By Matt Dooley
Ancestral spirits dominate Zulu culture, taking something as morbid as death and finding a way to give it new life. The Zulus revere their dead as beings beyond life. In their culture, death is a stepping-stone, a door each living thing must pass through. However, the Zulus have days when one can have a direct conversation with their ancestors. This can occur, according to the religion, during any ceremony, such as a funeral. In this way, the ancestors can talk through others.
Now, there are religions out there that preach, death does not mean goodbye. However, those religions’ often mean that you can see them again once you also pass away. However, to actually communicate with dead loved ones, they push the idea of speaking with them in your prayers. Even if their words are true, it’s often a one-way conversation with a jar or a tombstone. When you’re little, you’re innocent to how life can crumble in an instant from the smallest discrepancy. To a child if someone is sick they will get better. There is medicine for that. Someone’s sick in bed one day and riding their bike down a hill the next. Death doesn’t mean much to a child. When I was little, I thought death was a funny skeleton man that couldn’t kill a hamster much less a person. I watched a lot of television.
Though, in a sense, death is the easiest form of conflict used to move the action in media. To that point, death may even be considered the most over-saturated conflict. Death never meant the end of something for the small chubby kid, watching TV. I had everything.
There was mom, with her office next to a giant window. There was dad, who got to press buttons on an elevator all day long, which had to be the coolest job ever. And there were two grandparents, who could still run faster than me. When a family member did pass away, they either lived in another country or I didn’t know them very well. I knew about death only from television. And in those instances, the character of death was usually played up for laughs. Death never came in person, keeping any sense of closure out of my reach.
When death took my great grandmother, I was around five years old. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral as lived in Puerto Rico and again I was around five. Instead, my grandparents had the wonderful idea to show, young me, her taped funeral, one night when I stayed over. I sat directly in front of their television set on the floor. On screen, her face was quiet amongst the loud speeches spoken in a language I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know what to feel at the time, bundling my emotions up, only crying when my parents came to pick me up. I held onto their legs, as soon as they walked through door, scared death would take them next. To be a witness to death’s aftermath, even from behind a screen, can warp a child’s perception on life. For a time, this made me want the humorous portrayal of death to overtake the reality, despite the despair and dysfunction death could bring.
Cattle herding is a dysfunctional operation in N’come village, especially if you add a couple of American students who have no idea what they are doing to the mix. Well, I didn’t. Nate, a fellow student, seemed to grasp the idea pretty early on. Sage decided to watch instead, participating for only a few minutes before leaving the job to the rest of the people there.
The villagers whistled to get the cattle’s attention, guiding them into a wooden corral. One after another, the cattle ran into the corral and down a makeshift alleyway built to contain the fiercest of bulls. Straddled against each other, the cattle groaned, trying to push out of their narrow confinement.
As an American college student, I would have never thought that I’d bear witness to a group of cattle undergoing simultaneous panic attacks. We had woken up early to help that morning, excited. Baba Mngani, the head of our host family in N’come village, had told us, the night before, we were to take the cattle to “the dip” to give them their medicine, but that was all he told us. Making me wonder what exactly was “the dip.” The more Baba Mngani and others spoke about it, the more I pictured the cattle walking through a grime pit filled with medicine. I was wrong to assume we’d even be able to coerce the cattle into any sort of pit. Getting the cattle into the village’s alleyway was hard enough.
The sun had risen earlier than I, causing me to lag behind the others as we chased the cattle into the corral. We were there to help the others get the cattle into the alley to administer the shots. These weren’t just any shots though. Those shots held the needles of my nightmares. The needle looked to be a hand’s length, reaching from the bottom of my palm to my index finger. Think for a moment about that being plunged into dense cow flesh. I learned later that the dip was neither a pit filled with grime nor the village’s homemade cattle container. Instead, the dip was a dark liquid that rested within the shot. And jabbing the needle into their flesh was the only way to keep the cattle well.
“It’s the worst drought in South African history.” Mandla looked up at the darkening sky. Being the village’s high school principal, Mandla’s words held weight to me. “Many cattle have died,” He told us, as we stood outside the rondavel, a stone hut with a thatched roof, where all of us American students had just finished feasting with villagers. To some, word of the drought and its effects may have been common knowledge. Though, as far as I remember, Mandla had been the first to speak of any drought, more so, the worst drought in South African history. Rain had not touched South African land in months, only caressing its shores, where the tourists and big spenders make their life.
Our group had spent days in N’come, and despite the smiles and “Yebos,” Mandla’s words lingered. You don’t tell someone, “Oh, yeah we’re only having the biggest drought in South African history. Livestock has died” and expect that person to ignore how serious the situation is. Each day in N’come, the people locked their situation away behind their smiles, guiding us up and down mountains, providing us warm water to bathe in. All with smiles. Keeping emotions hidden isn’t good for one’s self. The villagers worked together to fight the drought. They did not smile just for us. They smiled for each other and their children. A way to show everything would work out. The villagers didn’t give up going every Sunday to collect water, brought from the parts of South Africa that were unaffected. They found solace in their dances and in the words of their ancestors. They found a beauty in their familial connections, despite the disastrous situation: a feeling that by the time, I reached home, did not resonate with me as I thought it would when my mom and dad took me aside to tell me my grandpa’s cancer had spread, giving him little time left. Death had finally appeared and I could find no beauty in his ghastly form approaching my grandpa.
Now, when I see my grandpa sitting on his couch, with an aching back, I know death has moved passed the screen in my life. I smile for my grandpa, so he doesn’t notice my growing grief. Though, I don’t want to smile. I want to hold him and cry. I don’t want to smile when I hear the cancer is climbing his spine, spreading across his back.
I want to smile when a doctor says the chemo is working. I want to smile when the doctor says the cancer is mostly gone. Still, when these things don’t happen, I will persist with my smile, like the villagers in N’come. Though, I still cannot see the same beauty those in N’come see during such times. And I cannot embrace the idea that everything will be fine. All I can do is hold onto my grandpa and share whatever moments I have left with him.