When a Zimbabwean woman smiles across from you in the night, with only a campfire and the light of the Milky Way to illuminate her, her teeth glow and the whites of her eyes. The rest of her is swallowed into the African darkness. But I can feel her and the dozen “Sisters” seated on old kitchen chairs in a circle around the crackling fire, the sparks reaching skyward towards the Southern Cross hanging in the sky. The Sisters’ brown ankles stick out beyond their skirt hems, colorful bandanas hug their heads, a big enamel coffee pot nestles in the coals.
Behind them, in a tiny village house, singing drifts through the cool night air. Songs in the native Shona tongue pour from the toothless mouths of the elders, crowded inside. They will keep this up all through the night until first light, when they will break for food and begin the burial ceremony. I am privileged to be attending a Zimbabwean wake- a white woman from Pennsylvania who is far from home.
My African friend, Ray, asked if I wanted to attend for I was complaining that after a two week visit in the country, I’ve had little cultural experiences. I immediately questioned if I would be intruding but he assured me not. He turns me over to the family and won’t be with me again for the next three hours.
The brother of the deceased man takes me around and sits me down at both the Sister’s Circle and the Men’s Circle and explains who I am and why I am present. The only word I understand is “Cindy.” Then he turns me loose to the Sisters and says they will take care of me.
The procedures of the evening were explained. First I will help wash the white enamel cups in the basin of grey dirty water that smells faintly of bleach. I sit on my hunches on the ground and swirl each cup around, then deposit them in another enamel basin for my host to rinse.
After presenting the basin to each man for them to select a cup, they announce that they desire the American woman to serve them tea. A scrap of shredded newspaper is wrapped around the metal handle to insulate it and I am instructed to fill each cup to the brim. The men are very gracious and polite.
Once I return to the Sister’s Circle, a woman informs me it is their custom to knell onto the ground before a man when you serve them.
“I didn’t know that,” I respond.
Another asks, “Do you knell down to your men in America?”
I chuckle to myself, imagining that scene and reply, “No, that would not go over in my country.”
“It makes our men feel important,” another explains. “It makes our men feel BIG.” I can see how it would have that kind of effect.
After the singing elder women take turns coming outdoors for their tea, I am asked, “They want you to sing a song.”
“Really? What kind of a song?”
“A church song.”
Oh my God. I am drawing a blank. I was raised Catholic and sang a lot of songs but have recently been attending a Unitarian Universalist Church quite sporadically. I find myself wishing I had been more into organized religion.
“As soon as the words, ‘How about Kumbaya?’”come out of my mouth I can hear my 20-year old son, Bryce commenting, “Holy shit, Mom that is SO lame.”
Nevertheless, the Sisters are visibly moved by my selection for they know all the words and sing it out loudly. I gaze around and see their flashing white teeth in the firelight and a look of warmth and acceptance filling every face. When it is my turn to enjoy a cup of tea, I try to dismiss the fact that I could get sick from the water and don’t want to mar the experience. A woman returns from her home with a glass tea cup that is beautifully etched in flowers and I am told to pour my tin cup’s contents into it.
When the elder women in the casket room get wind of my singing skills, they too request a song. I am ushered into the candlelit room where the casket sits atop a wooden kitchen table. A framed photo of the seventy-year old deceased man rests on top while lit taper candles and modest bouquets of flowers are placed on the floor underneath.
The women scooch over to create a spot for me on the floor and I squeeze in between two, my legs stretched out straight in front in the customary fashion. A fleecy acrylic blanket is tossed over my legs.
But this group isn’t content with just one song.
“They want another,” my host Sister announces to me.
Great, I lament. Then speak out, “Does anyone know any Negro spirituals? Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?”
They know the lyrics and as they sing, their voices grow louder, their smiles wider. They take my hands in theirs and never take their eyes off me. Their great white teeth sparkle in the candlelight and there are looks of love for me on their faces. I have to blink back ears and ignore the frog in my throat.
Remember this moment, I tell myself. Burn it onto the emulsion of your brain. You are reaching across an ocean of differences, going beyond race, age, customs, to a place of deep connection. This is why we travel…to shrink the world, to see one another in the same firelight, with the same heart.