13 September 2011

The Burial

Last month, before I left for Peace Camp (I'll write about that and other work soon), Moses' – a friend from my organisation – father died. I went to the burial; I was glad to be able to go, out of support for a friend, out of interest in the cultural experience, because I'd never been to a burial, a funeral, before, ever, anywhere.

Moses' father was 80-something years old, he'd been sick for a few months by then, but it's still always sad for someone to lose a parent, and I felt a little guilty about wanting to go partially just out of curiosity about the ceremony itself. But, well. (Well? I don't know. It seems fair to me; maybe I'm just insensitive though.)

The burial was in Amuria, a district bordering the north of Soroti (which, remember? [just kidding, I don't really expect you to remember], is the district that borders Ngora to the north and is the district in which the Iteso kids who came to Peace Camp live, another reason I was glad to be able to go), and we piled into my organisation's Toyota Hi-Lux pickup – I always kind of enjoy pointing out that it's a Hi-Lux because all I knew of Hi-Lux-es before coming here was that the Taliban and the, um, rebels (is that what we call them? are they still rebels if they basically run the country?) in Somalia mount machine guns in the beds of theirs, a feature that, I've since learned, does not come standard – and I was sitting in the bed of the truck with, from my organisation, Martin – my 'twin,' remember? again?, the Opio to my Odongo, because we're the same age – Peter, Cuthbert, Vincent, Scovia, Mr Oloit – whose other name I somehow still don't know, though, at least, now I know the one name: after he'd been with my org for several months, my supervisor, randomly, asked me, one day while we were eating lunch under the mango tree and Oloit came and sat down, 'Danieli, you know his name?' and I said, 'Yeah... totally... he's been here for a long time now... ha...ha...' and then she asked what it was, she told me that was what people said when they don't really know, and she was totally right: embarrassing – and, not from my organisation, two old ladies who I'd never met before, and so, needless to say, it was crowded, nine adults (and a full-sized spare tire) in the bed of a pickup. We headed out, bouncing down the dirt road, I covered my head with a pair of someone's waterproof pants during a brief, pelting rain, we bounced along up to the main highway, everyone laughed at the wind wildly whipping my hair, we flew down the tarmac to Soroti Town, through town, then maybe twenty kilometres north of town, we turned right off the tarmac onto another rutted dirt road, this one at times angled at a nearly-forty-five degree angle, and Amuria looks not unlike Ngora though it's less flat, less totally planar, there are long rolling hills, there aren't any of my favourite massive rock formations, there's more space, more empty – read: not cultivated for farming – land, vast expanses of grass, and the grass is tall, taller than in Ngora, tall like in the North, able to hide rebel soldiers, as tall as me, and we hopped out of the back of the truck while Emma – our driver, or, as they say here (and as I love that they say here), our pilot – navigated a metre-deep trench, broken concrete pipe, current of dirty water that cut a swath across the road, everyone disparaging the construction team who'd put in the concrete pipe, 'Eh! These Ugandan engineers... Tsk!' – the disparagement of their fellow Ugandans, and their fellow Africans as a whole, is an entirely different subject that I could go off on but won't here; I feel like it happens a lot, and it bothers me, makes me uncomfortable; it feels like racism that was so engrained during colonialism that they now just take it for fact; I never know what to say when, for example, they say Africans aren't as good at science as Westerners, usually I just end up stammering, 'That's not... It's... No.' But, anyway – then we hopped back in, clambering, and soon after, after two and a half hours total, we were there, Moses' family's homestead, a collection of mud-and-thatch huts.

The ceremony had just begun when we got there. We got in the back of an orderly – more orderly than any I've ever been in in any non-Western country – single-file line, we moved past the coffin, a wooden box, nailed shut, covered in a royal-hued (standard though, not actually for royalty) purple cloth, a large floral arrangement sitting on top, it would've been sitting on his stomach were the coffin open, and though the coffin was closed, nailed shut, there was a small window over his face, his eyes were closed, his expression peaceful, his skin wrinkled and aged but somehow relaxed, you could see the gauzy material the rest of his body was wrapped in, and all I could think about was Mao Tse-tung, lying embalmed in Beijing forever, for (I think?) like forty years by the time we – Sarah and I; hi, Sarah! – saw him, by the time we made a similar silent, single-file procession past his coffin – his not nailed shut, not wooden, simply a large glass box mechanically raised up from the floor each day for the, um, viewings – all I could think about was Mao because he, that, was the only dead person, body, I'd seen before – in that state anyway; I'm not including those lovely folks at the University of Washington cadaver lab, as I mostly saw their guts and, most memorably, their feet, which still had all of the skin and nails and everything – and so I looked at his face, peaceful, wrinkled, and thought of Mao, all while constantly moving slowly by, then, hurriedly, as I moved away from the coffin toward our seats, I remembered to think of a few words of consolation for Moses, his family, his late father, I didn't want to only think of Mao, and then we sat down and the ceremony continued.

The crowd that had gathered, maybe a hundred-strong, was, if not sombre, then certainly subdued, respectful, and I'm lacking another good word for it, but this subdued atmosphere was really only noticeable to me when I thought of it in relation to every other gathering I've been to here, celebratory, educational, whatever, and not when I thought of it in relation to the typical – stereotypical? – Western funeral, or Middle Eastern funeral, or Indian funeral – all of which, of course, I've only read about, seen in movies – because there was no one clad in mournful black, no black-mesh-veiled widow weeping, no stoic son's arm being clutched by a despondent wife and mother, there was no fittingly atmospheric overcast sky, no cold drizzle or autumn leaves that, in a reflection of the occasion, would lose their last grip on the branch and float slowly down in a peaceful death to land on wet cemetery grass, and there was no gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments, no funeral pyre, no screaming out to God in anger and grief, and I realize that this may be a factor not of the cultural – though, I don't know, maybe it is; but I think back to the wails of grief I heard that one night, the night my former neighbour Peter told me that the other neighbours had lost an infant to malaria, and I think not – aspect, but of the fact that it was the burial of a man in the eighth decade of his life, who'd been ill for several months, who'd been a good, successful, respected man – I think he was a deacon in the local church – and I only saw one woman – wife? widow? – let out a single cry of sadness, one that racked her whole body and almost brought her to her knees as she passed by the nailed-shut, purple-clothed, windowed coffin shortly after we'd taken our seats, but even she, like many of the other women there, was dressed in the garish, synthetic colours of a gomes – pronounced gomez; the traditional fancy dress, conical shoulders and a wide sash-like belt tied with a square knot in the front around the waist – a few men were in suits, but even Moses, though his face was uncharacteristically long, wore just a grey polo shirt and khakis, everyone else dressed in whatever they'd wear to go about their normal day after the ceremony, they've done this all before, more than a couple times, I'm sure, and even the weather, blue sky, the sun warm and bright, was less than sombre, subdued only by a handful of heavy black rainclouds gathering in the distance. So: subdued. I mean that the dancing, the music blasted from speakers at an ear-splitting volume, the happy songs and ululations, the loud chatter and louder laughter, those things that typify every other gathering I've ever been to here were absent, but the two short speeches that made up the bulk of the ceremony were more lighthearted than not, seemingly anyway, judging by the speakers' tones of voice and the – albeit, again, subdued – laughter elicited by, presumably, charming anecdotes about Moses' father, and there were these two short speeches, neither longer than five or six minutes, they were followed by the reading of a few verses from the Bible, a hymn sung by the gathered crowd, and even this wasn't mournful-sounding, just respectful, subdued, and then the coffin was lifted, carried to the grave-site, we all followed behind, walked half a kilometre through tall grass under warm sunshine, and we, everyone, gathered around the grave, the coffin had already been lowered in when I walked up, there was another speech, shorter even than the first two, another hymn sung, and handfuls of rocky red dirt were scooped up, tossed down onto the coffin – nailed-shut, purple-clothed, windowed – the dirt and rocks clattered on the wooden box, sounding like the first drops of a heavy rain on a tin roof, and, maybe five minutes after walking up to the graveside, we turned around and walked back through tall grass under warm sunshine to the homestead, the ceremony was over, I asked Martin just to be sure – Is that really it? – and it was, they served lunch, we said goodbye to Moses, hugged, and we'd only been there for barely an hour, even the length of the ceremony, relative to typically hours-long gatherings, was subdued, and we left.

It was interesting. I was glad that I got to go.

And we went back down the angled, rutted dirt road, hopped back out with Emma navigated trench, broken concrete pipe, current of dirty water, and, this time, I was sitting on the edge of the truck-bed wall, the only place to hold onto was the wall, a hand gripping the metal immediately on either side of my butt, not much – barely any – leverage, we bounced along and I tried to keep my balance, my white-knuckle grip, tried to keep the legitimate concern off my face, they'd never let me ride in the back again if I fell out, mostly because I'd probably be dead, then we flew down the tarmac of the highway again, one of my hands fell asleep and I couldn't tell if I was still holding on or not, the rain clouds were gathering again though the sun was still shining brightly as it dipped westward, a couple kilometres off the highway, I could see a column of rain, grey, silvery shafts of water coming down, clearly delineated from where it wasn't raining, maybe one square kilometre getting poured on while the rest of, well, everywhere was still dry, and we picked up two more people, and their two kids, in Soroti Town, now thirteen people in the bed of the truck, and the woman sat down in the bed, her back pushing against my legs and sliding me back so that I was hanging at least eight inches out over the tarmac, at least I'd gotten a better hand-hold on the rail running along the back of the roof, but still, lorries flew by, a metre away from tearing me in half, Emma drove the same way he'd've driven without anyone in the bed, the tarmac whizzed by beneath me, I silently cursed the woman pushing on my legs, my knuckles were white, I pretended just to be hanging off the truck like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, the sun was dipping towards the horizon, the light was golden and warm, we bounced off the highway and down the dirt road toward Ngora, we made it back, I could finally let go, my hands hurt, but I'd never felt so personally responsible to – still – be alive as I did at that moment, and I was happy, maybe inappropriately so, but the feeling was amplified by the fact that I'd been to a funeral for the first time, by the fact that I'd just looked a corpse in the face, that I'd been a tenuous grip on the truck away from the pavement and the speeding lorries, that I'm twenty-six, that I'm healthy, that my family's healthy, that I'd looked a dead person in the face and thought only of Mao because that was all that I had to go on.

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