Just when I have reached the 1 year mark and started to strut myself around, thinking I know all there is to know about this culture and people, that nothing can shock or surprise me short of a radioactive goat-man, I retreat into a culture-shock coma. The reason? Several days ago, our venerable neighbor approached us purposefully and told us that it may be better for us to leave for the next few days, because the infant child of one of his son's had passed away from malaria. This alone was terrible to hear. He then told us that the body would be coming to his house, and would be buried there. I share the same space as my neighbor, and am on the same compound. I live in one of his houses that he has so kindly lent towards Peace Corps purposes for these two years. "You will be very disturbed," he told us, and I was thinking, "yeah, no doubt," when he continued, "there will be so many people around for up to a week, and they will expect you to house and feed them." This part of African culture is entirely unique and still very foreign to me, and although I find myself singing its praises, I start to face the music the moment that it comes to my backdoor.
Within an hour of two of our neighbor's announcement to us, truckloads full of people started to unload around my house; women dressed in the most lamentably beautiful and outrageous fabrics, joined together with their children and families. Peeking out the kitchen window, I watched as the crowd around the small purple coffin swelled and grew, formed and reformed to allow for newcomers, taking on new limbs and organs, and becoming an organ of mourning. Starting from the first swell of visitors in the morning, and not stopping until the following morning, the hot, dusty air filled with mourning music. Aided by home-made drums, the group comprised mostly of women (but a few men) sang a 24 hour song, a song that also morphed and dissolved, only to reform again in a different key or harmony. Some of the songs were familiar church songs to us, unique to the Lugbara, but now there was an extra element within them, a sad slurring between words and notes, an audible and collective moan of despair that was owned not just by the family of the child, but everyone. In these songs, the suffering and sadness of this family was taken up by everyone in the village; this music lifted the tragedy up above this family, until it was owned by everyone, hanging in the air above, and carried by all.
These songs of mourning do not cease until the burial. Throughout the entire night, until the sun rose, I slept soundly, my dreams buoyed and pulsed through with the dark colors of the music, the patiently woven harmonies, until I would wake, suddenly, with my heart-pounding in time with the drums and wailing pleas and laments. This was easily the most beautiful and disturbing night that I have ever spent. I have heard these mourning songs at night before, but from far off in the distance, and I have always felt something small and dark latch inside of me, as I realize what they mean. I have never had these songs sung outside my window, had these drums beaten against my house, so that the rhythm becomes part of me, so that even I (a foreigner untouched by this tragedy) am pulled into this current of mourning. Something else unique in this culture is the way people express their sadness. I think in America we save our emoting for when we are alone. We are private people. We try to hold it together, even when there is all the reason in the world to let yourself pour-out. Here, when people are sad or affected, they simply run off from the crowd, wailing and speaking in tongues, falling to the ground to tear at the grass. Tom and I tried to cook food, uneasily, as we heard the mother of the child tearing around the compound, her voice cracking as she screamed and cried.
We had felt uncomfortable about the possibility of people asking us for shelter or food. It sounds unreasonable of us, but really, it's not in our culture to house strangers for the night. If anyone asked, we were going to try to explain the best we could. No one asked. Sure, we had hordes of women and men peeking in our windows, using our latrine, and sitting outside our doors. At one point, I looked at our house, and saw that we had a solid moat of hundreds of brightly-clad women sitting around our house, like some sort of innovative defense strategy. But we didn't have to leave, and we went to the burial the next day. That first night, hundreds of people had showed up to join in the mourning, and people did not sleep, or if they did, slept in small huddled groups on the ground near dawn. After the burial, most everyone left for their homes, except for the mourning family.
Despite the sad situation, people were still friendly and curious towards us. I felt almost guilty for being a distraction during the few days and I tried to make myself as scarce as possible, but was once again amazed by the bottomless reserve of warmth that the Lugbara exude. Once the burial was over, people regained their usual smiles and laughter. The outpouring of emotion and sadness had run its course, and now life started to tip back towards normal. When I greeted someone during those few days, and we talked about the funeral, the person would always click their tongue, but then look at me and say, "Yes but this is life. God gives and takes." With such composure. I think that this has taught me that Uganda will continue to surprise me and take me out of my comfort zone, but also that no matter how different our culture and traditions are, we can still somehow respect each other.
In other news, I recently asked an older women in my village about the good old days in Arua, and she told me that when she was a young girl, everyone was still wearing bark and leaves instead of clothes. Awesome.
Love and Lamps,
grass and leaves