Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Personnel Sans Retour

It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting here in my hammock enjoying a cup of hot coffee.  There’s a light breeze drifting through my living room and I can hear children playing outside.  But, that’s not the only thing I hear.  Since Thursday morning, there has been nonstop music at my neighbors house.  24/7 the speaker system has been blasting Beninese beats while the generator cranks away, the scent of gasoline permeating the air.

Now, you may be wondering, why has there been a solid 72 hours of ground shaking music here in Adourekoman? Why has the village not slept?  Why have thousands of people poured in from around the country to visit?  Why have fires been going night and day, heating cauldrons of pate, ignams and rice?  The answer: a funeral.

What do you think of when I say funeral?  In the American context, funerals are somber events. We wear black. We write and listen to eulogies that honor the deceased. We mourn. In Benin, funerals are a whole other ballgame.  When someone dies, their body is brought to a morgue where it can stay for several months, until the family has collected enough money to throw a proper celebration.  While the body lays waiting for burial, the family throws small events in village and begins the preparations.  For the past several weekends, a speaker system has been brought in from Glazoue for dancing, drinking and donation garnering.    

This funeral was for a man in the Badjagou family.  And, since Adourekoman was started by the Badjagou’s and they still make up about 50% of the village population, it should be no surprise that this funeral was a big one.  

The cooking preparation started on Thursday.  After returning from vaccinations in Zaffe, I stopped to greet some women who were all gathered under one of the big shade trees. The coiffeur was there doing hair and the woman who walks around with a tower of nail polish on her head was giving pedicures.  This is all normal for a hot afternoon in village.  What was different was the number of peanut shells scattered on the ground.  For hours, they had been shelling peanuts to make peanut sauce for the funeral party.  I grabbed a seat and joined in, despite being a shelling novice and separating one shell to their three.  I was offered a piping hot cup of bouillie from a communal bowl and sipped it slowly.  I still don’t understand why the Beninese prefer hot food, especially during the heat of the afternoon.

After shelling more peanuts than I could count, I excused myself and wandered over to another group of women, who were busy making pate.  The women took turns standing next to the blazing fire, churning the corn meal within a huge pot.  As a joke, they handed me the paddle to stir the pate, but between the heat and the viscosity of the pate, I was exhausted after a couple minutes.  I retreated to the shade of a payote (like a pagoda) and talked with some of the women before finally heading home.

That evening, I went back outside to investigate the music scene.  Someone had strung up lights and people were busy dancing.  Most of the kids stood on the outskirts of the group, looking on.  When I walked up, I was pulled into a circle and took turns dancing with each person.  Although I’m a terrible dancer, they love it when I start flapping my arms and shaking my hips in my best imitation of their dance.  I probably look like a deranged chicken.

Trying to save myself from the grips of the dance circle, I walked over to the kids and started a conga line.  It took a little convincing for them to hold on to each other’s shoulders, but by the time we got going, I was leading a group of fifty kids in circles around the party.  Each time I broke off from the group, I was pulled back in to lead the line, resorting back to my chicken arm thrusts and spastic legs movements.  They loved it.

Two hours of dancing later, I was exhausted.  Daniel came to “rescue” me for dinner and the kids followed us home.  I promised them I would dance again, knowing full well that the music wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.  After dinner, I made a quick escape to my house, where I popped in ear plugs and fell asleep to loud pounding of the speaker system outside.  

Preparations continued on Friday.  The fires roared, the music blasted and people began pouring in.  I confirmed that the funeral mass started at 9 am on Saturday and again visited the groups of women who were busy cooking.

On Saturday morning, I got up and headed to the church at 8:45.  I should have remembered that 9 am was the Beninese time, so when the crowds gathered at the entrance and the ceremony started at 10:15, I wasn’t shocked.  People arrived in their best meme-tissu: the immediate family sporting a brown checker print, the family from Zaffe rocking a green diamond print with hints of yellow and orange, and the church choir wearing their special occasion ensemble of teal Jesus print.  The priest and his entourage arrived in a dark blue sedan and were welcomed like royalty.  We stood at the entrance of the church under a huge tent for several minutes while girls paraded around, holding gold-framed photos of the deceased and the priest said some initial prayers.  He used a large duster to flick water onto the casket, which was placed in the entranceway.  It wasn’t until we entered the church and took our seats when I finally laid eyes on the box.

The casket was carried in and set at the foot of the alter.  It was painted robin’s egg blue, decorated with large gold-colored handles and a large gold cross.  The top was curved like ocean waves and the sides read “Personnel Sans Retour.”  As if this wasn’t enough, the entire exterior was illuminated with blinking LED sting lights that glowed red, blue and green, casting a colorful glow on the dark cement floor.  The lights stayed lit throughout the entire mass and accompanied the man to his grave in the village cemetery.  Hey, the batteries will last longer than regular bulbs, right?

Mass was conducted in Idaasha.  There was dancing, singing and several rounds of money collections for the family.  Four different choirs had come in for the event, so the room echoed with the voices of dozens.  It was standing room only, and when it came time, they ran out of communion.  The whole event lasted a little over three hours, and I was happy to be out in the fresh air when it ended.  The mass emptied out into the church yard and everyone made their way to the cemetery down the road for the internment.  The proceedings were very similar to those in the US: the casket was lowered into the ground, words were said, and then the ground was filled in.  In the next couple weeks, cement will be poured over the ground, creating a tombstone that will display the name and age of the deceased.

From the cemetery, the crowds dispersed and the partying began.  Large tents had been erected at the church, school and at several different houses, where different branches of the family hosted their own festivities.  The thousands of plastic chairs that had arrived on Friday were soon filled with family and guests.  I made my way to my neighbors’ tents, where the women were busy serving platters of rice and the men were hurriedly passing out bottles of Beninois.  I accepted both and found a seat with some women.  The brass band that had been marching around all morning came to serenade me before moving on to another party.

After the rice and my first beer of the day, I ran home to grab my water bottle before hopping on to the next party.  I found a huge celebration in the back of the village and was invited to sit with the patrons, or honored guests, where I was served another beer and a heaping plate of ignam pile.  I dug in with my fingers, enjoying the freshly pounded ignams and peanut sauce.  I talked to many of the visitors, who had come in from the bigger cities and told them about my role here in Adourekoman.  Who knew funerals were a big networking event?!

From there, I made my way back to the center of the village where another tent was filled with a hired dance troupe performing traditional dance.  I stayed for a bit, but left for fear of being pulled in.  Navigating through the rest of the village, I wandered towards the school where a Rasta DJ was set up and a huge crowd of onlookers were watching a group of men sway back and forth to his music.  I was invited to join another group of family for ablo, a sweetened corn cake, and luckily was not offered another beer.  We ate and talked for a while before I moved on to another group, then finally went to the health center to check on Daniel.  Despite most of the village partying at the funeral, Daniel was swamped with patients, so I brought him some food.

Finishing the last case of malaria, Daniel and I went to greet a couple different Badjagou family members and pay our respects.  This involved more beer, piles of mutton and fresh soja (soy), which was by far the best I have tasted since coming to Benin.  It was now close to 7 pm and I was exhausted.  In one final attempt to funerate (funeral + celebrate), I explored the final tent, where a drum circle was just getting started.  I stayed for a little, and danced some more, before finally heading home. 

And now’s it’s Sunday.  The music is still going and I’ve been told it won’t stop until Monday night.  Apparently, they will be butchering a bull this afternoon for the remaining guests, so stay tuned for another Yard to Table story. 

Happy Sunday from exhausted-but-not-so-sleepy Adourekoman! 

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