Sunday, April 18, 2010

Village indigobird and my first South African funeral

Hi there!

When I first returned from Easter holiday, I spied a new bird species to my area: the village indigo bird or Vidua chalybeata.  Isn't he darling?  I'm glad I got a look at him, because he didn't stick around very long. He must have been passing through...  Although black in color, he is the closest I can get to my favorite bird back home, the indigo bunting, or Passerina cyanea.

I can have two favorites: one in South Africa, one in North America.

So, I went to my first funeral in my village.  It was certainly not THE first funeral in my village; on the contrary, there are several options for funeral attendance every weekend. EVERY WEEKEND. 

I have been invited to several funerals but have always managed to talk myself out of attending.  It is not difficult to talk myself out of attending because a) most funerals in my village happen early Saturday mornings, early as in 7:00 am start times; b) the funerals I have been invited to are of people I have no close connections with, as with a community member I hadn't even met, or a friend of a friend of a friend, or of an educator's mother who was to be buried in Kimberly (a three hour ride out of town, very early Saturday morning, for R100 transportation cost); and c) well, funerals aren't pleasant events to attend in any country, in my opinion.

However, this was for one that I felt obligated to attend: My principal's, at my primary school, mother had passed this week.  The funeral was yesterday, Saturday.

When I received the news on Tuesday, I immediately thought, "I must attend."  This is my principal, one of my supervisors, and our relationship has had a rocky start.  I thought my attendance to  the funeral, to show respect to him and his family, would be important.  So I made plans to attend.

Come Friday night, I was already talking myself out of attending the funeral Saturday morning.  As stated previously, talking myself out of attending funerals is very easy to do.  I would need to rise at 5:00 to be ready and to walk the half and hour necessary to get to the funeral site; I didn't really feel well (I never really feel well and have decided I won't feel well until I return to the States!); and well, hey, when else will I have time to do laundry? 

I tossed and turned all night, I should go, but I don't want to go.  I should go, but I don't want to go.  Finally, I prayed for the willingness:  "Higher Power, please grant me the willingness to go to the funeral in the morning."

As is often, if not always the case, if I pray for the willingness, the willingness comes.  (This even works for mopping my floor.)  So, at 5:00 a.,. my alarm went off and up I got .  My self-will gave it one more shot: You're exhausted, you tossed and turned all night!  You can stay home!

I told my self-will to shut up; I was going.

So, I went to the funeral.  I wore my skirt, my head-covering (scarf), and made sure I had something covering my shoulders (an outer shirt, in this instance).  I didn't wear any fancy shoes because, well, I don't have fancy shoes.  I wore practical shoes, the same ones that I wear at school, but also the same ones that would get me through a half-hour travelling up dusty roads after walking through dewy grass.  Did my feet look nice?  Well, not as nice as everyone else's.

(If Peace Corps really wants us to look very nice at a funeral, well, Peace Corps can buy us nice clothes to wear at a funeral.)

It was interesting to see the amount of cars in my village, as many who attended came in cars.  We have a lot of cars in my village.  I was surprised. (But of course, attending a funeral is something of a flashy statement: if you're wearing beautiful finery, of course you want to come decked out in fancy car.)

For the service, the family had rented and erected a large tent.  Inside, the tent was decked out in funeral attire: crepe ribbons (yes, black), enlarged black and white copies of the funeral announcement (with a portrait of the deceased), sitting chairs, some covered in linen for the VIPs, a table at the front for the minister and other respected statesmen, an "gazebo" area where the coffin was placed for the service, speakers for sounds system, and an area where the photographer/film crew would stand to record the service for the family.

I thought at first the setting and even the service resembled more like a wedding: flowers, carpeted aisles, draped chairs, photographers/film crew, etc. But the more I thought of it, our funerals are the same.

The service had a program with lots of speakers, lots of singing, lots of praying.  One of the more touching moments, for me, was when a group of the great grand-daughters came forward to sing a song in honor of their grandmother.  (The song they chose, I was surprised to hear, was in English.)

Also, a group of men educators from a nearby village also came forward to sing as a group, the deep tones of the men's voices and the traditional song vibrated up and down my spinal cord: beautiful!

I was also moved, not only at this service, but at other village church services, when the congregation sang one of the Protestant hymns I grew up with: "Softly and Tenderly" (Jesus is Calling).  There is something other-worldly about being in a foreign country, sitting for hours listening to others singing their beautiful hymns in traditional language, and then hear the religious music I grew up with--sung in English!  The feeling is indescribable, but very moving.  I end up choking out the words as tears stream down my face.  It's very moving.

The churches in my community have groups of "devoted church women."  These women are usually the eldest in the church, attend special church services just for them (on Thursdays) and don a special uniform: a coat in a single color (usually bright red, white, or purple), a white cap, and a badge.  I thought it touching too, that because the deceased had been one of these "devoted church women." all the "devoted church women" stood by the coffin during the service: they kept a vigil beside her.  Because the service was very long, and the women very old, they would "take turns" standing watch beside the coffin.  I found it touching how one seated woman would sense that her colleague was tired and would walk up and take her place so that the tired one could sit.  These devoted church women, also served as pallbearers: they carried the coffin to the car.  It was nothing short of heartbreaking to watch these very old women heave the coffin and carry it to the car.

(Of course, these very same women are in the community garden every day doing back-breaking work and digging in hardened cement!!)

The funeral service lasted from 7:00 am until 11:00 am.  It went on, and on, and on.  I quickly realized that the reason for the early morning funeral services, probably, is to get the service in before the day grows too hot and the large group of people assembled in their best clothes won't feel too uncomfortable.  (Although it was still pretty warm with such a large assembly, and you could tell most were considerably uncomfortable.)

I was so grateful that my bladder full of breakfast tea was wonderfully cooperative and wasn't urgently calling me to the toilet.  I will know to sit nearby an exit for the next funeral I attend so I can dash out discreetly, as of course, for this one, I was sitting very close to the front table and would have made quite a scene trying to excuse myself. 

I think I'm finally getting over my bashfulness at saying the word "toilet."  It is just not a word I feel comfortable saying.  Another one of those American conventions at hiding a body function?  The restroom.  The bathroom.  The girls' room.  The potty.  The need to "powder my nose."  :-)

In Africa, it's simple.  We just say, "the toilet."  Simple, but not easy.  (For me.)

At 11:00 am, the congregation walked or rode in a car to the cemetery.  It took about 20 minutes to walk to the cemetery.  By this time, I was looking for a toilet and hoping we wouldn't be at the cemetery too long. 

We stayed at the cemetery, in the blazing hot sun, from 11:00 am until 12:30 pm, no toilet in sight.

At 12:30, we were back at the house, I peed finally, we ritually "washed" our hands (to leave the bad luck of the cemetery behind) and were fed.

Many, many village family's take on a great debt to host a family funeral.  The huge tents are rented for almost a week along with the funeral decorations.  The tent is erected early in the week, as people come to the house at all hours during the week to pay respects to the family.  Everyone that comes to the house is fed.  (It is not uncommon for hundreds of people to visit the deceased's home and expect to be fed.)  And then of course there is the funeral service and meal itself, hundreds of people are fed and ALL must eat.

I spoke briefly to my principal on the Thursday "condolences" visit that my school made to show respect.  As a group, we left our school on Thursday at the end of the school day, walked to my principal's mother's home, sat for awhile outside of the home--the family made sure we had cold water to drink (a bucket with iced water and one communal cup), and then we crammed 40 or so of ourselves into the family's front room and prayed and sang until 3:00 pm.  (Actually, my colleagues stayed until 3:00; I actually dashed out at 2:30 and RAN to my college to conduct my college class, of which all of three students bothered to attend.)

When deaths occur in our work community's circle, we are expected to contribute $20 to the "condolences" fund.  Since there are many, many deaths among us, unfortunately, it can be quite a pricey monthly expense.  Although we can, as volunteers, use our "we don't have money" excuse, it somehow rings shallow when someone has died.  I try to always contribute to this "fund" as it is money given to the deceased's family--probably to offset such a huge cost of hosting a funeral. 

One of my problems with the culture of my people is they withhold the truth from me, as a gesture of not hurting my feelings.  For example, should I, as an outsider, come to the funeral as a sign of respect, or would it be more respectful if I left such an intimate ceremony to the privacy of the family and close friends?  Although I try to feel these kinds of things out, I never really know, for certain, if my presence is appreciated, tolerated, or unwelcome.  Am I welcome?  Is my principal glad I've come, or is he embarrassed?  Are the people glad I'm here, indifferent, or angry?

I never really know and never really feel that I'm doing the right thing.  My principal spoke to me directly on the Thursday during my school's condolence visit, and on the day of the funeral, before the service, my principal approached me to "view" his mother in her coffin.  (Again, I felt intrusive to a very private family matter.)  But we didn't speak again the day of the funeral service. 

Also, the chief of the village was present (and spoke) at the service.  I've not yet been formally introduced to the chief.  I always wait, thinking someone will introduce me to the chief (shouldn't this have happened on my arrival?), but here, as always, our introduction was neglected.  Which makes me think again, "Am I unwelcome?"

So, ke a leka, I am trying.  On Saturday, I learned of the funeral culture in my village, whether I wanted to be there or not and I learned of the funeral culture in my village whether they wanted me there or not!

Soon, Karen

Photo credits of birds:


  1. I think it is very important that you were there and that you participated in the hand washing and vigilance on Thursday. I'm proud of you for being so brave. This piece is beautifully written, thanks for sending it. Love you

  2. Did you have a favorite animal or bird from AK? I think you get to have 3...considering you were 4000 miles from here and you are 8000+ miles away now.

  3. I loved the brown and black bears of AK. And the moose... And the porcupines... And the wildflowers...

    I remember being sick of seeing American Robins in AK, as I was hoping for something much more exotic. I was told I would see Bald Eagles "thick as thieves" sitting in the trees. I saw one eagle and he was far above riding the thermals as I was driving down the highway. In fact, I've had better sightings of bald eagles in KY than anywhere else (Bernheim Forest). I remember feeling happy to see magpies and ravens (they're HUGE in AK) and getting very, very close to an owl.

    And there was this snipe that made this very strange noise...

    Oops! That's more than three!