Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Death of a Father

 A line of headlights appeared along the road, horns blaring as the procession came closer - they were escorting the body to be displayed and prayed over before the ceremony. In a matter of minutes motorcycles were spinning in circles, kicking up dust and threatening bodily harm. It's quite possible none of them should have been driving, but they needed strength to lift their father's casket high overhead and bring him to their grieving mothers.

We followed them into the house and despite two sound systems boasting separate playlists, I felt like I'd intruded upon the most private moments of a family's mourning. The bombastic beat seemed to disappear as women sat with tears streaming down their cheeks; some wailed openly, collapsing against walls and calling to God; others, still, prayed in earnest. It was raw and loud and honest, and I felt like a voyeur.

The crowd soon moved to a darkened part of the house where I could hear traditional drumming. As I held the hand of each woman in turn, the coffin sat silently behind us, a traditional priest standing over it with eyes closed in concentration. Whispers and sobbing carried from each open door until we turned the final corner, where we found a circle of women and girls speaking in tongues - some on their knees; some with hands raised; every head thrown back and dripping with perspiration. Two women led prayer; I do not know how long it lasted. I, too, lifted quiet words of peace for a man we'd watched die painfully and afterward retired to rest. The moon seemed far, far away as Lauren and I sat in the cool night watching children dance, traditional drumming broke out occasionally into the darkness.

Many things happened at once: music and dancing, traditional displays, Pito brewing and drinking, food sellers setting up shop as countless men and women moved in and out of the house to give condolences. We sat in plastic chairs and watched, for a time, dark approaching clouds from the East; lightening flashed and we smiled, hoping. Eventually it rained, a blessing from our father, and we danced much to the children's delight.

At 10pm the first church service started, at eleven Lauren and I slunk away to sleep - we were naive to think it'd be that easy. Some time around midnight both speakers began again and at 3:30am we woke to a traditional war dance near the window; once drumming stopped 50 Cent came on and we deliriously discussed his merits at a funeral. I assume we fell asleep shortly after.

At 6:30 in the morning, I opened my eyes to find the music had not stopped; animated conversations outside told me the day was in full swing again (and that no one had slept). Today, we were told, was the service and burial; drumming and dancing would continue tonight, but today was the last official day of the Christian Ceremony. After a hearty breakfast (Southwestern Omelets with CHEESE) we picked our way to the tents. It was quiet again and cool (for Africa); we were put in the front row. 

The ceremony lasted five hours, almost as if we'd simply decided to go to church that day. Every denomination was represented by a song (accompanied by an amazing band of calabashes and drums) and a particularly zealous sermon was given by the local pastor. Two rounds of donations were performed, though Lauren and I observed it was just as much a part of the culture to pretend to give as it was to give generously, and at the close of three eulogies and a biography, the casket was opened and all were invited to give their last respects. Since dead bodies creep me out, we opted out (though an usher enthusiastically told us we were, in fact, allowed to view the body, as well). He had no idea we'd already said our goodbyes along with 50 Cent the morning before.

With the ceremony finished, it was time for Pito (local beer) and general merriment. I devised a plan to leave for Lauren's site. If we thought it was bad the night before, we were fools: drunk men I'd never met before were already milling around my yard, waggling their eyebrows at me as I made my way to the latrine. I wouldn't say that I'm a wimp, but I wimped out. 

As we left, dozens of people watched a traditional priest lead a lamb to sacrifice and an older man led the boys of the household in a war dance (complete with bows, arrows and two rifles) to scare bad spirits away. Droves of people in various states of sobriety greeted us as we walked to Social Center, headed, no doubt, for one of two speakers to dance their sorrows away. No doubt it was a party to remember.

Since returning, traditional funeral rights have continued - one lone man bangs his drum over the house at sunset and sunrise. The house, still in open mourning, lets out a piercing cry occasionally as women come and go, presiding over the family's comfort. Truth be told, most of life has returned to normal. The only sign that anything has changed is the open chair our father used to sit in, an absence made all the more obvious by the silence when his drums stop. 

May he rest in peace