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First Person: Noni Gachuhi, Public Health Specialist, on African Experiences and Perspectives (Video Interview)

Our traditions and our experiences with death across a society lead us to look at death differently.

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Noni Gachuhi is a global development consultant working in public health. I spoke with her from Nairobi, where she grew up and was visiting. Noni lived in the United States while studying for her undergraduate and masters degrees, and has since worked in public health in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, and India as well as Kenya.

I found it wonderful to reflect on the end of life experience by looking back and forth between cultures. Noni talked about the traditional African approach of keeping ancestors close in daily life, which brings with it a different relationship to death. She shared the way that many Africans have traditionally experienced death as one of life's important rites of passage rather than as an end to be feared. Does all of that make it easier to talk about death? The answer is still, "No." We don't want to talk about death and invite it upon ourselves. The AIDS epidemic in Africa made death even more taboo to discuss, and changed the way many people across the continent think about death and  longevity.

"In the US, the memory of the dead seems to be locked away and put away. But here there is a huge emphasis on ancestors and the incorporation of ancestors into people's daily lives."

"Traditionally death was just considered another rite of passage. Death wasn't a thing that was kept so far flung and that people wanted to distance themselves from."

"People don't talk about death. I suppose it's a fairly global phenomenon that if you talk about it, are you inviting it into your space?"

"People in their prime of life were being killed off by the AIDS virus and that had a really significant effect on the idea of death and what longevity meant."

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How can we help people explore different ways of framing the idea of death, to find a healthy relationship for themselves?

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Noni makes an interesting observation and mention when she says in the villages the graves are very close by, only few meters away in some villages, so you are constantly reminded of your ancestors. Where as in the West we tend to live far away from grave sites and its usually large plots of land put away by the government and so its easier to forget about death.

The proximity of graves impact on your daily thoughts of death and ancestors and how vulnerable we all are. Constant reminders of death can put perspective in people's lives and guide better living. But in context of this project, the proximity of death reminders may also help us to remember it may be a joyous next step, as we become united with our loved ones who have already passed. Maybe the thought of dying wont be so hard on people who fear it.

When Noni says they are able to visit the sites more often, it may be reassuring to elderly that death is not a lonely end. Its still celebrated with generations to come.