So on December 27th we arrive back in our village after ten days of travel – fun in the sun (and rain) in the mountains and at the seashore. We still have almost 3 weeks before school starts so plenty of time to get garden and school work done!? Right? Things should be pretty calm in our little village after the holidays – BUT…there is a very important ceremony/party happening at our compound on January 7th. A year earlier, our house “mother”, Sophie’s husband died. In this African culture a widow wears only one (or two) subdued dresses/outfits until this party a year later. A year after her husband dies, a woman has a party called ”the unveiling.” I thought for the longest time it was the widow who was being “unveiled.” Actually, it is the tombstone of the deceased that is being unveiled.
Things have been happening around here for quite some time to get ready for this big event. The “patio” area in front of the house was paved several months ago and in the beginning of December the wall that defines the patio was redone. And a big load of fire logs was delivered. Activity really picked up after New Years. Sophie started a big batch of “African beer´ Sunday and the kitchen was moved from a covered shed to the space behind our house. The people who were cooking and helping with the beer making gathered Monday & Tuesday to work on the beer, plan and bring tables, pots, bowls etc. Wednesday tables were set up, extra electricity was purchased and a small batch of live chickens was delivered. I thought they were for the party Saturday, but this batch was to feed the cooks & family for the next two days. Thursday, the outdoor kitchen (five fires including a 2 ft X 10 ft “oven” made of a rectangle of bricks on the ground with a big strip of corrugated tin for a top) were set up. Sophie did a big shopping expedition and a t least 2 dozen chickens were delivered. Several people spent the night. Early Friday morning the serious preparations began. Yesterday’s chickens were killed, plucked, gutted & cooked. A cooler was brought over (the reason for the extra electricity). Biscuits were made by the very large bowlful – 2-300? and baked in the makeshift oven. That afternoon, I looked out by my garden and 12 cows were walking through it to the lower field. A little while later someone picked out one of the steers which was restrained and the rest were sent away. The women had been doing all the other cooking prep but it was a group of men who killed and slaughtered the steer. The indoor kitchen had been cleaned to the walls – all the cabinets were moved. The serious beef cutting happened on the floor on sheets most of the evening and into the night – Richard was invited to help - he declined. When I offered to help I was put on dish washing, biscuit making and potato peeling. Many people stayed the night, many of them cooking & talking - staying up all night long (including Sophie).
The day of the “unveiling” started very early (since it never really stopped!). The tarp was put up, cooking fires were lit and then the people who had been here all night changed into “church” clothes. More and more people arrived. About 9:30 everyone started gathering at the gate of the compound. Some started walking with the band. –Oh, the band. I forgot to mention that a 6-piece band (4 horns & 2 drums) arrived on Friday and played a few times that evening. They too had spent the night so they could lead the morning procession to the cemetery. Some of us walked the 1+K to the cemetery while the family, the preacher and the infirm rode up in cars in a line behind us. We gathered around the shrouded tombstone and a ceremony of remembrance was held. Of course, I couldn’t understand more than a word or two because it was all in Sepedi, but the preacher talked, people bowed their heads, other people talked, the band played appropriate music etc. Then the tombstone was unveiled. It was one of the largest in the cemetery all shiny, new and black. More people talked. Many family members and groups of family members had their picture taken in front of the new tombstone. Sophie wanted us in one too. Here is a picture of us with Nelson’s two sons.
We all went back to the house where the members of Sophie’s church (ZCC – Zion Christian Church) did some traditional dancing and chanting/sinning. They did finally get me to join in.
Another church type service was held on the patio. The ZCC members attended while others cooked and chatted. There were over a hundred people at the cemetery. By the time the service at the house was over and it was time to eat, there were about twice that many. I’d guess that over 250 adults and children were there at some time that day. For once there was not more food that could be eaten, but I think everyone who wanted to eat got a big plateful. The home brew and much commercial, bought beer was consumed – mostly by the men but I noticed some women were drinking too. Sophie smuggled some bottles to us in our house. I don’t think it is cool for women to be seen drinking in “public”. The band came and marched on the patio or in the yard and played a bit every now & then. The party finally wound down in the wee hours of the morning. Sophie called it a night much earlier. It was another two days before everyone that had been helping left and the place returned to a semblance of normal.
From a ministerial point of view, it is an interesting custom. The “Unveiling” party gives the widow something to do as the year anniversary of her husband’s death approaches. She has family and friends around to help with physical and emotional work. She has a ceremony for herself and the community to say good-bye again to a friend, son, father or husband and move on with their own lives. From a purely financial perspective it gives the widow (and family) a year to pay for the tombstone – which can be quite expensive. I was a bit concerned when I first learned that the father in our host family had died less than 3 months before we moved in, but it has been alright. 3-4 months ago, Sophie told me she was glad we were here . She’d forgotten how she was before we came. By that I didn’t think she didn’t remember how she had been feeling then but rather that she wasn’t feeling like that anymore.
It was quite an event!!! I’m glad I was able to experience it firsthand. (Although I was glad when everyone had gone and the compound was back to its state of relative calm.)
This week, Richard is in Pretoria having a cataract operation. I’ll be glad when he gets back (probably Sunday). He can send this out Mon.at school.
It’s Friday now so school starts in 3 days for the educators (teachers) and 5 days for the learners (students). Maybe I’d better go make those plans I was going to do over the Holiday break.
(It took an extra week to get this posted – Richard had to stay in Pretoria and then we had internet problems in the village – I hope it can go out Jan 23rd)