Monday, December 5, 2011

A funeral in the village.

I have a sense that my reaction to death in Senegal has always been childish. It is not fair, it is never fair, someone should have stopped it -- I may as well be stamping my foot, throwing a tantrum. This is a story about growing up: not all the way, but a little.

Even after almost three years in country, I am still gratified and amazed at how many opportunities there are in daily life for remembering that here in Senegal, you are always a part of a community; that the people around you are connected to you; that no one here could live in isolation.

For example, the greeting ritual in every language in Senegal is a long and complicated series of questions and answers about personal health, family, and work. It's an opportunity to ask after certain people by name, which is a way of affirming your knowledge of them and your connection to them. The answers aren't important. In fact, they're just as formulaic as the questions: How are the family? They are in peace, thank God. And the whole ritual almost always starts with the repetition of the last name of whomever you're speaking to: an affirmation of their place in their family and community.

Everywhere in Senegal, there's closeness and conversation. Public transportation. Vegetable markets. Hospital waiting rooms, as I wrote about a long time ago. Curiosity, questions, answers, togetherness, a delight in even the smallest shared bit of personal history. Time and time again, my Wolof -- which is quickly identifiable as having been learned in a particular part of the country -- has won for a me a cheaper price, a friendly exchange; even a grin from a taxi driver, for example, who was maybe more interested in swindling me before I opened my mouth and started speaking in the accent of the people of his village.

Family events are another beautiful affirmation of the way an individual supports and is supported by community here. Weddings and baptisms are universally attended, not only by close family and friends, but by everyone within walking distance. Everyone brings a small amount of money or a gift. The married women come early to help prepare the massive amounts of food needed at even a small celebration, and the unmarried girls stay late to help take care of children and be sure that the compound is kept clean.

Funerals, too.

Preparations for the day of my Senegalese host father's funeral began long before daybreak. The compound had been full of family and friends for the last two days, ever since his death, and many of us were sleeping in the sand or on concrete "beds" outside. From where I lay on my back in a thatched outdoor sleeping area, shivering in the pre-dawn cold and watching the stars disappear, I could hear the women begin to pull water for the daily chores. Babies began to stir and cry. Young girls with brooms began sweeping the sand of the compound, clearing it of leaves and small pieces of trash. Another day. On any other day, I would have registered all this and drifted back to sleep, preferring to wait until the sun came up before I rose. Not today.

I rose slowly, my back stiff and sore from the two previous nights passed on cement, thinking of how I had gotten here. The phone call had come from Ndiago two mornings ago, as I was getting ready to head to work. He had been sick for a long time. With the help of my boss here at Peace Corps, I was able to leave Dakar immediately. Driving in to Ndiago that afternoon, the village seemed deserted. I saw no children playing in the dirt paths between family compounds, no women in the lanes sorting the peanut crop and gossiping, no men sitting beneath trees and drinking tea. They had all gone to my family's compound.

As I walked in, I was amazed. There were hundreds of people in an outdoor space meant for perhaps two dozen. I greeted the men and women I walked by, received their condolences and gave my own, and was led to the room where my father's two wives sat. They were on the floor in the back corner of the hut, surrounded by their sisters and their husband's sisters, by their daughters and aunts and nieces. Their heads were covered and their eyes cast down, and as I approached them through a haze of soft sad words in Wolof, I hardly recognized them. More greetings, prayers, words for the dead. Their eyes on my face did not seem alert enough to recognize me.

Later in the day, the crowd in the compound receded. They left gifts of food and money. Neighbors sent bowls of their own dinner to the two widows, which were appreciated but returned untouched. Even as night fell, the compound was still more crowded than usual, since many of the extended family members from out of the village were staying with us. The women took over the chores, making sure that everyone was properly fed, bathing the children, finding places for us all to sleep. The men sat with the sons of the family, caught in low earnest conversations. A cold night was followed by a cold dawn; and when I awoke the next day I watched as the compound filled up again.

On this second day, mourners began to arrive from further away. Horse carts filled with people came from villages I had never heard of. They came to greet and give condolences, to drop what money they could spare on a piece of fabric laid out at the feet of the widows, or on another laid out by my aunt, my father's sister. There were even some who came from towns and cities in cars, like the marabout from a few villages away. Many were mourning the death of Osseynou Gningue, and none of them would be doing it alone.

And then finally, the day of the funeral. The mourners who had left the compound the night before came back, and their numbers somehow swelled to over 700. Seven hundred men and women in the compound, seated on plastic mats and chairs provided by the village, praying or sitting silently. Here and there a woman would begin to wail and moan softly, concealing her grief beneath her head wrap. Everywhere, heavy eyes and stillness. The imam prayed and spoke of Osseynou, followed by all of the important men of the community: they praised his devotion to his family and his work, and spoke of the struggles his illness had brought him in its final stage. It was better now for him, they said. He could rest.

I moved around during the funeral, uncomfortable, listening sometimes to the men eulogize Osseynou, passing sometimes to my host mother's room to sit with her, and settling sometimes with the elderly women, who could not help prepare the funeral lunch and therefore were in charge of the children. I felt grief, yes. But it wasn't a daughter's grief. I respected Osseynou for the way he took care of his family, and I was terrified of what would happen to them now that he was gone. But I wasn't sure there was a place for that at this event.

Later in the day, my oldest host sister Tenning passed by with a bin of water on her head, on her way to the temporary outdoor cooking area where the women were preparing the meal. She had her role, just like everyone else, in spite of and because of her grief. But as she walked by me, she began to stumble and cough and cry again. Another woman and I eased the heavy basin from her head and took it over to the huge pots full of donated rice, meat, and vegetables.

I made my way with Tenning, who was still sobbing, back to our mother's room. Tenning went to her mother and curled up against her, picking up her youngest child and cradling him in her arms. As I turned to leave, feeling not for the first time out of place in this room, this family, this village, and this country, my host mother Aissatou called out to me. "Come sit with me, Aissa. Stay and talk."

It was a village commonplace, that phrase. Come sit with us, stay with us, talk. I hear it every day, even in Dakar. But today it meant that I was to take a place with Aissatou and Tenning and the other women. We might not talk much, and I might not feel what they felt or say the right things, but that's where I belonged then. As even more mourners came in, they would come to greet me too. They would say the words affirming my place in this family and my loss, and I would say the words of gratitude and peace in response.

And this is what Senegal has done to me so many times over the past three years.

Holding back tears and covering my head with a borrowed shawl, I moved into the room again.