by Lynn Marshall (Mali 1997–99)
This essay was the 1999 Moritz Thomsen Award winner.
YESTERDAY, I ATTENDED MY FIRST FUNERAL. I wore white and so did the corpse.
The body was wrapped in a heavy, white cloth and placed under a mango tree, surrounded by dozens of old women with missing teeth, gray hair, and skin as dry as coconut shells. The old ladies wore mismatched swatches of bright print fabric. Over a hundred people had gathered in the concession, and sat cross-legged on long, colorful rectangular mats. They paid their respects by playing cards, smoking Marlboros and drinking tea.
As I toured the concession, I felt hundreds of eyes on me. Trying to convince myself that I was not out of place, I casually made my way over to the body. A group of women standing guard over the body immediately surrounded me. One woman gestured that I should offer money — a gift of sorts, like bringing a tuna casserole to a wake. So I deposited 100 francs CFA (about 20 cents) into her hand. It was received with much appreciation — perhaps because I was a stranger, or perhaps because I had given too much considering the poverty that surrounded me. The woman who took the money began to sing in a voice that cracked and dipped and dove with joy, mourning, tribute. Then she stood up and began shaking a belt full of small, white shells that made the sound of unpopped popcorn in a hard, plastic container. She slowly danced her way towards me, lifted her hands to the sides of her face, and gestured for me to join her. Then a very tall old woman came forth and jumped into the circle that was forming around me, showing me how to dance. She bent her knees and hunched over, shuffling her feet in a smooth rhythm. She took the belt full of shells and tied them around her waist. She continued dancing and clapping her hands above and around the corpse.
I followed the women’s moves as best I could. Every one laughed and clapped in amazement and perhaps a little mockery. Two other women joined us, holding my hands in solidarity. Only women danced in and around that circle. The men stood back — too ashamed or too respectful, I wasn’t sure which — to gather too close. It seemed so strange to me that the body wrapped in white never moved.
After a while, I excused myself and rode my bike home.
I returned several hours later for the burial. As I arrived, the body was being removed from the concession. I watched as the men wrapped the body in more white cloth and placed it on one of those long, rectangular mats. Then they carried the mat to the center of the concession. The men lined up in rows, forming a box around the mat, and began to pray. They moaned and bowed their heads in synchronicity and moaned again. And when the last prayer was uttered, they shook their heads from side to side in unison, as if to say “No more, no longer.” All the while, the women stood outside the box. They were not allowed to see the body: the men, I was told, stand around the body to protect the women from night visions and spirits. The women stood covered in bright fabric, babies tied to backs, babies sucking nipples, staring.
Finally, the men picked up the body and quickly left the concession.
Everyone in the concession went along to the burial ground. We had at least a mile to go, and the midday sun burned mercilessly. The men ran with the body, and the women jogged behind. We ran across the cornfields, chasing the dead woman wrapped in white. Panting, laughing and sweating all the way, we joked to the stragglers, “Clear the road!”About halfway to the burial site, most of the women stopped, too tired to go any further.
Finally, we arrived at the burial site, where a deep pit had been dug. I watched the men place the body inside a slot dug out of the wall of the pit. Then they covered the slot with tree branches, large sticks, then more tree branches and leaves, until the body was completely covered. Then the men climbed swiftly out of the pit and began shoveling dirt furiously, as if to put it immediately behind them.
As I walked back to the concession, I saw the women still waiting in the cornfields at the various places where they had stopped because they could go no further. I spotted my bike among the dozens propped against an acacia. I got on and rode home, not at all sure what to make of that day.
PCV Lynn Marshall was an agricultural extension agent in Mali.