I hear that a boy who hanged himself in the huge gully that has mango trees is to be buried today in the Christian burial ground opposite my house. I have never been to the gully but from the descriptions of Mercy, our Ibibio house maid who knows everything about everyone, I must have passed by the place before. It is mango season and I wonder if he saw a ripe mango as he tied the rope, first to a strong branch and then in a noose around his neck; if perhaps he had some before he died- a last meal. He used the rope his family used to fetch water from their deep well. He untied it from the metal bowl- a gas canister cut in half. Mercy tells me the details as if the suicide was her idea. My mind goes through all the processes starting with choosing the site, a lonely gully. Would he have gone to more than one site? Did he think of another way? Swallowing something perhaps? The gully was not too close to his house and I wonder if this means he carefully planned it so that he would have been perfectly dead by the time anyone even thought of looking for him. What went through his mind when he loosened the tight rope around the half gas canister by the well, when he folded the long rope, put it around his waist or in his pocket or in a little knapsack? Did he know how to swim, was that why he didn’t just jump into the well? I wanted to see his face, look for the burn signs around his neck, look at his eyes- as shut as they may be, look at his face. For answers.
I will attend the funeral.
I am thirteen or fourteen, when I discover my fascination with the burial ground, hurriedly built coffins, and sombre sermons struggling to rise above crying relatives. From the window of our small living room, I can see through metal window bars, the street that separates our identical block of low cost housing from the Christian part of the open burial ground. A burial usually starts with two or three men early in the morning with daggers, shovels and machetes. There is no readable expression on their creased faces, except eventually, tiredness, by which time their entire bodies are gleaming with sweat. They are just rounding up when the first people, usually relatives, begin to arrive, arms folded, mouth hanging down, eyes staring beyond their gaze, routine heaving and sighing. The first ones apart from the grave diggers come to check if the grave is the right size, if they need to break more of the walls of the grave, if they need to dig deeper.
The women are my signal that I need to prepare before it becomes harder to penetrate the crowd, to see the grave, freshly dug, to see the coffin, and smell the freshly sprayed wood. Sometimes, there is an unsprayed coffin.
Today, the diggers come and the inspectors come and the women come and the pickup truck comes and all the other cars that make our street temporarily difficult to pass. I am there before the truck but after the women. It is 4pm and dad is not due home for another two hours. I do not come in through the gate of the burial ground, but through a hole in the barbed wire fence, the point closest to my house. All the shrubs from this point on are familiar- I was here only two days ago for another burial. A child in a small coffin.
His brothers look upset. I know they are his brothers because of their resemblance with the dead boy in the picture on the funeral program. They have the same nose and vertical tribal mark between the eyes and square head. They look angry, not sad. They do not nod when the pastor, preaching in Hausa says, ‘For everything under heaven there is a time. A time to be born and a time to die.’ They do not hum amen when the pastor, with veins bulging on his neck, prays that God will ferry him straight to heaven. They seem not to agree with the pastor that he is in a better place. One of the brothers turns. Our eyes meet. I had been staring at him for many minutes. I see in his eyes a need to punch someone. To drag his brother out of the coffin and slap him for dying.
I do not know the words of the hymn they are singing but I recognise it from the other funerals.
I do not feel like crying yet. That is until the pastor asks the family to pour the sand on the coffin starting with his parents. I cannot see his father’s face; I am standing behind him. His mother fetches a handful of the damp, red laterite that has been dug up from the ground. Two plump women are holding her by the arm. She is sobbing as she moves forward to throw the sand into the hole. The women let go of her and just as they do she screams and makes to jump into the grave. The women, faster than her, catch her just as she begins sliding down the heap of laterite by the side of the grave. There is a commotion and she is carried away.
As they drag her away, my nose begins to tremble and hurt. I am fighting back the tears because I know that once that first one rolls down I will break down and sob like I am being whipped with a cane of thorns. Holding back that first tear is important.
I turn to leave before it starts to get rowdy. I push my way through the crowd, jog along the bushy path kicking the broad leaves of the bright green shrubs, run past the ambulance and across the road until I reach my gate. I still have a few more minutes until my father returns. He is so predictable, my father. I lock myself in the toilet and feel my chest swelling, about to explode. I change to the bathroom instead. The toilet irritates me because there is a leak and the floor floods once someone flushes or when the soak-away is full. The plaster on the bathroom wall is coming off and there is green algae growing in many parts. Sometimes I want to demolish the bathroom and rebuild it with white tiles like the toilet in my Uncles Dogo’s house on Waff Road. The memory of that toilet makes me ashamed because of what I did a couple of years ago. I was with my mum and I needed to go to the toilet. I lied to my cousins that I wanted to pee. So they took me to a white toilet that had a fluorescent light. I had finished before I realised there was neither water nor toilet roll. I sat on the toilet seat for a long time contemplating what to do, until I heard my mother ask me to hurry because we were about to leave. In my confusion I picked up an old pair of jeans on the floor and wiped my bottom. I folded the jeans to cover the mess and tucked it beneath the pile of dirty clothes in the corner and hoped they would never find out.
My mind returns to the burial and I wonder what it feels like to die. What eternal non-existence is, what it feels like. I close my eyes and try to conjure eternity. My mind travels through dark tunnels of space and time until I start to get dizzy and scared and I open my eyes. I wonder what it means when they say God has no beginning and has no end. Again, I try to imagine having no beginning and it gives me the same dizzy feeling.
Death. Dying. Eternity. Eternal death. This is what makes me finally break down. I cry hot, painful tears. My chest swells and contracts and I feel heavy with pain. Why do we have to die? I think of all the things that my father and Christian faith taught me about God and His right to rule and Adam and Eve blowing our chances at eternity just because of some fruit. I understand it according to the Bible: why we have to die and all. But I do not know if God made the right decision, letting billions of people suffer for the sins of one greedy couple. I know the answers in my head, but not in my heart. I cry. For a suicidal stranger. For what I will share with that stranger one day.
I hear my brother Azan’s voice and then my father’s. I take off my clothes, open the shower and let the water rush over my face.