Monday, Sept. 22
Suzanne beckoned, and I followed her around the side of her house, toward the outdoor toilet. I had just arrived at the Ndi Wamba compound, and I figured she was giving me the tour, in case I had forgotten where to do my business.
Instead, she stopped short in front of a huge slab of concrete. The small, frail woman gave no explanation, simply clasped her hands together and turned in my direction.
It took me a few seconds to recognize what I was looking at: Father’s grave.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to react. I mumbled something in French about it being a nice spot — right next to the building where several of his children slept — and I moved closer to examine the tomb. At the far end, where I imagined Father’s head would be, someone had carved words into the cement. I couldn’t quite make out the entire inscription, but the date of his death was clear: August 7, 2007.
It had been more than a year since Father died, and his four wives still wore black. All black, all the time, unless they were at home, out of eyeshot of their neighbors. They now were permitted, since a year had passed, to shed their dark blouses and skirts, but they first needed to gather money for a small ceremony to mark the occasion. And so they continued to wear black.
Father’s children, too, had donned black clothes, but only for eight months, as tradition dictates. They now dressed normally, some in faded African cloth, others sporting second-hand pants and t-shirts.
Father had died at the age of 77, from what exactly I couldn’t determine. One of his adult children told me it was a heart attack. Another explained that he couldn’t move his legs, though his appetite was good until the day he died. Everyone agreed he had been ill for years.
“Some nights I look left, I look right, and still Father isn’t there,” Katherine told me, expressing her sorrow over his passing. She had married him after all the others and still spent 20 years at his side.
Father’s passing was more than an emotional loss; when he died, so did his retirement pension from the government. Just like that, the family’s financial support was gone.
Life now was hard, the wives told me, harder than before. With so many school-age children — 13 in all, since many were already grown, plus a handful of grandchildren who also lived on the compound — it was a struggle to pay school fees. The women, who spend most of their time in the fields cultivating food for the family to eat, make only petty cash by selling snacks at nearby markets. They didn’t know how they would pay for all the kids to attend school this year.
Though the family had held a large mourning ceremony the week after Father’s death, it likely would be years before they garnered enough money for his funeral. Funerals here are huge, joyous events — not like somber American funerals — with plenty of beer and food, dancing and traditional dress. No tears.
The Ndi Wamba family lamented the fact that it would take so long to come up with the money for the event. But — though I often wonder why Africans seem to spend more money on the dead than the living — I appreciated this tradition of a delayed funeral. It makes more sense to me to say a final goodbye after the mourning period, when you’re ready, as opposed to the rushed funerals we have in the States, when loved ones are still shocked and dazed.
Even without Father, days go by at the Ndi Wamba concession. As Katherine would say, “C’est la vie. Il faut supporter.”
That’s life. There’s no choice but to put up with it.