It was time to set off for the village. Everyone had packed, eaten and dressed for the journey. Mum was with aunt and my cousins in the car just in front of the coffin. I was with my dad and two uncles somewhere in-between the convoy. Our village is up north in Mzimba, so it was going to be a considerably long and tiring journey from Lilongwe.
I didn’t know Uncle Jacob that much. To be honest, I still don’t know half the relatives that I have. The thing about our family is that everyone is related to everyone. I am sure you get what I mean. It always bothered me how my parents expected me to know everyone in the village yet we barely ever visited. This was going to be the third time in 5 years, both times before were also funerals. By this time all I could associate the village with was death!
Uncle Jacob had been ill for a while. Mum had been checking up on him regularly for the past couple of months. He was in and out of hospital and never really recovering. Dad told me that he had issues with his blood pressure and sugar levels. Mum never really shared the details. Obviously in this day and age, I assumed it was some HIV related illness that my parents did not want to disclose. Maybe they didn’t want me to have that kind of memory of uncle J. I didn’t really probe. It wasn’t going to change the fact that we were on our way to bury him anyway.
One thing that has bothered me over the years is trying to figure out the most appropriate way to behave during a funeral. Times like these when we were on the road to the village got me restless. In the presence of different kinds of relatives with different kinds of backgrounds had me confused. What to say, what to do, how to act (??). I never could quite figure it out. On this particular occasion, the mood was mild. Dad and the uncles were making small talk. Nothing to do with Uncle J or the funeral. Mostly catching up on life, work, business, wives and wives’ businesses. Adult stuff I would say. I had carried my fake beats by Dre headphones with me, but I was not sure if putting them on would be appropriate. So I just looked out the window and watched the trees swoop by.
We made our first stop by some filling station in Kasungu. We were not even half way through, but I didn’t mind. Dad handed me some Kwachas to go get him and the uncles some soft drinks and snacks. He also told me to ask what mum and aunt would want. I was surprised that he hadn’t started drinking already. He was a man of his liquor – like his son.
Mum seemed fine. In fact more than fine. She was smiling and joking with aunt and the cousins. They asked me to get them Maheus and samoosas (odd combination if you ask me). It was good to see mum taking it strong. Uncle J was her older brother and they seemed quite close. Now it was only her and her younger sister left in the family.
We spent about 15 mins by the filling station, then we were off. The mood in the car got a little livelier after the stop. Dad and the uncles started talking about football and politics. The kind of topics that encourage a laugh or two. This was good because I now felt less guilty to put on those fake Dre’s. I put some Nigeria and relaxed the rest of the trip. We did not make any other stop. Before I knew it, we were passing the branch-off between Mzuzu and Mzimba (don’t worry if you have no idea where that is). After 45 minutes, we were in Mzimba town, and an hr later, in our little village of ‘Katawa’.
As we approached my grandparent’s house, I started to hear strange sounds. It was the moment I had feared the most. The ‘mourning reception’. The convoy stopped at the same time. For some reason, we were the first to come out of the cars. Everyone was crying, the women in the idle cars were singing sad church songs.
When mum and aunt stepped out ………
Women throwing themselves all over the place. Mum and aunt shouting uncle J’s name on top of their voices. Cousins holding mum and aunt to stand on their feet. Tears everywhere, Tumbuka words that I have never heard of. Total chaos!
Dad and the uncles looking down with puppy eyes. Hands on their mouths, slowly shaking their heads sideways like they had just received the news of uncle J’s demise.
You must be wondering what I was doing at that moment.
Here is the thing – this was not the first time that this had happened. Every time I thought that I had gotten used to it, I proved myself wrong. I can easily say that this will always be the toughest moment of a funeral for me. As distant aunts, uncles, cousins came to hug me. I imitated my dad and faced the floor, sniffing and shaking my head in ‘disbelief’.
Every time I look back at these moments. I ask myself what goes on in the minds of these people. What goes on in their minds when we are eating at home before the journey? When we are in the car talking and joking about mum’s business? When we are taking a stop to grab a samoosa? I don’t see any sadness or remorse for Uncle J. It is only until this moment when they all cry his name out.
I guess this is just a culture that I will have to accept and play along with.
May Uncle J continue to Rest in Peace