Ntate comes and tells me, “I am going to help them build a box. Them. Down there.” He points to the compound that is down the hill from us – our nearest neighbors.
“Ok, Ntate.” I wait. He is still looking at me, so I have a feeling he is not through. He will explain.
The reason comes. “It is because the baby has died. So they need a box. They do not know how to build a box.”
“Died?” I repeat, shocked. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” He nearly yells, throws up his hands and looks away. “Yesterday she fell sick, and today she has died. They don’t know how to build a box, for her, so I will help them to build a box.”
That afternoon, I am walking up the hill clutching my water bucket – I do not know how to carry it on my head. Yet. I hear singing.
I look up to see the procession of villagers and a small coffin carried by the men in front. The women are at the back, and the mother – I learn later – is one of the very last walking. I put my bucket down, my back aching, and watch the tiny box come closer – as if carried above the heads by the haunting harmony. I just stand, uncertain what to do, hoping to convey my respect without intrusion, and already crying. The procession makes its way right past where I am standing, and several villagers greet me in a quiet ‘Lu me la’. One girl I tutored in math the previous evening at my rondavel. A smile feels so strange, but I am happy to see her and we both do anyway.
A woman I do not recognize motions for me to join the walking, so I do. We walk up the hill. I know we are headed towards the graveyard behind the village. The singing continues. Women are making sure I am still travelling with them, short glances of encouragement as we make our way over the steep dirt paths.
The mother is pointed out. She is wrapped in a thick traditional blanket, despite the heat of 85 degree weather. She has deep lines of grief under her eyes, a dark sadness veils her young face.
We reach the plot. The men walk down to do the actual burial. The women stay up on the hill and continue singing. It is late afternoon and the sunlight reminds me of the metaphor of life as a single day.
There is prayer, singing, prayer… then it is time to go. The mother begins to walk away, and others begin to follow. I move to join.
“Wait, wait. The mother, she leaves first. Then those closest to her.”
She stands with her hands held together in front of her, and smiles at me with lip closed. “Thank you,” I say earnestly.
“Now we can go,” she says.
We walk back together, and after a few minutes she asks, “How do they do it at your place?” She is asking about funerals in the U.S., I know.
How do I find a way to compare an open mountainside to rows of neat grave plots? A village community singing to strangers united through the one life? A wooden casket made that morning by an elder to an elegant and expensive box from a company? A young girl who fell sick with no access to a doctor, and so died the next day?
But, maybe the important things are the same. “The family is there, often there is singing, and prayer. Then the coffin is buried. Usually that is for only those who are in the family, who are close to the family.”
She nods. “So it is the same.”
“Yes, similar.” I hesitate. “Well, the singing is different.” We both smile.
I return to my rondavel, and there is already a little girl waiting fro me to play a math game.