Monday, January 25, 2016

"White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."

21 January, 2016

Well I believe it’s been more than two months since I last posted on my blog, and for that I’m sorry.  So much has happened between then and now, and it’s so difficult to find a place to start.  But I’ll do my best.
            We are well into the dry season now, and the water sources for most of my neighbors have become unreliable, often not running for a week or two before restarting.  It’s hasn’t actually rained since sometime mid November, probably a week or so before Thanksgiving.  Not a single drop of rain.  Luckily, the well in my compound is very deep, and my guard and his family tell me that it’s never run dry, but as we speak my neighbor and his brother are washing their motorcycles, and I think they have now used more water than most of my neighbors have had for a month, so it’ll be interesting to see if the well is able to keep up.
            Other than a suddenly ever-present thirst (presumably caused by all the dust and heat), and a worry that all the water will suddenly disappear, dry season has been wonderful.  Passion fruit has appeared in the market, and avocado season is starting! I’d forgotten just how delicious avocados could be when they are fresh and in season! Papayas have gotten scarce, and pineapple is suddenly everywhere, but in general nothing too drastic has changed.  I expected the dry season to be incredibly hot with constant sweating in the rivulets of dust that descend everywhere, but in my region it still doesn’t get too much higher than 80-85 degrees at the heat of the day, and lucky for me, I live on a paved road so the dust is… manageable if not enjoyable. 

Walking home from school with my 6th graders


Walking home from a surprise funeral with Ma Anne and the Papa


            More interesting than the changing fruits perhaps, is the ringing in of the “funeral season”.  Since my first funeral post about seeing two bodies in one macabre afternoon, I have become a funeral pro.  Every weekend there is a new one, and Mama Anne is very diligent about making sure to come get me so that we can dance and drink together.  I may have started inventing maladies to avoid some of them, especially the ones for families I don’t know and where I generally get more harassed about marrying one of their men than I get to dance… You’ve got to keep the funeral priorities in order.
            Most of the funerals I go to are two part affairs.  The first day is for the religious funeral, starting with a priest and prayer.  I wouldn’t say like we have in the U.S., but closer at least.  Outside, in the sun, you’re lucky if you’re close enough with the family to be given a seat under one of the tents, or really a seat at all depending on how crowded it is.  These generally are meant to start at 8, but often don’t really get underway until 10 or 11.  There are readings and people speaking about the deceased. This is when I see the most tears, if I see any.  The coffin is brought in by the family, just as it would be for us, but the main difference is the hoard of vendors huddled around the funeral goers, selling anything from boiled peanuts to traditional spices and fruits meant to ward of evil spirits, to beer and fresh vin de raffia.  They not so quietly call to the people on the edges of the ceremony and proclaim “Arachides! Cent cent francs!” (peanuts! 100 CFA per bag!).  And the funeral goers tend to take turns not so quietly calling the vendors to them, buying a bag or bottle of whatever it is the vendor is selling, and then quietly munching through the rest of the ceremony. Or not so quietly munching and chatting very loudly with their neighbors about the other members of the family and how little or much money the family put into the funeral.  It’s a bit like a baseball game.  The coffin being the player trying to hit a home run to get all the way to the grave before the audience loses interest at the 20th inning (not a great metaphor, but hey, I’ve been outside of the U.S. culture for a while, cut me some slack).  Once the Priest has finished speaking, and all family members and important members of the community have all had their very long and often unrelated say, the food is served. 




There are two sets of food served: the food for the masses and the food for the elites.  The food for the masses comes out in multiple very large pots (think pots big enough for a grown man to bath in), where they usually have a traditional goat dish (the pot has to be big enough to cook an entire goat in) with a whole goat (head, hooves, tail included) and traditional vegetables and leaves and unripe bananas all roasted and stewed together for the last two – three days. Plus plantain chips, white rice, and whatever else the family prepared en masse.  And of course the petite beers and tanks of vin de raffia for everyone, ages 2-102. 




I have to admit that I’ve always been privileged in my funeral going.  Through no real action of my own, I am always shepherded into the elite group of funeral “mangers”, just inherently because of my skin.  There is always at least one person in the family or group who recognizes me as “ngossso” or “that white girl that teaches at the school and is a village princess because she is white”, and pushes me into the house with all of the other “notables” or big men and their wives attending the funeral, with the immediate family of the deceased.  We generally sit in silence for a while, as someone hands out the large, or really I guess normal sized here, beers and offers around boxes of red wine or cartons of home made vin de raffia, before the women of the family serve the food.  Luckily to almost every funeral I’ve been to in village, Cristina has very very very wonderfully offered to accompany me, so as everyone around us talks in the local dialect about the deceased, money, crops, or the problems of “les noirs”, Cristina and steadily get tipsier and tipsier and talk about the strangeness of life and how on earth we ended up in a mud brick hut with no floor, sitting on a bamboo bench or plastic lawn chair, drinking giant beers, and listening to what may be the rhythmic drums being beaten outside, or the sound of children screeching after having had too much vin de raffia.  This is not to say that we are antisocial or avoid interacting with our hosts! We say hello and chat with everyone before we even sit down, and we do often end up chatting with the people sitting next to us for a bit, but once they realize we’re not all that magical or rich despite our white skin, they often turn back to their patois conversations. 






It is HORRIBLY impolite to not say hello and shake hands with each individual person when entering a room.  This is sometimes be very annoying as it can take a VERY long time if there are a lot of people in the room that you haven’t met before, because they then each require an introduction as well, and of course the same questions of “what are you doing here?”, “how do you like Cameroon? And Bamena?”, “Are you married?”, “How long are you here for?”, Will you marry my son, brother, uncle, friend,…? Or do you not like black people?”, etc. It’s a bit like being back in senior year of college, the questions that everyone asked you before you really had any idea what you would be doing the following year; you fall into a rhythm of always the same answers, and giving them before they’ve been asked, “I’m a teacher here, Cameroon is wonderful, and I love Bamena and how welcoming and kind the people are, I’m here for two years, and I’m sorry, but I’m already married. I really do like black men and if I weren’t already married I might be interested in your son, cousin, brother, nephew, friend, etc, but unfortunately my husband would disapprove, and white people believe in fidelity to your partner (in a culture where it’s social acceptable and normal for a man to cheat on his wife, or just have more than one of them, they find it very hard to understand why, with my “husband” so far away, I would be uninterested in having someone “keep me warm”).  It’s a long conversation that each new acquaintance demands before allowing me to move on to the next new person.  SO Cristina and I spend much of our funeral time with this introduction, as they also do not allow the same answers for both of us, but require the individual conversation with the individual Blanche. 




After a while of sitting in the dark, drinking, we are eventually served food.  For the elites, there’s no goat to be seen, but instead cold grilled chicken, plantain chips, potatoes, patates, cold fish: dried or pan fried, ndole (a leafy green cooked in some sort of sauce thing that ends up with the consistency of sag paneer, but tastes like over cooked collard greens and leather), and a few other traditional foods that I don’t even know how to begin to describe.  Cristina and I generally stick to lots and lots of plantain chips and whatever fruit there might be on the table.  So we sit for a while balancing our plates in our laps and juggling beers and glasses of wine in our hands, until everyone eventually drifts out of the elite eating room, and we get up to follow.  Sometimes this has been the end of the funeral, but more normally, this is when the “party” starts.  The last funeral I attended, I ran back home to go to the bathroom after eating, and got back to the house, and another 20 carts of beers had appeared, and someone had brought out more vin de raffia, and the traditional drums were being beaten.  The coffin had been lowered into the grave, and the priest was saying words to the small crowd of family huddled around him, while the non-family members stood around the drums, dancing and drinking more and more wildly.  After the deceased was put into the ground, we were ushered to another house for more food and beer and introductions, and then from there to another house, this time for champagne, as well as beer (I’ve only seen champagne the one time at a funeral… it was the most wonderful moment of the day), and then we were invited to the NEXT house, but at this point, Cristina and I made our excuses and headed, finally, home.  So that is the general day 1 of a funeral.  Saturday.  Sunday is a different matter entirely.



So part two of a funeral is the traditional burial.  Some families have the two parts on the same day to save money and for family members that have to leave sooner, but many separate the two.  I’ve noticed that for the traditional burial, the body is usually already in the ground and buried.  But the ceremony continues over and around the grave.  I wish I could describe this event, but it is still so foreign and bizarre to me that at this point I only have a succession of images to share.  There is always a parade of family members, attired in traditional fabric, hats, animal skins if the deceased had a spirit animal or was a notably strong or remarkable person, wooden staffs and scepters, and crowns of leaves and vines of a specific variety.  They are usually carrying pictures or iconic possessions of the deceased in their hands, and wearing their matching family clothes that they’d had made for the funeral. 





As the drums beat and the dancers and performers hired for the ceremony rattle their instruments and ankle shakers, the family and funeral goers dance (or more rhythmically march?) in circles around the deceased, as their chosen successor sits in the center with the drums and the grave, and begins his job of communicating with the spirit of the deceased and taking on his or her roles within the family, whatever they may have been.  If the deceased was the head of the family (not the head in the sense of “the father is the head of this family” blah blah blah, but in that he was the leader of the entire extended family and provider for all) then their successor takes on that role.  In theory the deceased had designated this role before their death, but sometimes that is not the case and the family is left to decide who should take on that role.  If the wrong person is chosen, it can be very dangerous and have disastrous results, often involving the death of the “usurper” or incorrect choice.  This day involves lots and lots of dancing, and more drinking, and tradition and ceremony that I still don’t follow very well, as each one seems very different to me apart from what I have already described.  These also usually last the whole day, and well into the night.  The tam tams (traditional drums) are supposed to start the night before and go through the night, and many of the funeral goers don’t leave between the two events.  I’ve never done that before and, to be honest, I don’t know if I ever will. 







These funerals have taken over the weekends, and generally dictate the activities of the village.  If there is a funeral happening, it is difficult to go into the center of town and buy bread, because most people will be at the funeral, and if they’re not, all the village bread has been sold to the family or been taken to the funeral to sell to the funeral goers.  Same with drinks, and tomatoes, and phone credit, etc.  Tam tams have become a very regular thing to hear all through town, and the shaking of the ankle shakers is always in my ears.  Ma Clementine is part of a traditional dance group, so it’s become very normal for Ma Anne to appear on my porch exclaiming that we must go see Ma Clementine dance.  The first four times this happened I assumed it was a performance for the village of some sort, but now I’ve come to associate that with meaning that there is a funeral going on that Ma Clementine’s group has been hired to perform at.  I try to always go to these because Ma Clementine is my mother here and it makes her happy to see me watching her and awkwardly try to mimic her steps with my own, but the more funerals I go to, the less real they feel.  I still cannot seem to put the idea of death together with this form of celebration.  



At least until the moment when I see the one elderly woman trying to hide her tears, or the small child who doesn’t understand what’s happening who keeps asking for his mother as the adults try to shush him or brush him aside.  It is a beautiful way to send someone off into the unknown realm of death, with laughter, dancing, and happiness, but it does not leave much space for mourning.  When Ma Anne lost her Aunt, she tried her best to avoid her tears and spent most of the day laughing and trying to get me to dance and drink with her, but when she finally lost control she explained that it is a weakness to mourn for those who are gone.  It is more acceptable for the women, but for the men it shows a great weakness of spirit and strength, and the head of a family can lose his position and the respect of his peers if they see him crying for those he’s lost.  I have only once seen a man cry in this country, and even then I’ve halfway convinced myself that I was imagining it because I wanted it to be true.  This was at my first funeral, for a man that had just lost his youngest daughter and her unborn child.  She was 17 years old. Although there was sadness surrounding this death, unlike any other funeral I’ve been to, there were still no tears to go around.  Except for this girl’s poor father. Who spent the funeral sitting in the corner, not speaking or seeing anything around him, but lost inside himself. 

I believe that this denial of tears and full mourning has developed because death is so common that if each person mourned for everyone they’d lost, most of life would be spent in mourning.  And the celebration of a life well-lived and a moving on to better things appeals to me in a way I never expected.  If I can have a huge party upon my death instead of a solemn priest and tears filled church service, I most definitely will.

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