Monday, March 27, 2006

A village burial

I spent most of yesterday in rural Bushenyi. Actually I spent most of he day travelling to and from Bushenyi (680km round trip). The purpose of the visit was to attend the burial of a distant relative. This was after heavy doses of emotional blackmail from my mum, which involved her telling me how important it was to always attend burials as a show of solidarity and how keeping aloof would result in nobody caring about me when I died. The part about solidarity I got 100% but the part about nobody coming for my burial just beat me. I wouldn’t care less who came for my burial because I will be dead.

Yesterday’s experience gave me an interesting insight into village burials. I have been to maybe 3 burials my whole life and I have always, with the exception of my old man’s eons ago, been no more than a distant observer at these functions.

First, the burial was like a major social event that brought all the people out in their good clothes, although the old lady we were burying was not a major community figure from what I could gather. The villagers came streaming in at around 1pm because it seems that there is some unwritten law that says all burials should start at 2pm.

People were then called for lunch and I started getting the feeling that the punctuality had more to do with the free meal than with time consciousness. In true village spirit, everybody was invited to lunch, even some chaps who struck me as just being curious onlookers.

During lunch I was surprised by the quantities these chaps can put down. I was passed a plate and at first I assumed they had served for 3 people due to lack of plates until I saw everybody around get served with similar heaps. I got the lady serving to give a smaller amount, which she did begrudgingly because she didn’t believe me when I said I had been given too much food (she probably thought I was passing a negative judgement on her culinary skills).

After everybody was sufficiently stuffed with a high carbohydrate lunch, the main business began. The old lady had to be laid to rest after a “few” speeches. This is where things got pretty interesting. It seemed to me that everyone was going to give a short speech. There was the widower, the kids, a brother, a sister, the LC chairman, the head of some village women’s burial cooperative (whose role I couldn’t quite get) and finally the two clergymen (our family is protestant and the old lady had been married to a catholic).

Most of the speeches were short and full of the expected pleasantries but some were not. One of the dearly departed’s siblings gave a speech about how she had taken care of the old lady until her dying day. The other siblings felt that they were being made to look like they had neglected the late sister and they let their displeasure be known. The clergymen also just couldn’t help the urge to participate in a subtle game of one-upmanship- continuously throwing barbs at the “other” group.

Even that ended and the coffin had to be lowered. I figured this would be quite routine and we would soon be on our way. But it was not to be. After the prayers and the hymns had been sung and the coffin was about to be lowered some elderly man said that the head of the coffin was facing the wrong way. A spontaneous and lively debate started over where the head of the coffin should face. Half the mourners soon entered the fray and I kept hoping nobody would throw a punch. The elder lost the debate and the coffin was lowered into the grave as earlier intended. The soil was poured over the coffin and that was that.

Something struck me about the whole experience. I wonder if all the villagers are schooled in what hymns to sing at burials or has everybody attended so many burials that they have all memorised the hymns. Every time the reverend started a song, everybody quickly stepped in to sing along.

We soon made a hasty exit after promising to come by again under more cheerful circumstances.


Degstar said...

did the village drunk, who claims to be a distant relative, come upto you and attempt to impress upon y'all how close he was to the deceased? through gusts of beer soaked breath?

Lovely Amphibian said...

sorry about that. but as you have related, even in such situations there's a story to be told. humanity will always be intriguing.

Carlo said...

ah the Ugandan speeches! wait till you attend a wedding in the village. i'm not sure which speeches are longer, the happy wedding ones or the ones that reminisce about the entire life of a 78 year old about to be put in the soil.

jkb said...

Carlos, Public speaking is a skill, but who has the time to hang around in a blah, blah session! Not my soul.

Splendid work on this blog.