I wrote this last week and thought I posted it (the power went out right after), but upon checking realized that it hadn’t.
I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time for my usual lengthy blog posts. At this point I’m so far behind on things I intended to say that if I’m going to get around to posting any of them, I need to just start typing somewhere. So:
A few weekends ago I went to a church National Women’s Conference. Conveniently enough, it was held in Choma. Something like 1,300 women attended. The conference was over a term break, so many of the women stayed in the dorm of a school. I, along with three other MCC women, stayed at a nearby guesthouse (which was very convenient, because we wound up cooking a large portion of our own food).
The conference started on Thursday, and those of us coming from Macha were taking local transport, catching a ride on the (large) minibus that the other Macha women were taking. There was a 10 hours bus and a 13 hours bus — we opted for the 10 hrs bus.
I did not expect the bus to leave on time. However, I’d never taken churchwomen transport before, and on the bare possibility that it *might* leave on time, I felt that I ought to be timely. We showed up to the meeting place, the church, at about 9:59, and no one was there.
Okay, I thought, usual Zambian transport.
Before Natasha could get worried, a Zambian woman in the church chitenge showed up and introduced herself as E—-. We introduced ourselves, and before we finished the greeting process, another woman showed up, carrying E—-‘s suitcase on her head. We greeted with her, too, and before we finished that round of greeting, Lisa appeared from around the building; she’d been taking pictures. Cue more greeting.
One of the next women to arrive was Grama, who I’d met before, when I went to the women’s Saturday afternoon bible study, and whose name, I have since discovered, is, in fact, Glamour.
Over the next hour or so, people arrived in a slow but steady trickle, bringing with them an ever-widening round of greetings — in Zambian society, you don’t greet the group as a whole, you greet each member of the group individually. While westerners may find it a bit odd to go “How are you — I’m fine” along a whole line of people (especially when you arrive in a group, so there are two lines moving in opposite directions, like optimal heat exchange between parallel pipes), Zambians consider it not only normal, but eminently proper.
There was still no sign of the bus.
One, or perhaps some, of the women had arrived with popwe, boiled maize, which was broken into chunks and shared out among the group. I attacked mine with the incisor-bite I’ve worked out for things like boiled maize that are harder than my front teeth are up to handling, and managed to decimate my four centimeters of cob with a minimum of mess.
On my way back from the trash pit to dispose of my empty cob, I realized that there was some great commotion going on back at the group of women, and arrived to find E—- wailing. While bits of her lament were in English, most of it was trial by fire for my fledgeling Tonga. I followed enough to figure out that her father had just died, and after a bit someone gave us a proper summary of the situation, in English.
Lisa knew E—- a little bit from work, but I had only met her that day, and stood around feeling an awkward intruder, but at the same time fascinated by the chance to observe cultural differences in the expression of grief. I have no word but ‘wail’ to describe E—-‘s outpouring of sound, heartfelt anguish vocalized in words.
Picture us there, a cluster of women in front of the church, E—- wandering and wailing, Lisa and some of the others drifting close in an attempt to offer sympathy or condolences, Natasha and I farther, but still trying to stand in solidarity. They were trying to get in touch with E—-‘s mother, but in typical Zambian fashion, no one had any talk time, and while Lisa wanted to lend her phone, the screen had broken a few days before, leaving it in that annoying place just this side of unusable, which is worse than true uselessness. Since I never use my talk time anyway, I persuaded them that Grama should use my phone, rather than fighting with Lisa’s, so she was bustling about, texting and calling and giving the phone back to me and then someone would call it and I’d hand it back to her and another three people arrived so we did subdued greetings around the edges of the wailing . . .
Presently a car showed up and discharged another wailing woman, who came and curled up in the dirt by where E—- had been persuaded to sit on the church steps. They made, sang — I can only describe it as the grief song. A particular sort of keening melody, high and sad and minorly off-key. It’s eerie and discommoding. And the new woman, who may or may not have been the mother, smeared dirt on her chitenge. Grief is much rawer here, and it made me realize that we’re terribly repressed, we Americans. All we know how to do is cry.
About this time the minibus arrived, and E—- and the other woman were helped back into the car to be driven home. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to bury a man, too.
To be continued. Hopefully sooner rather than later.