Aunt Janet is buried. Precious and I become engaged.
By Fred Owens
The next day we buried Aunt Janet in the Luveve Cemetery. She was Janet Mataka, from Zimbabwe and Malawi, sister to Molly, Margie, Jennifer and Winnie. Her brothers were Peter Lovemore, Smiley, Milton and Ronnie. Her father was Mr. Mataka, that is, Patrick Lovemore Mataka, of Zimbabwe and Malawi. Janet was predeceased by her mother Grace, from Plumtree.
Tanti was one of her children. Tanti had seven children by almost as many fathers. "She can't use birth control," Precious said and laughed. She explained that this had something to do with witchcraft. Tanti loved babies and she was always smiling and laughing, skipping around the house in her bare feet even on the day of her mother's funeral. "She is just that way," Precious said.
The Matakas borrowed a pickup truck to carry the coffin, which was small and simply made, made to order I'm sure because it fit Aunt Janet's small body so securely. That felt sweet to me, that they built a coffin just for her. They loaded the coffin on the truck and the school bus pulled along side. The Matakas chartered the bus to carry everybody out to the grave, about fifty people boarding the bus late in the morning on a pleasant day in March, 1997, in the township of Luveve, in Bulawayo, the regional capital of Matabeleland, in Zimbabwe, Africa. The ski was blue and the breeze was gentle. People were nice to me, not gawking, but giving me no special attention. I was just there like anybody else and I appreciated that kind of informal welcome. I've always liked funerals, for just that reason, you can meet people in a good way. Now I remember that no one was very tall. Not the men or the women. I'm five-foot ten and no one was taller than me, except Francis, a nice young man, son of Smiley. But Smiley himself was shorter. Milton was short. Ronny was short. All the brothers were short, except Mr. T who didn't come to the funeral. Mr. T was Precious's father and nobody liked him. That's my own opinion. I know I didn't like him. Mr. T was tall and wide, very strong and very black. It was just as well he wasn't there, because he would have disturbed the gentleness of the burial.
The field was wide and grand. The earth was clay red like a charred cooking pot. The funeral party looked small in such a large field of graves. The weeds were here and there poking through the hard clay. The earth was freshly dug up by the grave site. The new earth was crumbly and even sweet. At another time and place the Matakas would plant sweet potatoes and maize in soil like that, freshly dug in a pile.
The sky was blue and the sun was not harsh. I counted four other funeral parties going on. This was 1997 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. No one talked about that. The Matakas did not ever talk about it. People died and that's all. Someone read a prayer. as we gathered around the coffin. Precious stood next to me in a flower print dress. She had been calm and even smiling, but of a sudden she broke down in a wail and threw herself on the coffin with loud tears and groans. "Oh Mama," she cried. "Oh Mama, why did you leave us?"
I was stunned by her ferocity, it was as if she spoke for the whole family, because there was no weeping except for Precious and she wept for us all. Even me. Then they lowered Aunt Janet's coffin into the ground and we shoveled the freshly dug dirt to cover it up and bury here. Buried forever, back to the earth. It was all so simple.
After the funeral Precious and I returned to her rented room on Airport Road. A few days later we decided to get married, to become engaged. I promised to buy her a ring. This made her very happy. The next day we visited a jewelry store in the downtown area. It was plush. The salesman was very polite, showing us velvet trays with rings of various sizes and prices. He didn't ask how much money I wanted to spend, but he made a good guess. The rings he showed us were up to $500 in cost. Precious looked them over quite carefully. She chose not the cheapest and smallest diamond, but one of lower price, at $150. She did not choose the biggest one and I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she knows what she's doing, I thought. What's a ring anyway, but a bauble? It seemed like the right thing to do.
"We will rent a house and live together for a while," I told her. "If that goes will, we will get married." She nodded her head while looking at the small shining stone on her ring. This was one of Precious's supreme qualities. Even in shopping for a ring she did not take very long to make her choice. Did she understand what I meant by engagement leading to marriage? No, maybe she understood nothing about me, and me her, but she had courage and that same spirit of vitality gotten from Aunt Janet.
Aunt Janet was mama to Precious. I should explain. The aunties are called mama because they are almost mamas as we would say, and the uncles were addressed as baba meaning father. Being engaged to Precious, I became umkunyani or son-in-law. And the aunties and uncles became mamazala and babazala, which is mother-in-law and father-in-law.
Let's do more vocabulary as it pertains to African marriage. Ndota mean man or husband. Umfazi means woman or wife. When a boy becomes a man he gets married and has children. There is no other possibility. When a girl becomes a women she gets married and has children. There is no traditional concept of remaining single, as far as I could tell.
I was skating on the edge here. I had two grown children in college back in the states. I did not want more babies. At the same time I didn't want to tell Precious no. That didn't seem right. In fact it turned out that she could not get pregnant, despite trying with many herbs and amulets derived from Aunt Margie who was a witch doctor in training, as Margie said, "I am not yet a witch doctor but I am learning the herbs." She made a belt of woven grass strewn with pellets of a certain bark that would encourage conception. Precious wore this belt around her waist.
But it did not work, to her relief and mine. It seemed that Precious in turn did not really want children, already had some in fact, and did not need anymore, but the weight of tradition was so strong that she assumed a man like me would want one and more than one. We could have talked about this, but we did not talk about this, or anything beyond I love you, let's become engaged, then we can rent a house, grow a garden and discuss our future at the right time. Not meaning that last part. We had no intention of ever discussing anything. We had that common value.
Precious and I might form a strong union, or we might not. It was our show. I liked that. Precious liked that too.
Next Episode. We rent a house in Southwold (spelled correctly), a modern three-bedroom ranch house. We start a garden. We begin to negotiate a bride-price for the marriage, if we were to get married.
Context. Am I providing enough detail? Can you form a picture of Precious and me at the jewelry shop picking out a ring with the attentive help of the well-dressed jeweler. Was he well-dressed? What color was his tie? Can you form a picture of Precious? It might be very different from my own image of her appearance.
News from home. Popular demand among Frog Hospital readers supports continuing the African story, because it is interesting and entertaining and because it gives readers a certain respite from current affairs. Let's face it, the news from New York and elsewhere is downright frightening. We must face up to it as we are able. We must do what we can, and what we can do is stay home. So let's spend a few minutes taking your mind off that and read about Fred and Precious in Bulawayo in 1973. A most improbable couple. They are about to embark on a home-making venture. They are engaged to be married. Do they have a chance?
Until next time,