15 Dec 2001
THE RYTHM OF BURIAL
‘My hope is beyond the sky, I am just a stranger here’. These are the wordings of one of the several songs that have become household tunes in all Anglophone Cameroon. The alarming rise in the death rate and the resultant funeral rites are responsible for the popularity of songs like this. The scenes and rhythms at different burials is the thing that will certainly have lasting impressions on children growing up now. Those of them that will survive this death-afflicted era will reflect on their childhood and see flashes of corpses, coffins, graves and grieving. It is an unenviable situation indeed.
We seem to have exhausted all the available options to express sympathy or even to mourn. Some particular situations push us sometimes to behave strangely. I arrived my village of recent shortly after a teenage girl and her grandmother died. Death had earlier through the years snatched all of this grandma’s eight children. She came to completely depend on this grand daughter to do the many things that advanced age and failing health could not allow her to do. The elderly lady was so fond of the grand daughter that villagers referred to the latter as ‘grandma’s handbag.’ Suddenly, the young lady died after a brief illness. The death so touched the elderly lady that she became disoriented and stopped eating. When she saw the coffin brought for the grand daughter, she stood up in tears, called the late girl’s name, and inquired aloud why she was going and leaving her alone? She then staggered behind the house, collapsed and died. The coffin makers had to go for a second one. I arrived the village some three days after the incident and was so moved by these deaths that I simply refused to go to the compound of the bereaved. Customarily, I should have gone there. This was unexplained strange behaviour on my part. Maybe it was because I did not know to whom I had to say ‘ashia’ (hush you are).
We are burying too many people that we are unknowingly evolving a subculture that is helping to lessen the depressive effect of grieve on bereaved people. The role played by chorus, drums and other musical instruments during these solemn occasions is very important. During the burial of one of our staff, the singing and drumming did more to keep our spirits high than any speeches or messages of condolence. When her body was being lowered into the grave, the sound of drums and chorus completely enveloped us. There reaches a point where sound from wailing and that from music seem to merge and stir powerful emotions that can hardly be described by words alone. That was the feeling I had as we stood by the grave and young men were using spades and hoes to fill it with soil while melody, drums and wailing electrified the air. The young men filling the grave occasionally had to jump into it and stamp their feet on the soil so as to compact it. As I watched the movement of their feet and listened to the chorus, it was as if they were dancing to the rhythm of the music. I turned and looked at the faces of the mourners. I could not easily differentiate those that were singing from those that were wailing. Everybody’s mouth was moving but most had tears running down their cheeks irrespective of whether they were singing or wailing.
We happen to be unfortunate to belong to a generation that is being tormented by an unprecedented number of deaths. The sad thing is that the end of the tragedy is not near in sight. We are condemned to live with the rhythm of burial for a long time to come. We must never lose hope whether here or beyond the sky.
Copyright ã2001 by Njei Moses Timah
Njei Moses Timah [e-mail]