Funeral of a Nightwatchman

No one knows how Sylvain died, just as few of us knew how he lived. He always slipped out of the corner of the eye, at dusk, as we walked past him with a brief Mura Mukye – Good Night. His voice resounded back, the deepest bass – Mura Mukye Neza – and a good night to you, spreading reassurance like a carpet before us. It was not twilight, but morning when we heard he had died, the night before, at the hour he usually greeted us. « He just died. » said Rose, the administrator.  He had complained of a headache and a pain in the side the day before, and had been unable to cycle home. The next day he walked about his hillside, and in the evening he lay down and never got up again.

His fellow nightwatchman Honoré said « in Rwanda there are some bad people. They poison you. Sylvain attracted the envy of someone and died. What else could have killed him so suddenly? » I suggested malaria. « It wasn’t malaria ». I looked to another guard, who nodded, gravely. Mado, the cleaner, confirmed: « He was poisoned. His wife thinks so too. » Here, when someone drops dead, everyone says he has been poisoned. Here, the witch doctors mix poison as well as antidote, and cyanide comes easily in the leaves and the roots of manioc, a common food, an everyday killer. Had he seen a doctor? No, why? He had never consulted a doctor in his life, nor had Mado, nor the two other guard.

They told me he left four children by his first wife, who died, and one by his second wife. The widow is young – too young to be stepmother of four. Sylvain’s brother, who would have inherited responsibility for his nieces and nephews, had also died. One sister remained, who lived close by, having parted from her husband years before. I never had the chance to ask his widow what she thought. I saw her once, at the funeral, surrounded by a protective mass of mourners, clutching a baby. She looked straight ahead, dignified, younger by many years than her dead husband. She nodded gravely at the words of sympathy, and moved on to another life.

They held the funeral on a Saturday morning, a day and a night after his death. Twenty or more of us, his colleagues, drove from Gitarama town to Mushubati, the commune where Sylvain lived. After half an hour slidding along dirt tracks, we left the 4-wheel drives and continued on foot, another hour. He made this journey to work, on his bicycle, four of five times a week. We climbed a narrow path that led across the hill into banana groves and scarlet lilies. We saw the mourners long before we came to the house. They sat on the green and red hillside, and saluted us with long faces, a face put on for the occasion. Even Mado, usually so smiling, looked solemn. We walked to Sylvain’s small adobe house, the plain house of the Rwandan hill farmer. Nothing distinguished this house from those around it – no wooden doors, no glass windows, just rectangular and square holes gouged in the mud walls – but many banana trees clustered around the cottage and adobe bricks were stacked by the enclosure, enough for an extension to his modest house. Sylvain earned good wages by Rwandan standards.

As we reached the house, plaintive singing started. Three barefooted men in white cassocks that did not entirely cover ragged trousers, walked slowly out of the enclosure of the house. One carried a wooden cross, the other two, hymn-books. Behind them, Sylvain lay in his closed coffin – a few boards nailed together – carried on the shoulders of six men. His sister and widow walked behind, and his children, three girls, a boy and the toddler in his mother’s arms. I recognised the sister – the same angular, lined face, the same square nose and long lips as Sylvain. She had swathed a bright orange and green cloth over her head, but her bowed head and tense body made the bold colours as mournful as the funereal purple richer Rwandans use. Her posture emanated anger as well as sadness, she looked about to explode with bitterness. Behind her walked the chief mourner, a friend of the family. He wore a dirty cream raincoat over seamless, too-short trousers, and, like the clerics, went barefoot, but he conveyed an authority and dignity that no fine, first-hand clothes could have bolstered.

The cortege followed the thin coffin, the chanting clerics, the silent family, along a path on the hillside. Fifty feet from the house, we stopped. In a clearing of the banana grove, a deep pit gaped. Rwandan law forbids bodies from being buried in unconsecrated ground, but after a million peole had been hacked and hastily thrown into mass graves, rivers and down wells, no-one took that law seriously. “And how is his family to transport him all the way to Gitarama, anyway? Even the priest doesn’t come up here”, said Mado. The men in cassocks were farmers, like Sylvain, who volunteered as church wardens in their local parish. They still sang, and most of the mourners had joined in. « Oh Lord, though we are all sinners, accept this sinner into your heaven. » « Mary, Mother of God, pray for this poor sinner, pray for his entrance into Paradise. » They lowered the coffin and the clerics sprinkled holy water over it. Then all the men took it in turns to shovel earth into the grave. In ten minutes red earth swallowed Sylvain, the same earth that had covered his feet when he dug for sweet potatoes and harvested bananas, and that crusted the feet of all the people around us. Just then I realised how incongruous we must look, a group of town people in suits and shoes, three of us white. No-one before had remarked upon us, nor followed us, nor even glanced our way noticeably. This was not a day for the bazungu1.

The burial was over. Two more traditions had to be honoured: the collection for the family, and the allocation of land to the eldest child. The chief mourner stood and appealed, in the name of the family, to its friends and neighbours to help out with the “mourning charges” – the money spent on the clerics, the coffin, the soft drinks the mourners would drink that day; a basket was passed round, which filled with notes. Foreigners and town dwellers were expected to give appropriately, but not ostentatiously: the family did not want to attract more bad luck, more jealousy.

The chief mourner called Delphine, Sylvain’s eldest child. She was thirteen, a pretty adolescent becoming an adult that day. She was led to the back of the house, where a portion of the banana grove was marked out with sticks. She solemnly walked along the boundaries of her inheritance. When she came to the small group of her father’s colleagues from town, she thanked us in French for attending her father’s funeral. A child again, she smiled shyly, while her father’s neighbours congratulated her, patted her back, and her aunt watched fiercely on, the living memory of Sylvain.

The family walked back into the house, and the sound of many voices wailing rose up from behind its mud walls. Everyone else dispersed slowly up or down the hillside. Faces relaxed, talk turned to farming matters, football, a forthcoming wedding. No-one mentioned poison again and no-one questioned the fate that had struck down another Rwandan, unexplained and uninvestigated, as common as rain on the lush hills. Only Rose whispered – “well, it might be AIDS, you know. My cousin says it is spreading.” Rose’s cousin was a doctor in Remera hospital. She mentioned AIDS, but without much conviction. AIDS belonged to Kigali, to the colourful posters advertising Prudence condoms, to the refugee camps in Congo and Tanzania that had been dispersed over three years before, to the new Tutsi arrivals from Uganda. Sylvain had nothing to do with any of these. In spite of a genocide which included mass rape, two civil wars, an international conflict, two million hutu refugees who had fled and returned, half a million Tutsis who had come home from neighbouring countries, and unprecedented world attention, most Rwandans still saw their country as a landlocked island in the Great Lakes, protected by its hills and its ancient traditions.

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