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WHAT FLOWERS do you take to a funeral in Zimbabwe?

"Man or woman?" the sidewalk vendor asks.


Then choose anything, he says. But for a man, stay away from pink. Jesca selects pink and butterscotch roses surrounded by stiff ferns.

Steering her taxi to Ruth's, Jesca tells us she has already paid for her own funeral. When the time comes, she doesn't want her young daughter to have to deal with burial costs.

"When you know your status," she says, "you have to plan your things. No one will do it for you. I want to have a house, so when I am sick, no one will chase me for the rent. When I have my own house I will be free to say, Ha! I have AIDS! I have HIV! I know where I will die!"

Ruthís older sister Regina is overwhelmed with grief as the family holds the funeral vigil in their small cinderblock home. Millions of families in sub-Saharan Africa have conducted this ritual, but each death carries its own profound loss. Global health workers say marriage itself has become one of the greatest health risks to women in the sub-Sahara, where as many as a third of all men are infected with HIV.
We exit the highway toward Mabvuku, past the condom billboard to the main street lined with girls walking to school in crimson and blue uniforms, their bare legs inviting any man's gaze. A few more zig-zags, past roadside stalls roofed with cracked plastic and men lounging on stray tires, to the little cinderblock house.

Mourners spill into the street, resting under trees, adjusting babies strapped to their backs, dancing in a dusty circle. Tafadzwa and a gaggle of cousins play with homemade cardboard tops and lumpy balls of wadded newspaper.

Martha hugs a street pole. A neighbor child pulls a copper coin from his pocket and gives it to her along with a piece of foil he picks off the ground. She sits on a rock in a brand new yellow lace dress, tearing the foil into small pieces. Someone has braided her hair in neat horizontal plaits. It's hot. The hearse from Dove's funeral home pulls up, bringing Ruth home one last time.

Her twin sisters Mercy and Ida, clutch each other, their cries screeching through the neighborhood. As young women of childbearing age who are not yet mothers, it would be bad luck for them to attend the burial, so they must say goodbye to Ruth here. Their brother Francis leans against a peeling doorjamb, face wet with tears. Martha turns her back as her mother's coffin is carried into the house. Tafadzwa is lost in a crush of legs. His nose is dripping and nobody has noticed to wipe it.

"This African culture, itís destroying our women."

Ruth rests at the bottom of an open box, under a dangling lightbulb, topped by baskets of flowers. She looks frail and old. Tucked in the coffin's depths, wearing a scalloped white cap, she looks nothing like the portrait of her propped up amongst the flowers, a picture that captures the round childish cheeks and shyness of a schoolgirl on a sunny day.

Ruth's uncle reads from the Bible in a booming voice, invites others to speak and asks several times, sarcastically, Is anybody here from the husband's side?

The family circles for viewing. Tafadzwa tries to touch his mother's face. He tosses a piece of charcoal into her coffin so her ghost won't haunt him at night. Amai Caty gently places Ruth's favorite blouse in the coffin, the white one with red roses embroidered on the collar. Martha comes around three times, finally looks at her mother on the second pass and waves goodbye on the third. Smoke from the msasa wood fire stings the eyes, swells the throat. The women sing, always sing.

The sun shines directly overhead when the mourners scramble onto two open-bed lorries for a boisterous ride to the cemetery, which sprawls on the edge of the township. The field is stark. Shriveled maize on one side, mounded graves on the other. Each day, the mounds move toward the maize. Soon, the dead will overwhelm the crop.

Narrow graves are pre-dug and waiting for the dead. If AIDS continues unabated for the next 20 years, the worldwide death toll will reach 68 million.
Pre-dug graves yawn empty and waiting, barely two shoe-lengths apart. Uncles set two sticks across one of the open slots and balance Ruth's coffin there while relatives speak of her life: She was a good girl who never went to pubs; others shouldn't gossip about her disease because it's likely in their household too; everyone should care for Ruth's two children; even if there's no bread, they should share what they have.

Before they finish, another hearse pulls up, bearing another daughter for another funeral. Ruth's mourners rush through the final hymns, then the men jump into the grave, smooth the pit's bottom with their shovels, lay woven bamboo mats above and below the coffin, lower the box with ropes, dig, rake, tamp the dirt, fast, furious, colliding with each other, vying for the shovels as if cutting in at a dance. It's an astonishing display of strength, virility, love.

Ruth's littlest sister Ireen carries a plum-colored plastic washbasin with matching toothbrush, a white plate, a spoon and a cup decorated with butterflies. They are smashed and mangled so no one will steal them, and set atop Ruth's fresh grave, utensils for the next life. Roses are placed there, too, crawling with bees, and a potted philodendron that was Ruth's favorite houseplant, bottles of orange Fanta and Coca-Cola, a sheaf of grasses tied with twine. Aunts and cousins and sisters-in-law walk on their knees, sprinkling and sweeping the crumbly soil. Tafadzwa plays in the sand. Amai Caty holds Martha, softly rubbing the small girl's head.

A hand-lettered tin sign spells out Ruth's name in the language of Malawi, her parents' homeland:

Lute Rosemary Chimuonenji
Date of birth: 31-1-78
Date of death: 7-07-02

Two shoe-lengths away, the next coffin is already in the ground and the next wave of mourners starts to sing and dig. To Ruth's right, five holes wait to be filled. To her left, seven people were buried earlier today. Two of the new graves are simply marked with rocks and sticks. Five are covered with flowers.

All of the blossoms are pink.

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