The first time I’d heard the sound was after a week of my training family sisters taking shifts at the city hospital. Their uncle was not well and we were expecting to hear something soon. I was not expecting this sound. The wailing of grown women with the quality of a child’s helpless cry for attention when the real tears have dried up. During training the croon only grew three women strong with four children singing chorus. One day in the community garden in Fodé Bayo I looked up from weeding to find all the women fleeing the garden. Their daughters were staying behind, but Diara summoned me. Everyone is going home, she said. As we walked towards the village I could hear the sound amplify until I was in the heart of it. At Fanta’s compound all the women from the garden had re-congregated in a small room to wail. News at the house was someone’s relative in Tabassaye, another Mandinka village nearby, had died. I was afraid to go in and face the wail. That night a small contingent left on a charette for Tabassaye. The next morning more women left on foot. Around five P.M. Seyni asked me if I was going. Very unsure of what was happening there and how long it’d take, I refused. Seyni, on bike, and a packed charette were gone for about an hour and a half, a third of which I estimate was travel time. Apparently, this was just the first step: the burial. A week later, waiting for dinner, my sister sat at the end of the outdoor bed where I was sitting, tucked her head in her hands and wailed. More women came but not all were crying and I discovered that this was the time of the funeral in Tabassaye.
Today, however, the initial and final wail occurred in one day. When I was boiling the water for my breakfast, a noise broke above the roar of gas stove and BBC news. I assumed this was for someone vaguely related to everyone in my village again. I quickened my morning routine but when I walked out of my hut, watering can in hand, Binta told me no one was working yet today. I followed Binta to the sound of the wail, all the way into the room this time, where I found Mama, a smiling, joking woman I talk to every day, out of her own control, wailing, tears streaking past her chin to her neck, soaking the collar of her T-shirt. Her son died in the middle of the night with what was described to me as vomiting and a final heave. The child, probably near two years old, though people here rarely keep track and children’s growth rates are not what we are accustomed to in the U.S. He rarely wore pants, he always greeted me with a grubby handshake, and had a belly that made it look more likely that his toddles would tip him over. None of this was mentioned at the funeral held that same morning. The women huddled together on benches and the cement ledge of a building. On the other side of a bamboo fence, mats lay beneath a mango tree, where men knelt facing Mecca. Prayers were said, we wiped our faces, and in response to an unseen command Mama stood, dramatically pouring out the cup of water in her hand, letting out the wail. Some women, remaining seated, followed suit. Others stood and started pounding grain. When the pounding stopped, munko, a clumpy snack of millet was handed around the wailers, and I understood why what I’d previously known as an appetizer had the same name as the word for funeral. The men disappeared at some point during all this and when they returned those still crying were soothed with the words idé and sabari, quiet, forgive. Another round of prayer closed the ceremony and we walked out in groups of three or four. I have yet to get explanations for all that happened, but I imagine the child was buried during the men’s disappearing act. Sitting across the plastic mat that covers my hut floor, Fanta and I came to the conclusion that the meat of what happens at funerals is the same in both of our cultures. We cry, our friends and family cry with us, we sabari and we eat.