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Something Nice from London - Continued

The men of the family follow behind, maintaining a respectful distance from this active mourning, this business of women. The sound of grieving tears the air for what seems like an endless, frozen, moment. Then the moment is over and they want to know what happened.


“Peter’s body did not arrive,” Jonathan explains. This does not satisfy the relatives, and the questions remain. MaiLisa, who had passed on the message from her daughter Lisa, has been loud in proclaiming her grief, but is silent now that explanations are required. After her earlier exertions, she discovers that she is needed in the kitchen and is now commanding the family daughters-in-law.  Their non-agnatic status in the family means that not only are theirs the lungs that provide the loudest mourning, theirs are also the hands that cook and clean at family gatherings. We can get nothing from her beyond  “I know only what I have told you. Lisa is there. Why estimate the length of a snake using the bark of a tree when the creature is right there for you to measure?”


Lisa calls that evening to explain that when she had told her mother that Peter would be on the morning flight, she had meant only that there was merely a possibility of Peter being on the flight. She did not actually tell her mother it was a certainty. The situation is more complicated than she thought, she says. In fact, Peter might not be home for some days. She has travelled up to Birmingham from London, she says, but she cannot stay. There will be a post-mortem, Lisa says. Peter had died in an area in which there were many junkies. It was only a week after he died that he had been identified. And it seemed there would be at least one week, possibly two, before he can come home. There may well be two post-mortems, if they charge anyone with his death.


And in the meantime, his remains congeal in the drawer of a mortuary in a foreign land. And while his body is there, the family has gathered here to bury their child. Outside, the men of the family sit around the fire keeping a vigil while they argue over whether Motor Action or Caps United deserves to top the national soccer league. There is no hope for Dynamos under its present management, they agree. Inside the house, the women sing of the transient nature of our earthly presence. “Hatina musha panyika,” they sing as they wait to see Peter in his coffin before they can undam the full outpouring of their grief. They cannot mourn him fully without seeing his body. He came from the dust and to dust he must return to be interred whole, intact. They are all here, my grandfather’s brother, my father’s nephews and nieces, the agnatic aunts and uncles as well as the aunts and uncles by marriage. They continue to arrive, preparing their faces to meet the faces that they will meet, composing their faces to masks of mourning as soon as they glimpse the gates to our house. They let go then, wailing at the top of their voices, falling into each others’ arms as they stagger in little dances of grief. Then the moment of emotion over, they ask after each others’ health and that of their families, and their thoughts turn to matters of the stomach.


And in this matter of food lies our anguish. We cannot feed them all if they continue to pour out like this, and if we must host them for an unknown number of days. We cannot be sure how long it will take to bring Peter home. The small pile of chema funeral donations in a bowl on the kitchen table, grubby notes laced with the sweat of many hands, is barely enough to pay for three days’ supply of black market milk and bread and sugar. Already the relatives on the paternal side who have the authority to command the daughters-in-law march into the kitchen and demand to know when the feeding will begin. But how to tell people: please go away, we have not started officially to mourn? They have spent money to get here; the old aunts from Shurugwi have taken out their notes from the old pots in which they keep their money. And then to tell them, please, find more money, go away for now and come back later, wearing your most sorrowful faces.


We cannot issue an invitation to a funeral like it is a wedding.

And even as we cannot bury Peter without our relatives, the relatives bring complications beyond the pressing matter of food. They do not accept our decision to bury Peter here in Harare. They will not listen to Jonathan as he explains how fortunate we are to have a burial site, how we had to bribe a Council official and still pay double the market-price for the site. They insist only that our customs dictate that Peter be buried with my father and other ancestors hundreds of kilometres away in Shurugwi. Great-uncle Matyaya who arrived last night has been the most insistent.  


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Per Contra Fiction - Fall 2006