Tuesday, 26 February 2008

One big funeral and 20 potential weddings

On Saturday I attended a funeral.. the lady in question (and please bare with me as i've heard many versions) was my host Mum's sisters cousin in law... alternatively an actual auntie to my host family, a friend and the actual auntie to Lebo a most wonderful community volunteer and lead on Kicking Aids Out program in the town. Nonetheless, the lady in question, whose name I did not quite catch had her funeral was on Saturday; Ossy (one of the Norweign volunteers) and I were invited.

At 6.30am we arrived at the home of the lady; there were no fewer than 200 people sitting under a mocked up canvas on plastic chairs in the huge front yard area; the canvas was emblazoned with the funeral directors slogan (more on this later.) We were late, as were another 50-100 people and this did not seem to a) matter b) give any of the other guests cause to avert their eyes from the Minister. Unable to decipher who was family, clergy and funeral directors I decided to close my eyes and soak up the atmosphere; the service took around an hour. The spoken word was puncuated with sing/wailing from the female contingent, who with impeccable timing always seemed to start and finish singing at the right times. There was no one lead to the choir-audience and yet it seemed a different person led each time. My host families older daughter who at various junctures during my stay has offered me alcohol (just hidden in my room, let me know if you want a sweetner in your coca cola...) was providing me with a running commentary that had the potential to silence Ricky Gervais... Ossy and I aware of our status as the two 'whiteys' already ushered to the front maintained a dignified poise. Nonetheless, when the male family and clergy went up into the house to say the last prayers over the body it seemed the funeral directors took their que to hand out flyers for their services to all the audience... I felt my fascade of elegance begin to crack... When the Mercedes Van revved all the way up the garden during what I perceived to be the most emotional part of the service, with the radio on drowning out the spoken word for a moment, it took a lot of inner strength not to turn in wonderment to the audience. The van was actually the herse and with the body loaded in I was quite literally dragged from my seat and pulled towards a car. There were at least 50 cars/vans parked along the road with everyone vying for a lift. We jumped in the back of a van with the older ladies... the seating constituted little more than a wooden bench and the width of the van was no more that 1.5metres. With our bodies crammed into the tin can under a morning 29 degree heat, my full length skirt, shirt and hat (requirements of the occasion) sticking all over my body, I decided, and not for the first time, that I would rather freeze than burn to death. Morbid yes, but a quite natural reaction when you feel your energy evaporating with every breath. The heat did not seem to bother the ladies who spent the journey discussing possible suitors for my imminent marriage... I apparently am never to leave Apel and settle with one of the (many) sons. Oh how we laughed... Ahem.

The graveyard setting was spectacularly beautiful; over the river (dry semi desert river bed) and up the mountains.. the mountain range is covered in large boulders that give a very formal impression and the grave stones look tiny in comparison. I was again pulled under a tree, Ossy was directed towards the men. There seemed to be around 150 people at the grave side, men kept appearing from trees and around corners. Very quickly we had to kneel down ... I was wearing a long white skirt and I soon regretted this decision. After I had kneeled (not bothered about the dry ground or my Primark skirt) the ladies surrounding me spent, I tell no lie, the next 10 minutes patting me down, rearranging my skirt and advising me on the best washing technqiues.. with the mourners suddenly becoming more interested in me than the service. My biggest concern was that they would pull down my already too big skirt to reveal my underwear; which in hindsight was not the best choice and probably not the audience Calvin Klein had in mind.. c'est la vie. The interest subsided and the singing continued and in fact some of the singing was far better than at the home. Perhaps the most poignant part was the wailing as the coffin went down- it went on for about 10 minutes as the coffin was then covered with stone and other things but my vision was impaired. About 1 hour later we were finished. I was quickly pulled in the direction of a car with the ladies whilst the men were told to walk. I protested I would rather walk across the semi desert (than sit in a tin can under the rays of the sun) but this was not permitted. My fated skirt would be ruined... and so I was back in the van with 5 new additions. The match making continued with rapid vigour and not for the first time I wondered if anyone cried. There seemed to be no evidence and spirits were rather high.. I am not of course suggesting physical tears mean more emotion but rather there seemed to be more an acceptance of death here than I have ever experienced in a funeral at home. The biggest suprise was yet to come.. as we returned to the house there was a que of well over 200 people plate in hand. In operation was a highly effective version of the feeding of the five thousand- I have never seen so much food or so many people. When you think that the food is cooked in big pots and stoves you begin to appreciate the enormity of the task in hand. On funerals it is the neighbours all of whom rally around to provide the cutlery, chairs and donations of food. We were taken into the house past the que with Lebo who sat us down with the immediate family. Delicious food (beetroot, coleslaw, chicken, rice and some native vegs) was bought to us. At times like that you really do not question what is happening you go with it; not wanting to offend anyone can drive you mad with worry; you have to be led sometimes. After we had eaten and a full hour after the food que had finally gone down I wondered outside. It actually felt like a festival what with the disgarded plates and people sitting in groups. Some of the ladies started to collect plates and cups so, naturally, I joined in. 10 people told me it was not necessary and to sit down and of course I ignored them. Round I went picking up rubbish, plates and food. I'm not quite sure the funeral goers expected to see me a) there b) helping out and it certainly caused some food for thought. After the rubbish collection I started to wash up (200 plates at least) the water was all boiled on wood fires so it took time. At this stage I noticed my host mum courting a lot of attention from females of her age. My mistake had been made; my mistake had been to 'work hard.' Apparently there is nothing more attractive to a mother trying to get rid of her son than a woman who works hard. My tireless cleaning had earnt me the admiration of every mother in Apel with a son or two... being white merely an advantage, being good around the house? Priceless. Yes, yes those who have lived with me will enjoy the irony of this comment and I tried to protest that really I was very messy but it was too late; the gauntlet had been laid. Now I have a genuine reason never to tidy again!

I was rather humbled at the funeral by Lebo. My wonderfully efficient immune system that will like clockwork provide me with an illness one every 4-6 weeks (without fail) kicked in a few days before. I totally lost my voice and spent a very cold night (difficult in 30 degrees) shaking off a fever. At the funeral Lebo said to me ' I am so happy you are here I prayed most of the night your voice would improve and you would come.' This was both unexpected and actually not very comfortable to hear because it was genuine. I am happy to have formed such a bond with someone in a short time but you always feel you will fall below expectation! Nonetheless, my voice had improved and there was no way I was to miss the funeral.
I spent the afternoon and Sunday in bed sleeping off my bug... at that stage the overwhelming desire for a fan or air conditioning became too much. We have one more week left in Apel before a small break where I have VSO training in Joburg (very excited for a shower!) Then we move to Ga Radingwana which is a community not visable from the road if you do not know what you are looking for. I am stocking up on energy bars and english tea!

I hope all my fellow VSO people are safe and enjoying their placements and thank you to all those feeding me rugby life lines-- although let's all hope Wales do not win the Grand Slam! B x

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