Death among the Kwong
scene is as alien as it is ubiquitous. One hears it long before seeing
it. Initially, it is the panicked wailing, and gasping expressions of
incredulity screamed at whatever being seen or unseen might care to
hear. Soon the wailing subsides as the relentless throb of drums
channels the grief into a sort of choreography of the bereaved – a
slow undulating shuffling of feet and gently swinging arms synchronized
with the drum at the center. Hour after hour, round and round they go
chanting a dirge for the deceased. Every so often a piercing yelp
followed by a series of high trills and a raised fist punctuates the
monotony of the dance, as if to defy death itself and declare a victory
which by any measure, given the circumstances, is a hollow one.
variation of this scene will continue, depending on the stature of the
deceased, for several days or even weeks. After the burial in the midst
of the family compound – there is no communal cemetery - the drama of
the first hours settles into a kind of picnic atmosphere with the men
lounging on grass mats, whiling away the days by braiding a new halter
for their horse, or weaving a sleeping mat from palm leaves, or chatting
about banalities. The women some distance away stay close to the
mound of dirt which marks the grave. Depending on the means or lack
thereof of the next of kin, the grave may or may not be identifiable as
such within a year or two. In most cases, after a decade, nobody will
quite remember for sure where it is.
to time a delegation, some 10 or 20 at a time, arrives from a distant
village to pay their respects. As they approach, their placid
countenances are wrenched by command into paroxysms of what is in most
cases feigned grief and tears which fools nobody, but which if absent,
is considered an insult – at least by the living. Each visitor
approaches the next-of-kin, who are seated on bare dirt under a tree a
stone’s throw from the grave, squats in front of the seated forms, and
solemnly takes their hands one by one and holds it – often for a full
5 seconds, as if by doing so he might transfer some of the grief off of
them and bear it himself. Having shared thus in their grief, they take
their seat among the assembled mourners for several hours, if not for
the rest of the day. And if geography is kind to them, they will come
back several days in a row. It is hard for the disinterested observer
not to wonder what the cumulative economic effect of so many people
attending so many wakes for so much time must be.
are those with genuine tears to offer, and as they come, they throw
themselves on the pile of dirt, which is the only sign that the
one they once and still loved ever was, crying out between their sobs an
obituary for the dead and a summons to the Fates as why such a thing
must be. Those seated nearby pay no attention.
apparent tranquility of the scene after the initial drama is deceptive.
Just under the surface in all but the most Christian wakes is a seething
undercurrent of suspicions and accusations. No death, however inevitable
from a purely medical standpoint, is a no-fault death, and it is
incumbent on the living to parse any and all potential perpetrators of
it and then to exact whatever retribution the case may require. This is
especially the case if the deceased died after a protracted illness. The
inevitable question is “who ate her soul” – i.e. who invoked an
evil spirit to slowly drain the life out of her? Was it the woman who
borrowed some salt from her a year ago and used it as a “key” to
fabricate a curse instead of her dinner? Or was it her in-laws who
never did like her anyway? Even in the case of a quick death, questions,
often legitimate, swirl around the husband or father as to whether he
did due-diligence in getting medical care for the deceased. In the
case of a child, where it is often assumed that one of the little gods
or the dead ancestors killed the child in a fit of pique for some
transgression of the mother, the recriminations against the mother if
she did not consult the diviner can be merciless. In this last case, one
can easily imagine the agony of a bereaved Christian mother, who would
as a matter of principle not go to the diviner, in the face of her pagan
in any case of a married woman, the claims and counter claims between
the husband’s family (who in theory “bought” the rights to bury
the woman when he paid the bride price) and the lady’s birth family
(who will as a matter of course deny them the right to bury her if the
husband is still paying installments on the bride price – something
which frequently drags on for 10 or more years) are the stuff of legend.
For the body to putrefy in the sun during the haggling that these
weighty issues entail is a fairly common occurrence. The fault-finding
is epic, and it is not secret either. The last thing that happens before
the body is lowered into the grave is that everyone who has an
“issue” is given an opportunity to vent it – an opportunity which
people avail themselves of liberally.
and round they go. While foreign to us who watch, there really does seem
to be therapeutic value in the tradition. Grief in a communal society
like this is never an individual affair.
hired Kømø Leah, the lady who died following a C-section, as cashier
of our clinic back in 2007 before her husband Adoum was transferred up
to Lake Chad where he is a school teacher. She gave birth to her 8th
child as she died..
is a huge part of life here – something on the same order of magnitude
as sports and fitness would be in the USA. As we write this letter, the
forgoing drama has played out five times in the space of 10 days. It
began with a woman – a dear friend of ours really – who succumbed to
the C-section which was supposed to save her life and that of her baby.
(It did save the baby.) This happened in the district hospital of the
town where her husband is posted as a civil servant in the north of
Chad. She bled to death during the procedure, and there was no blood for
a transfusion. Two days later the body, already beginning to decay,
arrived in Chageen for burial. It was a Christian burial, so the decorum
was fitting for a people of love and hope. Even so, they were not immune
to the aforementioned scourge of in-law rivalries.
day later the brother of another friend and coworker died at the hands
of a traditional healer 10 miles to the north of Chageen. He had fallen
off a roof in a provincial capital several hundred kilometers away and
broke his femur. When the provincial hospital in question demonstrated
its incompetence by not even taking an x-ray (probably because it
didn’t work), our friend made the long journey to fetch his brother
and bring him to our local healer. As it happens, this healer has a
pretty good reputation for setting bones, if not for anything else. Not
this time. It was another death which shouldn’t have had to happen.
day later, the mentally handicapped son of our chief passed away after a
protracted and unknown illness. He was most familiar to us as the
purveyor of the large chunks of scrap iron from motors etc which he
loved to deposit unbidden in our yard for safe keeping, and then return,
again uninvited, over our compound’s wall to recover them for whatever
strange satisfaction they gave him in his own little universe.
few days later, the death wail emanated from not 20 feet behind our
home. A 1-year old baby, unbeknownst to us, had died from what can only
have been an excruciatingly painful septic infection in his leg. To
their credit, the family had collected enough money to make the 100 km
trip to the regional hospital where, as it was too complicated a case,
they were told to continue on to the capital – another 300 kms
further. But having spent everything they had to get that far, there was
nothing to do but turn around and go back to Chageen. A local
“surgeon” lanced the infection and drew out an enormous amount of
puss, but to no avail.
then yesterday, the body of another young man arrived from the capital
for burial in his ancestral home here in Chageen. He was killed on a
motorcycle – another victim of the traffic mayhem induced by the
importation of 10’s of thousands of cheap Chinese motorbikes without
the complementary number of helmets.
these people were even close to being “old”. And this is the healthy
time of year.