A noise woke me. Ever since Banta and I were scared by an intruder in the middle of the night a couple months ago, I haven't slept soundly. I clutched my flashlight and put on my glasses, somehow sure that wearing glasses in the pitch darkness would make it easier for me to hear.
Banta has been gone for a week and despite our higher compound walls and a lockable compound door that has caused friends and neighbors to ask if we've become Wahabiyaw -- members of a conservative sect of Islam that encourages women to stay within the compound walls -- I'm scared. I listen harder, convinced now that someone has managed to climb over the wall. As I lie there, imagining a thousand possibilities, there is another sound, this time coming from outside my compound. It is the sound of women gathering under the twisted Baobob tree and soon there is the solid thumping of women pounding millet. It is 2AM. The pounding reverberates through the ground and I feel it rise up through my pillow. It is 2AM and I know that something is not right. Women's work is a heavy burden, but there is no need for the women of my neighborhood to be pounding millet in the middle of the night. But even though I know something must be wrong, the pounding calms me: the familiarity of it and the security of the women just beyond my wall. I fall asleep, lulled by the thick wooden mortars crushing the millet into powder.
Morning is empty of all the usual sounds: laughter at the well; children's cries; mortar striking pestle. Instead, it is replaced by the signs of death. The sounds of steps never stop as friends and family come to greet the deceased's family. Aside from the hum of motos that stop to pay their condolences, the air carries a weight silence. I turn the BBC down low.
The deceased is Mamy Daou, a middle aged man who had fallen ill several months ago. He had gone to Bamako for treatment and passed away there. His body was put in a car and while the women pounded millet in the middle of the night, Mamy's body travelled up the road towards the village. What I'm embarrassed to admit is that I can't quite place Mamy. If Banta were here, I would question her until I was sure of who he was. But she's not, and I can't admit to anyone else that after a year here I'm still confusing the names of my neighbors. So I don't press Cissé when she tells me who died, because, partly, it is easier this way.
Death here is a constant. And the rituals surrounding death become a comforting pattern. There is a set period of public mourning (7 days). A script for those giving their condolences (Ala ka hiné, Ala ka djafama). A rigid structure of burial and greeting.
But that does not mean that death itself becomes easier. Before coming here, I had attended two funerals. Since arriving, there have been too many to count. It is tempting to begin to think, due to the frequency of death and ritualized mourning, that death is accepted more easily here and passings more fluid.
Look to Hawa for an answer, whom I found sobbing on the side of the road, holding the body of her lifeless baby in her arms. Look to the old women who repeat "She was old. He was tired" to convince us all that it was time. Look to Banta who took sick to her bad when a young man died after being injured in the fields. Look to the men and women who take out loans and do everything in their power to treat their children, their mothers and fathers when they fall ill.
The funeral took place after the midday prayer. The men meet at the chief of the village's compound and walk to Mamy's concession in a long, silent group. Mamou and I step into a shadow and wait for them to pass. We trail after them, saying hello to the other women who follow in the men's wake. The Harmattan wind has been blowing down hard from the Sahara, and it whips our complets out in front of us. The sky is hazy with dust and sand. We wrap our scarves tighter around us and listen to the sobs of a woman who has covered her face with her scarf to hide her wet eyes.
As we approach Mamy's compound, the procession of men turn back to face us, this time carrying Mamy's body on a wooden board, a red blanket covering him. There are so many people -- from our village and all the surrounding villages and it takes a while for all the men to troop out into the fields with the body.
We women stay behind. Plastic woven mats are spread under the shady parts of the large compound and we sit in silence. It is broken now and then by sobs, and the older women hush those who are crying. We are all so close together, I think, how easy it would be for us all to break into tears and never stop. And yet -- all I can think about is the colors of our complets against the dry sand and mud buildings, the wind catching our headscarves. The blue of my fabric and the deep maroon of Mamou's.
We wait. The woman next to me is worried that my legs are cramping with all of us clumped together. She massages my foot. Mamou drifts off, listing against my shoulder.
Finally, they come back, the men, as quietly as they left. The Imam breaks the silence and speaks. A rumbling builds. I look up at the sky, searching the blue for the plane that must be overhead, flying to Gao. But it is not there, and I realize the rumbling comes from the men's voices, raspy and deep, as they grasp each other's hands and mutter blessings.
Now it is our turn and I see Aissa file past us as the women seek out hands and give blessings. A hum of Amina (Amen) rises up from the mat and I too get up to take my place in the line of blessings.
Tonight, I will check the locks twice before ducking under my mosquito net. In the morning, there will be no sound of millet pounding -- the women of Mamy's family will rely on the food villagers bring by until the mourning period is over. When I'm ready, I will greet Mamy's family and repeat the same blessings. I will return everyday to give my blessings for a week. But there will be no more crying. When I go to greet tomorrow, I can count on laughter and jokes about me eating beans.
There is a time and a place for everything, and the Malians in my village do not set much time aside for tears and heartbreak. Whether it exists is not the question -- families are close, loved ones are precious. But when you, as a community, are this together, this intimate, this close in proximity and lifestyle and heart, to break down is not an option. The ritualized customs exist for a reason: All for one and one for all. That is why the women with dry eyes demand that the others wipe their tears away.