Thursday, 11 July 2013

Of Grave Digging and Life


I recently learned of my neighbour's sudden passing. As customary I went over to be part of the group of men to dig his grave.
The digging started a little after 01h00. I could hear from my window the pick hitting the many rocks as the men laboured, some drunken laughter a steady accompaniment of heavy toil. I awoke and gingerly made my way to where they were digging.
As customary, the last arrival is first to go in when the bloke down below gets tired. My turn promptly came before I had much time to psyche myself. I have always imagined what the mood would be like when my turn to have my own grave prepared came. Will the men have a sense of loss as they laboured? Will it perhaps be that they'll be merry and of jovial spirit, celebrating the life that once was (and still is)?
"Shona khona ndoda, usand' uk'fika" (Go, you are the last to arrive) was the call that sent me down below. Upon landing I regretted downing the last two rounds some three to four hours before. My head spun for a while and I found myself mumbling something barely audible. I reached for the pick and gave my first hit. I was in for it.
The grave digging is one of the last gatherings that bring together the young and old men of my community. With the roll out and demarcation of municipal wards our traditional chiefs have lost their power over the people. Perhaps it is the people who have deserted the traditional ways and authorities. I have always wondered about democracy and its role in the African context.
We die because we lose our ways I contemplated with the last blow with the pick. I would be back to dig some more; I should not give all my energy at the first go.

The men always joke when we dig. As young men we get a rare opportunity to pick the brains of the elderly men. This is one of my favourite parts of grave digging. In African culture we pride ourselves in painting an elaborate picture when making a point. This we have learned from our forefathers and is passed on to us through story-telling. The other part that I like with this process of grave digging is when we share traditional beer, umqombothi, with the older men. For me, this sharing of umqombothi signals a silent truth. It is acknowledging that we are mortals; our day will also come.

The atmosphere remained bubbly throughout our toil. The beer helped our chorus of controlled laughter at many truths and contradictions of life and afterlife. We were men of one heart at that time; or was it for the moment? Our unity reminded the older men of what once was. It reminded me of what we could be.