By Phillip Chirwa
WHEN I introduced myself to the young female supervisor at Thembisa Government Hospital Mortuary, north of Johannesburg, on 6th February, 2010, I was very surprised when she expressed happiness and relief that, at long last, a relative had come forward to claim the old man’s body which had been lying there for nearly three months.
“Thank you Mr Chirwa for coming,” she said. “You see, we have been keeping the old man’s body here for close to three months now. We were wondering what was happening as there was no relative coming forward to claim the body. The rule here is that if a body stays in the mortuary for over three months without being claimed, it is subjected to what we call a pauper’s burial and that’s not something you can wish for a relative.”
The lady then asked me what relationship I had with the old man. “Was he your grandfather?” she asked.
I confessed to her that I had no idea what she was talking about because my purpose of going there had nothing to do with collecting or identifying an old man’s body. I was at the mortuary to establish the circumstances under which a young Zambian lady, Ms Mildred Nduba, had died at the hospital over a week before.
The Zambia High Commission in Pretoria had received a request from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Lusaka, to establish the following facts about the young lady:.
- When the deceased was admitted to the hospital
- Who brought her to the hospital and from where
- The nature of her illness
- Any additional information relevant to the case
As a follow up to this request, my High Commissioner, Mr Leslie Mbula, instructed me to write to the hospital requesting for this information. This was done on 4th February, 2010.The Chief Executive Officer(CEO) of the hospital asked me to go and see him on 6th February,2010.
According to the CEO, Ms Nduba was brought to the hospital by paramedics on 26thJanuary, 2010, at 20:30 hours. The paramedics had picked her from O.R. Tambo International Airport.
There was no one accompanying her. Documents found on her indicated that she was en route to Zambia from Pakistan, the CEO told me. He then referred me to the mortuary to identify the body – only to be greeted by the young lady supervisor expressing relief that a relative had finally come to collect the old man’s body, whichever it was!
I asked the supervisor which old man’s body she was referring to because the body I had gone there to identify was not of a male but of a female.
“But you said you were Mr Chirwa, didn’t you?”
“Correct, madam. Mr Chirwa from the Zambia High Commission in Pretoria.”
“You mean you have Chirwas in Zambia as well?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “I thought that was a Malawian name.”
“You can say that because Chirwas actually originated from Malawi,” I said. “But that is history. This time, Chirwa is a common surname in Zambia as well, especially in the country’s Eastern Province which shares the border with Malawi. I am Chirwa from Zambia.”
The supervisor explained that the old man in the mortuary was also a Chirwa and that was why when I introduced myself as Chirwa, she took it for granted that I was related to him.
She looked quite disappointed. “So the old man’s fate is still to be resolved. Oh my God! We informed the Malawi High Commission in Pretoria to come and claim their national’s body. One officer came , saw the body and went away, never to return. It’s over a month now. We don’t know what’s happening.”
I told her that I was not in a position to answer for the Malawi High Commission because I was from the Zambia High Commission. “Just be patient. I am sure they will come,” I assured her.
Nevertheless, she insisted that I see the old man’s body “just in case he happens to be your long lost grandfather!”
First she took me where Mildred’s body was. After identifying the body, which was of a female in her late 20’s or early 30’s and clad in a jeans suit, we went to see Chirwa’s body. He was a grey-haired old man probably in his late 80’s with the name tag indicating that he hailed from the Malawian district of Mzimba. I felt sorry for him and prayed that his Mission would locate his relatives.
Meanwhile, the Mission eventually assisted Mildred’s family to have her remains repatriated to Zambia. May her soul rest in peace.
The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant who also served in the foreign service as a diplomat in South Africa and Botswana.For comments, sms 0977425827/0967146485 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org Email:email@example.com