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Homeless in the Afterlife

Death in the diaspora remains a difficult part of the immigrant experience. Bodies long departed can take longer to return. Myriad and alienating bureaucratic procedures often delay the passing of souls in a tortuous passing of time. Florence Madenga recalls the way back home.

On the morning of 3 December 2012, Winlaw Muzirwa walked into the Tinicum police station in Essington, Pennsylvania in bloodstained clothes and asked to be handcuffed for killing his Zimbabwean wife. Daisy Jambawo had been shot while her 15-year-old stepdaughter, 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son were at school.

For Christine Sabvute, the couple’s Zimbabwean pastor, 3 December was the beginning of a long stay in a hotel with three frightened children who were waiting to go back to their home on Third Street. Sabvute couldn’t go back to her own home in Frederick, Maryland as planned; every night for the first week she had to wash her only set of clothes. Her husband took care of their four children at home and could only bring her clean clothes over the weekend.

Three weeks after the murder, once the police had finished combing the house on Third Street for evidence, Sabvute took the children back there for the sake of closure.

“All the police did was rip up the carpet and cut the walls,” she recalled. “They left the house just like that.”

The children stood close together for the last time on the battleground where they had lived for most of their lives, and where Daisy Jambawo’s body had been found on the bedroom floor, shot twice with a 9 mm Ruger P95 pistol. They tried to grieve with Sabvute, a quiet, petite woman they had only met a few times before. They weren’t ready to say goodbye, and were unsure where and when the body of their mother, which had already been stuck in a Pennsylvania mortuary for three weeks, would finally go. In the end, it would be almost four months before members of the Zimbabwean community and relatives could send Daisy Jambawo’s body back to the only adult surviving members of her immediate family, her two brothers living in Zimbabwe.

When it became clear that Jambawo’s case would take longer than those first interminable three weeks to resolve, Sabvute pleaded with the authorities not to surrender the children to foster care. With the permission of Muzirwa’s mother, whom authorities deemed too unsettled to assume permanent custody, Sabvute took the children with her to Maryland.

She had years of experience of giving counsel to grieving families, both in Zimbabwe and later in England and the US. She knew only too well that the mourning process could take years beyond the sending home of the body, beyond court papers, and beyond the grave. As a teenager, she had lost her own father.

Sabvute also had expertise in facilitating repatriation of the dead. Both she and her husband Richard, also a pastor, had first got involved with the process in London in the 1990s. Their first case had been that of a Zimbabwean woman who had died shortly after arriving in the UK. She had had family, but no one could find her papers.

Richard Sabvute stepped in. He contacted Chris Reilly, a British mortician who had lived in Zimbabwe and had experience with body repatriation from overseas to Harare and thereafter to the smaller, dustier township streets of Chivhu, or into remote rural areas.

Reilly took the case and consulted with lawyers, shuffling paperwork back and forth between embassies and the funeral home until the body could leave the UK. Several cases later, Richard had encouraged Reilly to open his own funeral home. CJ Reilly Funeral Services today has a website that lists bodies in its care and awaiting return to their homeland. Obituaries accompany every entry. Ezi Nwosu Idika, a Nigerian, “was always smiling, showing her beautiful teeth”. Tendai Vera was a “real people person, who enjoyed perusing through Shona novels” and an “expert at cooking derere”.

All of them are on their way home.

In 2008, the body of Fortune Maparutsa lay in Reilly’s funeral home. Maparutsa happened to be from Richard Sabvute’s home village in the Honde Valley area. He was also a national icon, known for a fusion of urban beats that Zimbabweans call “barbed wire music”, different from the museve music associated with rural life. Maparutsa had produced the 1990s hit “Wangu Ndega”, an anthem for the generation of fun-loving young Zimbabweans that had emerged after the independence era of the 1980s. Energetic dance moves, flattop hairstyles, blazers with padded shoulders, and colourful lyrics were emblematic of Maparutsa music.

His controversial death appeared equally frenetic. Zimbabwean papers reported rumours of fights among family members over the cause of the singer’s death. A sister allegedly accused Maparutsa’s ex-wife and other family members living in the UK of murdering her brother. Zimbabwe mourned. In memory of Maparutsa, television and radio stations played tributes and songs from his earlier work. But the singer’s body would lie thousands of kilometres away in a London funeral parlour for eight long months. His family reportedly could not provide the UK£2,450 needed to transport his body to Harare. Zimbawe has changed since that time, but still, for too many living overseas, after sending remittances home there are no funds left for hefty insurance plans or bank accounts to draw on in emergency situations, such as repatriating a body. Although family structures are evolving across borders, sometimes things fall apart.

“I used to call the United Kingdom a leveller,” Sabvute said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve come in with a Master’s degree from Zimbabwe. Now you have to take lower-level jobs, you have to follow directions from someone else and not with the respect you were used to.”

In December 2011, just a year before Daisy Jambawo’s death, the Sabvutes had consoled the sister of a Zimbabwean woman who had been murdered by her boyfriend in Seattle. Unlike Jambawo’s body, authorities had found the remains of Mary Mushapaidze in a metal rubbish bin, dismembered and burnt in the couple’s garage. A report of the crime on suggested that the murder had taken place after a vicious domestic argument: “US: Woman Killed Over Dirty Dishes”, the headline read.

For many Zimbabwean men that Christine knows, “there is this thing in their upbringing. They are taught that it’s the wife that does everything in the home. When they enter the diaspora, it’s a different ball game. They are now forced into being a hands-on father. Help with homework. Wash the dishes. I don’t know if this killing of wives is a part of the frustration, a part of trying to assimilate into the new culture.”

There was a report on saying that just before Daisy Jambawo’s death, she had scoffed at her husband, who was on disability, telling him to “act like a man”. But Richard Sabvute said there was no way to know exactly what had happened between them. “Only God knows,” he said.

The Sabvutes knew the couple well enough to be aware that they had had marital difficulties. “When I saw Muzirwa in court, he said he was sorry,” Christine said. “I had no response for that. When you’ve been counselling people in their marriage, and this happens, you feel like a failure. That was the first reaction I felt.”

Remembering a conversation with Muzirwa months before the murder, Richard said, “I had told him, point blank, don’t do anything bad. And he promised that he wouldn’t do anything. We don’t do that. We don’t kill women. It’s out of order.”



Ebou Cham, owner of First Avenue Funeral Services in New York.

Ebou Cham, owner of First Avenue Funeral Services in New York.

Only days before the Jambawo murder in Pennsylvania, five men gathered around a corpse in East Harlem, New York City. The dead man, wrapped from head to toe in white muslin and jammed in a long tin case, lay in a room at First Avenue Funeral Services. Delicately the men tried to slide the body out of the case. Ebou Cham supported the neck while the others eased their arms into any small spaces they could find.

There wasn’t much time left. The body had already spent too long in transit from St Thomas to New York. Now it had to be transferred from the heavy tin case to a lighter wooden box, more convenient for shipment on a Royal Air Morocco evening flight to Dakar. The men moved the body in silence, faces expressionless, arms shaking slightly, eyes on the corpse as they lowered the body onto the white cloth at the bottom of the wooden box. “One more thing,” Cham said, as he walked towards the dead man’s head. He took a deep breath and unwrapped a section of the lifeless face to identify it, the last step before closing the box.

For over a decade, Cham has been the man to close the cargo box before the final send-offs for many African immigrants. At 59 years, he has organised the repatriation of more than 300 of the dead. Among them have been cases in which he is the only person that poor and grieving immigrant families can turn to. Of the bodies he has prepared, Cham said, “I’m not scared of them anymore. I could sleep in the cemetery with them. They don’t bother me.”


First Avenue Funeral Services , New York.

First Avenue Funeral Services , New York.

Cham did not know the dead man from St Thomas. He had received a call from the Association des Sénégalais d’Amérique. A body was stranded in St Thomas. Cham had assured the caller that he would take care of it. The dead man had an expired passport. Cham had arranged for emergency travel documents. The body needed to be sent to Dakar and wrapped according to Muslim death rites. He had alerted the funeral home in St Thomas and then contacted the deceased’s family in New York about a flight on Royal Air Morocco.

“It’s him,” Cham nodded to the four other men in the room. One of the morticians closed the box with a long wooden plank, cut to fit, then nailed it shut. Cham labelled the box methodically in black marker, first “head”, in English then Arabic, followed by “legs”, in English and again in Arabic. He covered the coffin with a thin green velvet blanket, embroidered with yellow and gold Arabic characters. He made sure the body’s head was pointing towards Mecca. Then came the hardest part: waiting for the family to arrive.




This is an excerpt from an article by Florence Madenga, published in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic.

To read the article in full, get a copy in our online shop (in print or as a PDF) or visit your nearest stockists.

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