Monday, July 9, 2012

Gbaya Funeral

It’s never a fun topic. What is fun about death? Lately, the stories here have been beyond anyone’s imagination. A young adult who had his whole life to live whose 2 year old daughter died the year prior, the father of 5 young children, a woman who was too ashamed to acknowledge her HIV status and did not take the free treatment that would have prolonged her life. These are just a few of the stories. Everyone has theirs', but somehow here they are just heart wrenching. But we can learn from peoples’ experiences; we can learn how to laugh amongst the tears.

The family I lived with lost their grandmother one Monday afternoon. She passed away at 13:30 and I was there shortly after. It was Emmajene’s mom. She had been sick, could not help with the birth of her daughter’s 7th son, it was expected. But as with any death, expected means nothing. Death is death. I have been to my fair share of funerals, but in the states you know what to expect. You pray the Rosary, may or may not see an open casket, there are flowers, there are quiet tears. The funeral was of a Christian, Gbaya beloved mother of 3 girls and 1 boy, countless grandchildren.

Immediately after hearing the news of her passing, Amanda (my other neighbor in the concession) and I went directly to her house. Amanda comes from another region of Cameroon where there are different mourning customs, so we both were in for a cultural shock. The grandmother was lying on a foam bed in the corner of the room. There was a white sheet, which is customary, covering her body just until the nose. Each nostril had a bit of cotton in it. And women were surrounding her crying; a cry that is none like anything that we are accustomed to; a cry that was like a scream, a plea, a prayer, a whaling. When another woman walks into the room, she greets one of the family members with a handshake that is reserved only for giving your condolence. Then the women start the loud cries. Its gives you chills and immediately brings tears to your eyes. People do not cry here; it is only for mourning. Women do not even cry during childbirth. Men especially do not cry.

Therefore, when seeing the youngest son, 20 years old, burst into the room, threw himself on the bed that his mom laid on, and screamed. It was surreal. I have been to enough funerals, but the last time I really saw death, it was my Grandma Nicolai and I was in the 4th grade. I did not understand that my dad and I were going to the hospital to “claim” her. Life here is hard, and sometimes I forget that people actually feel. That may sound insensitive, but in the States we are so accustomed to people wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Here that is just not the case.

The next morning, I went to the house to bring a kilo of sugar as a gift and to greet the family. I was told to come back later that afternoon for the funeral. The funeral happened in Gbaya, one of the other local languages here. As they were lowering the casket a family member jumped into the grave crying; in order to get him out people had to throw in money. (100 CFA about 20 cents) After the funeral, family and close friends were invited to drink Buie together (the spelling is wrong, but it is like a rice drink and depending where you are in the country they will mix in sugar, peanut butter or cinnamon). A mat was placed in the center and people who aided in taking care of the Grandmother were invited to sit on the mat together. Then 2 elder women rubbed oil on them all. Apparently, it is a tradition which mean, ‘Congratulations.’ I interpreted it as, ‘you did your part in taking care of the person. Your work is done and we thank you.’

Charla, my postmate, and I taking care of the babies at the funeral.

The women greeting one of the Grandmother's daughters after the burial. A sign of respect at a funeral is to greet someone by laying on the ground. Then who you are greeting will then lift your head to say 'thank you.' 

Before the burial greeting someone on the ground there were tears, but after the burial it is a celebration of life and joyous. 

Taking care of Emmajean's youngest son.


Eileen Paulin said...

Danielle, you do such a wonderful job of sharing the realities of life in Cameroon. Our western culture has sanitized how we deal with death, and I often think that if we were willing to share our emotions of grief along with our faith in God and everlasting life we would be better off. Your posts are wonderful. Condolences and prayers for you and the family.

lawal sani kona said...

Nice just doing a research work on the gbaya because we have their settlements in Nigeria's Taraba state i find your article a nice reading and an example of how humanity will get to appreciate each other through embedding with other cultures

Danielle said...

Lawal, please let me know if you have any additional questions. The other volunteers in my village and myself have a lot of information regarding the Gbaya. I lived in a Gbaya neighborhood and compound for 2 years. Good luck on your research!