Tonton Charles was not a great man. He had not led an inspirational life. In fact, he had spent little of it sober. This he had in common with my father, though my father was lucky enough not to see death coming. He just collapsed one day, fell into a coma, and never woke up. My father was only forty-five, but his body had been aged by years of excessive drinking.
Such merciful ignorance was not granted to Tonton Charles. He watched his death approaching and had to bear the full burden of those wasted years.
He reacted with spite. Spite towards his wife, Mama Yvette, who stayed by his side during his final hours, no more appreciated than during the years of their marriage. Spite towards his sister, Mama Fabienne, who had offered him shelter and care, forgiving past ingratitude, disrespect, and insults. Even after his voice had left him, he would stare at them hatefully, angry about the life he had led, malevolently envious of those who would continue living. His death would not be greater than his life had been.
I had met Tonton Charles a few times before—I called him Tonton because he was Manouchka’s uncle. I had visited Gabon once before, but this small Central African nation had become my home, when Manouchka and I moved here a few months ago to get married. I am German and had spent most of my life in Europe. Manouchka was raised in Gabon before her college education had let her abroad, and to me. She was familiar with the local customs, and I relied on her guidance to adjust to this environment that was still new and foreign to me.
When Manouchka had told me that Tonton Charles would be recuperating at her mother’s house in Libreville after his hospitalization, I was surprised. I knew that the relationship between Tonton Charles and Mama Fabienne had been tense, to say the least. He had rarely visited the house for years, although Mama Yvette worked as a maid for Mama Fabienne.
When Manouchka and I entered the room, Tonton Charles sat on the bed, dressed in his pajamas, looking miserable; he had just arrived from the hospital. The room was hardly furnished, just a bed, closet, two chairs. A separate bathroom was the only additional comfort. Mama Yvette was unpacking his suitcase.
Manouchka greeted him and asked, “Comment vas-tu, Tonton?”
“Je suis malade,” he answered laconically. He looked confused when he shook my hand, with a weak, loose grip.
“Le mari de Manouchka,” explained Mama Yvette, and the confusion on his face turned into vague recognition. We exchanged our “Bonjours” and that was the last time I spoke to him.
Over the next few weeks, his condition worsened. It was hard to say how much of his illness was physical. The doctors had ordered strict abstinence, with the result that his weakness was accompanied by sudden alcohol deprivation. He refused to eat. Often, Mama Fabienne had to force-feed her estranged brother, a task that came with a hint of sadistic pleasure when he resisted too violently. Manouchka’s older brother, Dave, would have to grab his head and help force food into his mouth.
Tonton Charles became increasingly reluctant to move at all. Instead of going to the bathroom, he would relieve himself on the mattresses. Occasionally, I heard Dave shouting, “Il faut que tu mange, Tonton.” When he had the energy, Tonton Charles would scream back. I never returned to his room after my first visit. Initially, this was because I did not want to subject myself to the moods of an ill-tempered man suffering from withdrawal. After a while, however, I became aware that I also wanted to avoid the proximity of approaching death.
Once, four weeks after his arrival, somebody had left the door to his room open. I saw him lying on the bed—completely still, maybe sleeping. He had never been fat, but his weight loss was dramatic. His legs had turned into skinny, fragile sticks. His ribs were merely covered by a thin layer of skin. His closed eyes were deeply sunken in their sockets. His metamorphosis was even more shocking for me, as I had not seen him since the day of his arrival.
One day, I had just finished my morning shower when Manouchka entered to tell me that Tonton Charles had returned to the hospital in the early morning. In the evening, she received a phone call from Mama Fabienne, who was still at the hospital.
“The medicine hasn’t worked,” she said calmly, after hanging up the phone. “He has cancer of the liver.” Silence followed. It was not necessary to say more. We both knew that he would not leave
the hospital alive.
After a while I asked, “How do you feel?”
“I feel sorry for my mom,” she responded. “She gave him a house to live in; she gave his wife a job. But this guy has never been grateful. On the contrary, he’s always tried to exploit her, grabbing everything he can to buy booze. Now my mom will have to pay again. Everybody will expect that she will take care of his funeral.”
No longer could I ignore that death was coming. Every morning, Mama Fabienne went to the hospital. Every night, Mama Yvette would stay there. Every day, we waited for the call to announce that Tonton Charles had died. This was the second time I had waited for a man’s sure death to come. The first time had been when I was thirteen years old and my father had fallen into a coma. It had been just as ugly, then as now, waiting for his life to end. The same ugly awareness that a man who had not lived well enough to look back proudly would never get the chance to make things right. The same ugly confusion because the sadness that I was expected to feel was not there, only a nameless uneasiness. The same ugly guilt from my secret wish to get it over with. The same ugly fear of a similar end for myself.
The phone call came in the early evening. Tonton Charles had refused last rites. He’d died in anger. Mama Fabienne told Manouchka to prepare the house for the mourners. Manouchka called all the family members in Libreville while Dave and I fetched two dozen white garden chairs from the attic and distributed them over the balcony, living room, and patio. We filled two buckets with water and cleaned off the thick layers of dust, working rapidly before the first mourners arrived.
I was on the balcony still washing chairs, soaking wet from the water, my sweat, and the humid Central African November night, when suddenly I heard the two women crying. They cried and screamed as if they were in agony, as if the grave feeling of irreplaceable loss had robbed their senses. The weeping women entered a room on the second floor, and Manouchka asked Dave and me to bring them mattresses from the attic. “Can we really enter that room?” I asked, appalled by the idea of placing mattresses around these crying women. “At the moment you still can,” she answered, “but it will be the crying room for the rest of the week. More women, including Mama Yvette, will stay in there. Since you are a Mogoy it is probably better if you stay out after their arrival.”
I was relieved that my status as in-law would allow me to keep out. The mere thought of entering the exclusive realm of mourning women made me nervous.
When Dave and I brought in the mattresses, the two women, who had appeared so devastated moments ago, seemed surprisingly calm. One of them even smiled at me. When Mama Yvette came home from the hospital, Tonton Charles’s daughter led her silently to the crying room, where she promptly lay down on one of the mattresses.
“She must not speak until he’s buried,” explained Manouchka. “She will remain silent and move only to go to the bathroom. Tonton Charles’s daughter will wait outside and make sure that she does not wash herself more than is absolutely necessary—only the minimum of physical hygiene.” She paused, then added, “By the way, the hygiene part also applies to the rest of us.”
“You mean we can’t wash for a week?” I asked anxiously.
“We can cheat a little and shower,” she said, “but no perfume, no deodorant. We must wear the mourning outfit every day; we can only change the underwear.” The mourning outfits had already been prepared, days before Tonton Charles died. It was yellow- and red-patterned cloth, tailored into shirts for men and sarongs for women to tie around their waists.
“Oh, and you mustn’t shave until he’s buried,” Manouchka added.
Now I was really annoyed. Already I had not been shaving for a week and was feeling uncomfortably scruffy. I wished she’d informed me of that rule before the first mourners arrived, so I could have snuck in once last shave.
By midnight, the house was full of people. The women went straight to the crying room. Most of the men gathered on the patio and the balcony, sitting on the newly cleaned chairs, exchanging memories of Tonton Charles. Nobody left. People slept on the chairs, or on the extra mattresses and blankets which had been placed around the house. Manouchka and I slept in our bedroom, and Dave slept in his. Mama Fabienne, however, applied the funeral customs more strictly. Her bedroom stayed locked and she slept with other mourners on the balcony. Over the next few days, more than fifty people were staying permanently in the house to participate in the mourning. Dozens of others visited each day to offer condolences. Most gave Mama Fabienne some financial contribution for the funeral expenses.
Several times each day, the women gathered in the crying room. They cried together, in the same intense, unrestrained way that the two first women had. Afterward, most would leave the crying room to help with cleaning and cooking for the many mourners. Manouchka was so caught up in helping her mother organize everything that she wasn’t able to give much thought to the very reason for the mourning. During the week, however, the workload became lighter. Her awareness grew, and so did her sadness. She had expected to be unaffected by her uncle’s death, but staying in the midst of the mourning community was enough to prove her wrong. After four days, she joined the other women in the crying room.
Tonton Charles was from a small village in the Haut-Ogooué province. He had spent most of his life there. His ancestors had been buried in Haut-Ogooué, and Haut-Ogooué was the natural choice for his gravesite. Five days after his death, we left Libreville to travel across Gabon to Franceville, the regional capital close to the Congo border. Getting the entourage of fifteen people and the dead body to Franceville required two planes.
The long time without shaving had left me rather hairy, and my mourning shirt looked like I’d slept in it for several days.
“Looks like your clothes could need some ironing,” joked Dave, visibly satisfied with his remark. Indeed, he was in perfect shape and certainly not in need of a shave. His outfit was of the finest cuts and noblest brands, and he smelled of elegant French fragrances.
I tried not to show my annoyance, but Manouchka could not hold back her anger about his ignorance. “Tradition forbids shaving and ironing,” she snapped. “Actually, none of us is supposed to change before the body is buried.” Dave shrugged and did not respond. He avoided us during the one-hour flight to Franceville.
It was at the airport in Franceville that I saw Mama Yvette, as she was deboarding the other plane. I had not seen her for the five days she was in the crying room. After hardly moving for nearly a week, she could not walk without support. She was staring at me, with an expression of madness in her eyes, her hair sticking out in all directions. I worried that she might have lost her mind.
After a forty-five-minute ride through the Haut-Ogooué countryside, we reached Mama Fabienne’s house at the edge of Franceville. Nearly a hundred mourners had already gathered under a large tent in the front yard. Sofas and armchairs had been brought out to the patio. Inside, the now bare living room had been turned into a crying room. The coffin was at the back of the room. To its left, Mama Yvette was sitting on the floor. Sitting to its right was Grandma Lekogo, the mother of Tonton Charles and Mama Fabienne. Manouchka and I chose one of the sofas on the patio to sit down.
Many mourners were from small villages and rural areas. Most were poorer than the more bourgeois mourners in Libreville, and more deeply rooted in the Obamba tradition.
“Out here in the jungle,” Dave said to me, “people are more native.”
I could see Manouchka trying to conceal her anger. Dave had spent his high school and college years in France with only short summer visits to urban Libreville, so his lack of familiarity with the Obamba cultural heritage was not too surprising. His permanent return to Gabon had been a half year ago but the extent of self-imposed distance was truly astonishing. His interpretation of the events was European, all too European. Of course, his identity as a Gabonese man, an African man, a black man, could not possibly impose an inherent obligation on him to understand things any better than I did. To some extent, all the younger mourners at the funeral, including Manouchka, were learning about the Obamba tradition that had been nearly obliterated by colonization. However, Dave seemed to see things with the eyes of the colonizer. “I’m more French than Gabonese,” he often announced, while his French girlfriend stood by—proud agreement shining in her eyes. Almost fifty years after the formal independence, Europe was still colonizing the African mind.
On the night before the burial, the Ndjobi dancers—five men and five women—arrived just before dusk. The front yard was cleared and a large, slender drum, about six feet high, was placed between the house and the tent. Some of the dancers tied raffia around their waists, others reached into their bags and produced traditional rattles. Dozens of half-liter bottles of Regab beer were placed in proximity to the drum to keep the dancers going during the long night. One of the dancers, a guy in his mid-twenties, in shorts and a worn-out red tank top, climbed on a stool and started banging the drum with a fast rhythm.
By the time the Ndjobi ritual began, it had become dark. A few men lit a fire in a fireplace next to the gate, which had been locked for the night. A glow lay over the front yard, highlighting drum and dancers. Only the treetops of the nearby forest remained visible beyond the high gate walls.
Some of the guests, Dave among them, had left earlier to have a few drinks at a local maquis. They were still outside when the gate was locked. Consequently, they would spend the night in their cars outside the gate, as the sound of the drum and the singing of the Ndjobi dancers made their knocking and shouting inaudible. Everybody else tried to secure an acceptable spot for the night. A few people slept on chairs under the tent. Others shared the sofas outside the house, facing the front yard.
I was glad that Manouchka and I had secured our spot on a sofa in the afternoon. Unlike in Libreville, we would now strictly adhere to the traditional rules and sleep outside with the others. While the sofa was certainly more comfortable than any chair, it was not nearly as comfortable as our bed in Libreville. I could not stretch my legs, because some guy was occupying the other half of the sofa, so I crouched the rest of my body into an embryonic position, gratefully accepting Manouchka’s offer to rest my head on her lap.
The night was hot and sleeping so close to the ground emphasized the heat. Sweat ran down my back, gluing my shirt to my body. The mosquitoes became unbearable and we tried several times to adjust our position. Finally, I got comfortable, sitting up on the sofa with my legs stretched out on the arms of a chair in front of me. That the chair was already occupied by a woman was unproblematic, as she was deeply asleep and did not mind my feet.
All the exhaustion that had mounted during the day came over me, but my desire to sleep was replaced by the wish to observe the spectacle that was taking place in front of my eyes. Illuminated by the fire and slightly intoxicated by the beer, the Ndjobi dancers performed with frantic intensity. The man on the stool beat the drum with raw, wild energy, singing in a high-pitched monotony that frequently culminated in sudden yelling. The dancers circling the drum shook rattles and rotated their shoulders and hips ecstatically, causing the raffia around their waists to jump up and down in the rhythm dictated by the drumbeat. Mourners had started to join the dance. Old women in their seventies and eighties joined the group, dancing with tiny steps around the drum.
The darkened world beyond the gates was locked out. Everything before this moment turned into a faint memory as I became completely mesmerized by the ritual. The singing, the shouting, the dancing, the jumping raffia, the rattling, and the dominating drumbeat became a powerful force that made a detached gaze impossible. I was overpowered by the fierce ecstasy of the drum and the dancers. I felt pulled into their trance, becoming part of it, drowning in it.
I was not aware that I had drifted off to sleep. The music penetrated my dreamless sleep and it all turned into a raw, dominant force that surrounded me, covered me, shook me. The shaking became more forceful and I finally opened my eyes. A woman was bending over us, shaking Manouchka’s shoulder and passing the movement on to me.
The woman said something in Obamba and Manouchka got up. Without saying one word, she grabbed her camera bag under the sofa and went into the house. I saw more women getting up and disappearing inside the house. I found myself alone on the sofa. It was still dark, but dawn was approaching. The contours of the treetops behind the walls were already visible. The sky had turned from jet-black to dark blue, a blue which became lighter toward the horizon.
The drummer on his stool continued to perform ferociously. The speed and volume of the drumbeat had grown, and were more intense than ever. I arose slowly, and walked out to the front yard, avoiding the area around the drum. I did not dare follow the women into the house, though I did try to peek into the front door.
Suddenly, Mama Yvette came out of the house, walking stiffly, supported by two female Ndjobi dancers. She was still staring, with the same mad expression in her eyes. Again, I worried that she had lost her mind. The two women pulled her towards the drum. The other women from the house followed, many with their faces covered with white makeup. Manouchka walked next to them, filming with her video camera. I could have sworn that she was wearing white makeup too, but she would later deny it.
The women began to dance. The two Ndjobi dancers pulled Mama Yvette forcefully, almost violently, towards the drum. Due to the stiffness of her limbs she could only take tiny, clumsy steps forward, but the dancers kept pulling her. They made her throw her arms in the air, made her wave them, following the mad rhythm dictated by the drum. The group of women circled the drum, dancing, pulling and shoving Mama Yvette. After the drum had been fully circled, they led Mama Yvette back into the house. Once the women had disappeared the drumbeat finally stopped.
I returned to the sofa, my mind numb and exhausted like a muscle after too much exercise. The sun was gradually lightening the gray morning mist. Twenty minutes later Manouchka came back. “What was that all about?” I asked her.
“At dawn the spirits go to sleep,” she explained. “Tonton Charles will be buried today and they needed to cut the link between his spirit and the world of the living.”
“Why did they make Mama Yvette dance?” I asked.
“She shows his spirit that she’s mourning him. And it’s most important for her to cut the link, as his spirit might be tempted to take her with him.”
The rest of the morning was not very eventful. The only excitement was provided by a remote relative, who had stolen too much of the beer from the dancers. He was drunk and terribly upset, for reasons that only he understood.
Dave ambled over, after an uncomfortable night in a car. “I heard it was quite interesting last night,” he said. “Too bad I missed it. It’s okay though. The really big party will be tonight, and you best believe, I’m not gonna miss that!”
The Catholic priest arrived around noon and held a brief mass in the front yard. The coffin was carried by the sons of Tonton Charles along with Dave and a few other men. They placed it in the trunk of a car and we set off for the cemetery of Franceville. At the gravesite, Manouchka filmed while Mama Fabienne stood next to the coffin and started her speech in French. Her voice was trembling when she said that “despite all our difficulties you will always be my brother.” She struggled to keep a firm voice, but managed to repeat the same speech in Obamba.
When we returned to the house the priest asked us to wash our hands with holy water, and the burial was officially concluded. Preparations began for the evening feast that would celebrate the end of a week of mourning and thank all the people who had contributed. I had not brought a razor to Franceville, so I would continue looking wild and hairy for one more day. However, I could finally take a shower. The only shower in the house was too small for me and lacked hot water. A tiny white lizard observed me the entire time. Nevertheless, it was by far the best shower I had ever taken!
The celebration in the evening did not turn out to be the big party that Dave had been hoping for. Everybody was exhausted and many people fell asleep early. The alcohol, which had led the dancers to ecstatic heights the night before, now just made them drunk and uncoordinated.
In the early morning, we returned to Libreville and I exchanged a few words with Mama Yvette —my first words to her in a week. She had recovered better than I had thought possible. The madness in her eyes was gone. Her mourning, though, would continue for another year. She shaved her head and would keep it shaved throughout this year.
I took my chance to shave, while Manouchka briefed the maids about the events in Franceville. Afterwards, I lay down on the bed and thought of the past week. The dancers, the drum, the singing, and the dance of the women at dawn would stay with me forever. I thought of my father’s burial on a chilly, gray December day, many years ago in Munich. I thought of the handful of mourners—one sister and brother-in-law, three sons, two ex-wives, one of them with her new lover. I remembered how I had fought not to shake in the cold, so nobody would think I couldn’t handle the situation. I remembered how the priest had shaken everybody’s hands but mine—apparently considering my wide black jeans and my black leather jacket (the only black outfit in my closet) inappropriate, and me some sort of juvenile delinquent. I remembered how grim and appalling the whole event had felt.
What a contrast to the funeral ceremony in rural Gabon. The week-long communal process had made us mourn Tonton Charles not only ritually but also with growing emotional sincerity. The latter was something that many of us had not expected to feel. This way of approaching death avoided much of the emptiness, and the ugliness that I had felt during my previous encounter with death. Regretfully this is a way that many young Gabonese people will never appreciate, for they uncritically adopt the foreign assessment of their cultural inferiority. Tonton Charles was not a great man, but his community had honored his memory with true greatness.