We had the funeral services for my mother-in-law, though between us we never really used the “in-law” designation. I was her son and she was mother dear.
Grief always comes in stages, even when it is ritualized. And like all places, KwaZulu has its rituals. I am accustomed to the wake being a time when people sit in chairs arranged in rows or along the walls in which mourners come and sing hymns or say prayers or simply sit in sympathy with the aggrieved. Often the matriarch is sitting on a mattress along the wall, covered in a blanket, and all but completely silent.
This is in stark contrast with the way African Americans conduct our wakes. I remember when my nephew died. He was a very young man, not yet out of high school. He was stabbed to death while defending his friend. Waymon was a man full of promise and goodness, extraordinarily so. Of course his death was a sad occasion, a tragedy really. But the wake was full of laughter, dancing, music, joke telling and more. I remember when my mother died at the tender age of 40 the wake was replete with card playing trash talking and laughter (after I had seen my father cry the only time I witnessed such earlier).
While the “wake” was somber by comparison, the need and efficacy of joyous celebration was in full evidence in the going home service the next day. It was a Christian celebration with dozens, scores of songs, before every speaker, sometimes two or three. The overlapping call and response common throughout the continent and throughout the diaspora was in full effect. I saw something new, though. The two step dance that Black South Africans have mastered in a number of contexts (one thinks of the spectacular display of the toyi-toyi dance during political protest) was used to circle the casket. These circling rituals were joyous (if accompanied or followed by tears) and spontaneous. What especily interests me also is that the people in the circle moved in a counter clockwise fashion. I have remarked elsewhere that Sterling Stuckey in his great study of US Slave Culture makes the astounding claim that the ring shout carries a cultural practice that is ubiquitous throughout the black world. But despite my skepticism I have witnessed this counter clockwise movement/dance over the years over and over again. Whether it is the Orishas dancing in Brazil, or the band and audience moving after a concert by Nduduzo Makhathini at the Rainbow, or indeed the going home services for M. Nqoko, the same movement has been observed time and again in special, sacred moments. What is the true significance and power of such a practice??
It is said that the West looks up for heavenly guidance from angels whereas Africans look down in the ground for the ancestral realm. At any rate, Ms. Nqoko will have her unveiling in a year’s time as is customary this side when she will be fully within the ancestral realm. Until that time we wish her peace and send her love.
The photo shows a Gullah ring shout dance from South Carolina