A Funeral in Congo

Around this time of year, two years ago, my grandmother passed away. A friend lost his brother. January is often a bad month. Christmas is over and it’s too cold and you lose people and you go to the funeral and the sky is gray and you’re sick and you think how appropriate, you’re glad it’s freezing cold and gray because you’d be mad if it were sunny—how dare the sun shine today—you’d be mad. But you’re already mad. You should have done more, said more, been there more, there is plenty to be mad about. January can be a bad month.

The last funeral I was at, though, was on a bright sunny dusty Congo day. It was May, usually a good month, but perhaps the bad months are different in Africa. The day was hot, and it was the dry season, which means no afternoon rains to tamp down the dust, the orange dust that rises from the roads in clouds, kicked up by cars and people and animals. It settles on everything, this dust, a film of orange-brown, and you can draw your finger along a wide green leaf and watch the stripe form in your wake.

We knew Fiston’s aunt was sick. We’d dropped him off at the hospital one day after the conference. We didn’t know what it was. I’m not sure he knew how to translate the diagnosis. We didn’t know how serious. And then one Sunday evening we were in Mudaka, a little village outside of town, past fields of banana trees, past green mountains, past army trucks and soldiers. We were in a one-room hut, a church, with dirt floors and mud walls. Jessica and I preached, and as we left the church the sun was setting, the air was pale and thin and everyone got quiet as the news passed, whispered from one of us to another: Fiston’s aunt has died.

The drive to Bukavu was in silence. We watched the road, watched the dark hills, watched the black lake. Everything was dark, except Fiston’s bright yellow shirt, in the middle of the van, like a lamp.

The funeral was the next day. Family came in from all over, hundreds of people stuffed into a house with white walls and tall ceilings, relatives, relatives, relatives, and you don’t know how anyone sleeps, and maybe they don’t.

We drove up and parked on the street, the dust lifting to meet us, flying into our faces. We walked to the house, the air buzzing with warmth and the out of the ordinary. And we greeted the family, walked through a path that took us through the house and into the backyard, where we saw a box.

It takes your breath away, a bit, to see the box, just a wooden box about the size of a woman, and there’s a window on the top of the box, just over the face, and there’s a framed picture of the woman on top of the box. There was the vague anxiety of not knowing the cause of death. There was, in the back of my mind, the articles read about Ebola in Congo, the outbreak a couple years ago. I felt a little sick. People crowded into the backyard. They were sitting in rows several people deep. I had been to the house before, when it was empty except for one family, and I remember sitting on the sofa drinking Coke from a tall slender bottle, and when it started to rain Fiston and I ran outside to collect the laundry that had been drying on the bushes.

Now the backyard looked quite different. The rains were gone. The dust was on everything.

We hugged Fiston, told him we loved him, kept moving through the path, walking forward, moving back to the street. We got back in the van. The dust clouded the windows. Or that’s how I remember it—fuzzy, cloudy, blurry.

The streets were so clogged, we couldn’t leave right away. We sat in the van and waited. There was always a little bit of anxiety when we were stuck in the van and couldn’t move. A feeling of being trapped. And the dust and the heat and the people outside pouring around us and then a crowd emerged from the direction of the house. A big truck stopped in the street and people came out carrying the coffin, the window on top now closed, and women screamed, and everyone who wasn’t screaming stopped to look, or they jumped onto the truck with the coffin, you’ve never seen a truck carry so many people, and then it took off up the road, up the hill, toward the graveyard.

It happened fast. It happened in slow motion. I can still hear their screams, and feel the dust in the back of my throat.

Sometimes it’s January, and sometimes it’s May. The pessimist in me wonders what funerals 2011 will bring. The denial part doesn’t want to think about it. The realist hasn’t made up her mind what to think. The realist never knows how to end things, never knows how to wrap it up—sometimes it’s January, and sometimes it’s May. Sometimes it’s your family, and sometimes it’s someone else’s. And time continues.

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