Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Collective

I have never experienced a community like I have here. I say experienced rather than witnessed because I really do feel like I have been woven into the threads of this place, even if it’s only temporary. I’ve been sent on errands, I’ve been invited to houses, and people have cooked for me. They take care of me the way they would any other little orphan.

I had the unfortunate opportunity to attend a funeral this week. It was for the 7-year-old son of an intermittent pediatrician here. Technically, there is only one pediatrician, but from time to time others from Libreville or Europe will help out. This pediatrician lives in Libreville with his family, but has worked at the hospital for almost my entire time here. He was in France for a continuing education program this month. His wife was backing out of the driveway and didn’t see the little boy.

This man is one of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in life. He started his family later in life and is probably somewhere in his late 50s. He is kind, genuine, respectful, and extremely wise. He speaks slowly, calmly, and with purpose. There have been many times where I have disagreed with his viewpoints, but you have to admire someone who speaks with such unalarming conviction. Friday mornings are presentation day for the doctors, and whenever it is his turn, he speaks about professional and personal integrity, teamwork, and self-improvement, while the other doctors present case studies of pulmonary TB and abscesses.

One night when we had him over for Sunday night dinner, the conversation turned to relationships and marriage. He spoke with love and devotion as he recounted how he met his wife and started his family with her. He told us about a time a year or so into their marriage, where just like everyone else when the honeymoon phase is over, they started to experience each other’s faults. For a week or so he would wake in the middle of the night to his wife’s murmurs and find the light on in the room next to him. He realized she was praying. She was praying that God would help her change because she knew she was causing him pain. The doctor told us that in that moment he made a conscious decision to love her not in spite of her faults but because of them. Because she wanted so much for them to be happy and he needed to help make that a reality. It was such a beautiful story, and so when I heard about his son and how he passed away, I knew I wanted to be at the funeral. I pray that they can take each other back to that moment and recommit to their promises to each other.

The funeral was unlike any I’ve attended. When I think about it, I’ve actually attended quite a lot of funerals in my life, both for family members and acquaintances. My typical funeral experience includes the funeral home viewing, the church, and then the burial. In this case, I arrived at the morgue to meet the other hospital representatives (I can’t imagine what the taxi driver thought when a random white girl said “take me to CASEP-GA,” nor what my face looked like when I realized I had just been taken to a morgue) and then joined the procession to the family’s home. There we found probably over 100 people. They welcomed the body and the family in song, but it gently progressed to a collective moaning. The coffin was placed in the home, and we were called up group by group to pay our respects. The parents and siblings went first, and the shrieks and groans emanating from that cold cement building were enough to make your skin crawl. Our Schweitzer group was called next, which made me thoroughly uncomfortable, as I felt we should not be directly after the family. Various church groups, extended family, schools, etc were called after us.

At least two wailing women in every group doubled over in pain and were nearly carried out of the home. It seemed as though the farther we got from the immediate family, the louder the moaning and the emotional and physical distress became. I take this phenomenon to be the representation of the collective sense of mothering. I say: “they weren’t immediate family;” they would say: “I just lost my child.”

In life and in death the collective remains. In my second month here I was invited to a nurse’s home for Pentecost. She had me sit at the table and served me an enormous plate of food. As I ate I observed her setting an elaborate presentation of food and wine, assuming there would be others joining me. In fact there were others joining me: the ancestors. Here I was on Pentecost feasting with the ancestors while her children sat on stools on the kitchen eating friend bananas. I told her the table was beautiful and I wished I had my camera to take a picture. She told me I could come back later with my camera because all the food would stay until the next morning. Probably two days worth of cooking and preparation was on that table, and it was all going to the ancestors. No one living would eat that food (besides me which was both an honor and guilt-inducing all at the same time).

In Gabon you’re never alone.

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