alive, before everything fell apart. They stood there for the last time, and said goodbye in silence.
Although she wasn’t particularly close to Jambawo, Sabvute took over the responsibility of arranging for repatriation of the victim’s body. When Sabvute’s own father had died in the U.K. her family repatriated his body, so she was experienced in the procedure, as well as in the stages and complications of grieving from afar.
“I was very close to my dad,” says Sabvute. “When a parent dies, for me, what I felt then is that my future had been cut short. My dad was at every achievement I made. He would go to town about it. All of a sudden, one day he wasn’t there.”
To make matters worse, she wasn’t able to see him one last time, when he was buried. Though one of the reasons for sending a body back home across continents is for the family to see the body descend into the soil, some African religious customs prevent certain members of the family, like women or “cursed” relatives, from attending the burial.
“In some places in Zimbabwe, they have this burial rite that the oldest child is not supposed to go anywhere near the grave,” says Sabvute, who was the oldest of seven children. Sometimes it’s meant to make grieving easier. But for Sabvute, it made it more difficult to let go. “After the repatriation, it took me so many years to accept what really happened. I don’t know what this is going to do to the children, that they weren’t able to see their mother’s body.”
Sabvute knew that getting Jambawo’s children to Zimbabwe for the funeral, where they could be in the embrace of extended family, was out of the question in any case: It was hard enough to raise the money to send the victim’s body back to her native village, let alone find the $6,000 required for the children to take a flight to Zimbabwe.
“When I heard about the options for the children, that they were going to have to go to foster care, I thought to myself that this can’t happen,” says Sabvute. “There are just so many disadvantages to foster care; they are split, they move from home to home, they never get to be a family.” Sabvute pleaded with authorities not to surrender Jambawo’s children to foster care, and was eventually able to take them to her home in Maryland. “The authorities engaged with this group called Second Chance, in Delaware, and thankfully one of their senior managers was an African man who understood what I meant about African culture, and then we were able to work something else out.”
Repatriation of a body is a complicated process on many levels—legal, logistic and financial. Rwatirisa Matsika, a counselor at the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington D.C., walks a line between business and consolation when dealing with families repatriating bodies.
Over the phone, he speaks in Zimbabwean dialects of Shona and Ndebele flawlessly, comforting those grieving before guiding them through difficult financial transactions. While discussing funeral arrangements, the grieving family may want to talk about their deceased loved one as if they were sitting right beside them. In Zimbabwe, “we treat the dead body in the same way that you talk to a walking person,” says Matsika. “We tell them mufambe zvakanaka—travel well—as if a dead person can make travel plans. Sometimes when a body repatriation is taking too long, I will hear people seriously say, ‘I think this person does not really want to be buried in Africa.’”
Between reassuring words, Matsika needs to ask the hard questions, including how are you paying? and where are your papers? “We have to be convinced that the person is Zimbabwean,” says Matsika.
He has seen several cases in which the deceased had hidden or destroyed all evidence of Zimbabwean citizenship in order to evade being identified as an illegal immigrant with an expired visa. If it is not clear that a person is a Zimbabwean citizen, applying for a death certificate in the United States becomes very cumbersome. The citizenship that was an obstacle to the new life in a foreign country suddenly becomes the most valuable asset in order to rest in peace.
After Jambawo died, it took the police at least two weeks to find her passport. But once her identity was confirmed, Sabvute still had perhaps the biggest obstacle to clear: finding the money for repatriation in the midst of family quarrels.
In Zimbabwean culture, marriage and courtship rituals flow easily into burial rites. When Muzirwa and Jambawo married, the young couple had traveled to the village to meet her family, where Murirwa paid a bride price, called roora in Shona, to prove his undying love and commitment. A cow had been killed and roasted over a smoky fire. For days, the families negotiated a price, and a union. It was a social contract, a gesture to say that the groom would take care of the bride, a promise. It meant recognizing that the bride’s family had the right to demand compensation up to the amount that was paid for the roora if anything happened to their daughter. In Shona culture, when a woman is killed, someone pays.
“The family of the man [Muzirwa] knows very well what they did, and they know it’s a big crime. And Daisy’s family wanted compensation,” says Richard Sabvute. Although adamant that the body be repatriated, Jambawo’s family wasn’t going to pay for what tradition demanded Muzirwa’s family should cover, so Sabvute looked to get money through other ways. Around the country, community organizations such as The Nigerian Community Help Center, the Senegalese Association and the United Gambians Association in the Bronx offer informal burial insurance plans that allow families to pay for repatriations for as little as twenty dollars a month. But there is no such group offering help to Zimbabwean immigrants in the U.S. For urgent situations, such as Jambawo’s, the Zimbabwean government often suggests asking the reserve bank of Zimbabwe for assistance. However, with the political and economic woes that plague the country, that option rarely, if ever, comes through.
“I’ve never heard of someone actually going there and getting money,” says Matsika, the embassy employee. “But when they ask me about options, that’s what I tell them.”
While the families argued over who would pay for the murder, the financial cost of bringing Jambawo’s body from Philadelphia to Harare, Zimbabwe, fell on Sabvute, her husband and their church. Seeking contributions from the community became necessary, but despite the tragic circumstances of Jambawo’s death, few were willing to help a near stranger. She had only been part of the Forward in Faith Congregation for a year, and she lived in Philadelphia.
“The problem is, when you now try to raise money, people don’t know her,” Sabvute says. Before her murder, Jambawo had been known to keep to herself. “So you tell people we’re looking at $12,000, and people are coming to give you ten or twenty dollars each.” At that pace, it took nearly three months to raise even half the money needed, about $6,000. The funeral home ultimately agreed to reduce the price and send the body home for $6,000.
But the odyssey wasn’t over yet.
The Jambawo family, who would be in charge of collecting the body when it arrived in Zimbabwe, refused to confirm a date to send the body until the Muzirwa family compensated for Jambawo’s death.
Another month passed. The families finally agreed on a fee. By the time Jambawo’s body left the mortuary in Philadelphia, it had been frozen there for four months. It was spring when Jambawo finally arrived home.
Jambawo’s children could not follow their mother to Zimbabwe, and didn’t want to. Removed from their home, and with their father behind bars, placing calls to his daughters that always ended in painful silence, they have been trying to move on and feel at home in the Sabvutes’ house in Maryland.
“After the murder, the children were left with absolutely nothing,” says Christine Sabvute. The kids attend schools in the area and share chores with the couple’s four children. Sabvute, who now has permanent custody of them, wakes up early in the morning and goes to sleep late at night, which she sees as her duty as a mother to the new children in her life.
“Coping with grief has been hard because of my role as a pastor, and now as a mother for children whose father is incarcerated,” says Sabvute. “There are many times when I’d like to just let my guard down and cry, but I have to be strong for them.”
Sabvute makes sure Jambawo’s eight-year-old son doesn’t have to take the school bus with everyone else each morning, because he finds the bus’s groans and screeches too unbearable, and she is still trying to find the best way to help with his learning disabilities. She has inherited teenage daughters and speaks about clothes, school and boys in a new language.
“I want the children to get over this, and to excel in life, and for this thing, this tragedy, never to follow them in the future.” says Sabvute. As American citizens (the youngest was born in the United States, the others were naturalized), if the children manage to move on from this tragedy, they may become the first generation to truly call this country home.
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Melanie Gillman is a cartoonist and illustrator from Denver, Colorado. She is currently working on As the Crow Flies, a graphic novel about queer teens in Christian youth camps.