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."