I stumbled onto an African funeral once. The region was Kisumo town, Segoti. I was staying at the house of Ann who is my age but decades wiser. From Ann’s house I heard the strange, mad sound. The sound was hysterical, and it made my skin crawl, much as it had the first time that I heard the cackling of hyenas. It was the perfect medley of laughter and the sob. One of the girls of the house, a slip of a thing in charge of the cleaning, was sitting on the deck at the veranda with me when the strange sound first met my ears.
Her face lit up with unmistakable joy when she first heard the sound. It was this unmistakable joy that was to confound me later. Come with me, do you want to go? It sounds like a party I said, a celebration. What is that strange noise? It sounds like they’re laughing. Oh, no, they’re not laughing, the girl replied. I remember her name was Rose
Oh, it’s a funeral, Rose said matter-of-factly. Today’s a special day. Our school teacher, a dearly loved young woman, a mother of two, a good wife. And she died today. So this is her funeral. Once again, Rose’s face was taken over by what appeared to be to light. She grabbed my hand, insistently pulled me toward the hyena noises. Come on, let’s go see, I want to show you.
Bewilderment, that was what I was drowning in from head to foot. Another girl was with me, another white girl, her name Destiny. Her name once got her admitted via paper resume to an African-American Young Ladies Poetry Club in the states, but she got kicked out when she showed up in person to her first club meeting.
Where you going? Are you really going with them? I guess so. Here, you come too. Rose grabbed my hand with a vice grip and I grabbed Destiny’s wrist with my own.
Leaping across fields and through soccer games, the funeral bus blaring through town simultaneously, honking and blasting music, all amidst the eery shrieking wails of laughter-crying.
It wasn’t laughter at all, I realized when I got closer. Suddenly we were in the thick of it, and it was all the harrowing sobs of unbound grief. I keep trying to use those un-words in different ways to capture the freefall of the sobbing-shrieking. Yet Rose was still smiling as she pulled us through throngs of people towards the casket. Come see, come see.
No, this was no place for a white girl, where I could only be identified as a spectator, not as a griever. Tore away from Rose and fled the unhinged faces and unhinged sounds. Dashed across the fields, past the soccer games. Felt so wretched for having been so close to that casket. Never have felt like I so little had a right to be in a place. In my guilt I inwardly lashed out towards Rose and her perplexing, inexplicable, perpetual smiles. The laughter-sob wails still sounded in my ears. I still most identify them with the sound of unhinged laughter.
The hair on my arms stood on edge with the new knowledge. Laughter and sobbing in their most honest expression sound exactly identical.
Originally published at gracedebusschere.wordpress.com on August 16, 2016.