Death in here is familiar but still jarring. This time the air in the village seemed heavier, more quiet then other times. This may have been my own projection though. Sunday morning I sat under a mbentinki tree and discussed his corn field, the one he planted with seed I’d given him. I told him it was fine he didn’t follow one of the protocols I’d asked. I thought maybe I didn’t explain it well enough to begin with but either way I didn’t mind, he was one of my favorite farmers to work with, and a good one at that. He was also family, but with 200 people in the village everyone is family. Monday morning I left my room at 8am with the day all planned out, as Americans like to do. My host mother told me immediately, “Babo died, you know the one you gave corn to. He died last night quickly, today is a sad day”.
I accompanied the women to Babo’s house where we sat outside his wife’s room. There, my host mother and aunt cried, something I’d only seen once before. I had felt like crying too and their tears made mine well up again but I didn’t let them fall. I felt a bit like an imposter and that crying would look foolish and dramatic.
We stayed there and sat in somber silence for an hour or so. By then two dozen women had gathered in the courtyard of the house and began preparing to cook a massive lunch. We joined them and I assisted in cutting onions and cleaning rice. I’ve yet to be brave enough to step in and cook with them in their giant pots over the open wood fire.
We then sat again in silence for hours. Throughout the household and out into the road groups of women huddled together and sat vigil. They all wore traditional dress; brightly colored patterns, one after the next in groups of 20 and 30. I knew I didn’t have to but I’d put on a black skirt and shirt, it felt more appropriate. Cars and carts full of men and women arrived and the women just joined their respective piles; one group of older women, one of mothers sitting on low stools silently breastfeeding, and another, and another.
All the men sat praying in the central square of the village, preparing for the burial. Mam Babo Cisse was older, but not that old. He became sick in the night and family members asked one of the men in a neighboring village who has car to drive him to the health post about an hour away. He had an asthma attack and died in the car on the way. Death by such an easily preventable episode is especially tragic.
As I sat with the women a beefy sheep baayed loud and deep from the post it was tied to next to me. This was the sheep Babo had bought for his family to sacrifice on Tabaski, the biggest holiday here and to be held in less than a week. An ancient woman I did not recognize as someone who lives in my village approached mumbling prayers while tossing small bits of cola-nut to each of us. A white and black streak, not yet a cat but no longer a kitten zigzagged between our legs, pausing to glance at me with its one good eye. I shifted awkwardly on my stool wondering how long we’d sit for, hoping it would be all day but at the same time becoming concerned with the lack of blood reaching my legs.
At around 1 o’clock I heard the hum of many male voices in the square and then engines of cars and motorcycles come to life indicating the ceremony had ended. The men of the village had conducted the burial while the woman sat at the house, as is the custom for most rituals here. My family and I returned to our house across the road and those from other towns ate lunch and headed out as well. The day went on as any other would but a reserved quietness remained.