It is also the word used for the grieving ceremony which follows a death in East Africa.
A mzungu bride sat at the center of a ring of African mamas and scarved ladies-in-waiting. She sat in the central lawn-chair, facing the gate. A blue and white button down hung off her white shoulders; it looked like a nurse’s top. Her skirt was Nigerian kanga; orange and blue West African print. She wore no makeup and thick-rimmed Woody Allen frames.
Her face betrayed affliction; she was crippled by the news. He had been killed upon impact.
Only days earlier we had ridden the city bus together. As she mused about her new husband she reminded me of Pop Rocks candy. Her enthusiasm was electric. It was contagious; maybe I would marry an African, too.
“Can I feed him stir fried vegetables on top of pilau?” “How many nights in a row will an African man eat ugali?”
Our African friends would advise.
Her and Joseph had been waiting for marriage to move into their small apartment in Msasani. Catherine, without waving the self-righteous virgin flag, made it clear that there would be no funny business before the vows. It had been two weeks since the wedding ceremony in his Maasai hometown. She, her moral integrity spiked with a sour and bubbly wit, glittered at the devilish implications of sharing a bedroom with a warrior.
Maybe I would marry an African, too.
Now here she was, the self-made African success, wilted and white, with red eyes sunken behind hipster frames.
I pictured her heart, usually pink and yellow, stuffed with nubian flowers announcing her allegiance to Africa. Now wounded and spilling. Squeezed and bloated; filling with disbelief and pain and leaking out all of their plans.
I sat down beside an African woman in a yellow kitenge. We sat in silence staring at each other and fulfilling the ceremonial rites of mourning.
The expats brought a girl called Sarah. She was a psychologist, and the day before, she had come to our school training day to offer a seminar on grief counseling and child therapy in light of a colleague’s passing. Catherine had sat in and asked questions with the rest of us as she walked us through the stages of grief and the process of understanding profound loss.
The coincidences in life can sometimes be so mean.
Sarah crouched over Catherine. The parts I caught were sad and naked. She talked about how nice her husband was.
She told the story of how he left the night before:
“He came out in his underwear, and I said, ‘Wowww unapendeza!!!’ [you look good],” her voice lifted a bit; she was a performer and the humour of this last story would be told as all of her stories were, “… and he said ‘I don’t even have my pants on yet.’ And I said, ‘I know, and I can already tell how good you’re going to look’.”
It took her several minutes to get the whole story out. She laughed.
We all smiled as tears rolled down our faces.
Not long after, an old mama came strolling in; she had a headdress wrapped around her weaved braids. Her face was wrinkled into heavy folds around her eyes. Her presence demanded respect.
She went to Catherine and kneeled in front of her. We were all silent with our eyes fixed on the center drama about to unfold.
Catherine doubled over and began to sob as her head rested on the lap of the old bibi [grandmother]. The bibi’s hand held her head down and stroked her mzungu hair and her cries began to rise. Defeat echoed in her Swahili wails. She had even learned to mourn like an African widow.
She lived the highs and lows of cultural integration in the course of two weeks. A trashy Tanzanian bachelorette, a wedding in the hills of Kilimanjaro, consummation of a year and a half long friendship, and finally, death and a funeral.
24 years old, a pale widow in Nigerian cloth.
And the few of us who sat around her; A makeshift support system, a potpourri of gypsies who happened to share this place in time. Paralyzed, silent, slippery tears dragging mascara down our white faces. She was like us.
But she was better.