Thursday, March 26, 2020

Aunt Janet Died

By Fred Owens

Zimbabwe, you can't get there from here. Not now. I looked it up. South African Airways has canceled all international flights from now until the end of May. So you are stuck here or stuck there, for now. Except I wasn't planning on going anyway. I just looked things up on the Internet to give you an idea of how it works. From Los Angeles to Bulawayo is 10,190 miles. Bulawayo is nine time zones earlier. That gets confusing if you want to make a phone call to Bulawayo, which you can do. Bulawayo is not the most modern city in the world, but they do have phones and the Internet, and Facebook, and a lot of other things.

I am not in touch with Precious herself, and let's keep it that way -- I mean in a good sense because I wish her all of God's happiness. But I am in touch with her cousin Grace who is reading my story about her family and seems to enjoy it.

But back to flying. South African Airways is the premier carrier in Africa and a flight from Los Angeles to Bulawayo costs $1,715 one way with stops in New York City and Johannesburg, if you could get there, but you can't because of current conditions which I do not need to explain.
The world map of virus cases shows a heavy concentration of victims in Italy, New York City, China, etc  --- mostly northern developed countries. African countries show very few cases. I cannot find a reason for that and do not invite speculation. I would just say that  Africa has enough problems, they do not need Covid-19.

The story I am telling takes place in 1997, the year Princess Diana died in a car crash. Princess Diana was a revered figure in Africa. She died  on August 31, 1997,  the day before Precious and I got married. I often saw her portrait on the wall in humble African homes, next to a portrait of Bob Marley.

In 1997 the Internet was just coming in. I could mail a letter from Bulawayo to anywhere in the U.S. for not much more than a first-class stamp. It took two weeks or less to get there. The postal service worked very well as far as I used it. But then there was email and my first use of that wonder.

To send an email, I wrote out my message in long hand and took it down to the Secretary Bird, a secretarial service in Bulawayo that made copies and stuff like that. They would copy my message on the computer and send it to my daughter's email address at Oberlin College. Cost about $1 US. My daughter Eva and I kept up a lively chatter.

I am mentioning all these interesting details as a way of getting myself back into writing the story. It's an effort in time-travel, in order to remember the events, which I have altered somewhat, because this is not a faithful memoir, but a story, an African story, which is best achieved by not a strict adherence to facts. Facts, which I explained in an earlier episode, are hardly welcome in Africa. At least I never found any, maybe a few at most. It's just different. I feel like I am indulging myself with this long introduction, but I have enjoyed telling it and maybe you have enjoyed reading it.

So here goes: When we left off last week I was riding horses at the Kwe Kwe Game Ranch and consorting with an old white Rhodesian farm family that owned this ten-thousand acre spread of grassland and pasture, with a much smaller portion of plowed fields for growing crops. Dannie and Annie owned the place. I forget their last name. And they felt justified to explain and defend their purpose and even their existence in Zimbabwe, talking to me in evening chats while we watched the BBC News on their satellite TV in their expansive, large living room.

I went there for a few days to be with white people. That worked. I felt at home with people who looked like me and understood what I was saying. After a few days of this, charged up as it were, I was ready to go back to Africa, that is, to Precious, who was Africa to me. Then she called long distance and said that Aunt Janet had died.

I had only met her Aunt Janet a few times, but I was impressed by her sheer vitality, her radiant smile and her copper-colored skin. I was to learn about all the aunties and uncles, but Aunt Janet was the first. And then she died, just like that. It made no sense. Precious called me to tell me the news, so I left the next morning. Dannie, my host, gave me a ride into Kwe Kwe town where I could catch a bus. "So, you're going back to see your girl friend," Dannie said, with a knowing smile and I caught his drift. I might stay on the ranch a while longer, send my regrets to Precious, pack  up my things and take the next plane back to the states. I would have said that Precious and I had a nice fling, but it was just one of those things. That could have been my choice. I looked back at Dannie as he drove across sunlit pastures to the farm gate and then down the two-lane highway into Kwe Kwe town. Out of earshot from his wife Annie, he could have told me his own story with black women. "Plenty of white men come to Africa and do what you have done. Why not call it a win, and go back home. You got off easy." All in that look he gave me when he said "So, you're going back to see your girl friend."

Yes, I was going back, to a funeral. I wanted to know why she died, because she looked so healthy, but Precious said, "Otherwise she just had cancer." I didn't believe that. Foolishly, being new to Africa, I was looking for a reason. I wanted an explanation. But Precious's answer explained nothing. In Africa, people just die. Sometimes they get hit by a car and die. Sometimes they live to be very old and die of old age. But sometimes they just die. That was Aunt Janet. She was so beautiful. We went to Mr. Mataka's house in Luveve for the wake. Mr. Mataka was the father of Aunt Janet and the grandfather of Precious.

It was a small house of cemented cinder blocks, cool inside on hot days for having thick walls. Three rooms, a bedroom, a dining-living room and a kitchen. Large numbers of people lived there and slept on the floor at night. The kitchen had a cold water tap, a hot plate for cooking and heating water, and a cooler for selling beer  -- which was Aunt Margie's evening occupation. Not thirty feet from the kitchen door was a well-used but very clean toilet in a small water closet.  A flush toilet, because even though people were poor in Bulawayo, they had good plumbing and year round clean water.

The living room held the casket. On trestles. All the furniture -- the couches and chairs -- had been moved outside to the one side of the house where the men gathered around a small vigil fire. On the other side, the kitchen side, the women sat on the ground on mats.

The casket was in the living room on trestles. The cupboard with bric-a-brac was covered with a cloth. The casket was open and Aunt Janet rested so beautifully on her back, her hands folded, her eyes closed. She wore a fitted lace cap. There was no service or prayers or singing, not Catholic nor Moslem although the Matakas claimed both traditions. But it's a funeral, and you don't get to ask questions like are you Catholic or are you Moslem because you can't be both.... But I guess you can be both in Africa.

I fit in with the men's group. Mr. Mataka, the grandfather, indicated a seat on the sofa for me to occupy. He and I did not speak that night although we had many conversations later on, but it was his daughter's funeral and he was somber. . I enjoyed the flickering flames of the small vigil fire. The men talked softly for several hours. Precious was over with the women.

Man, just when this was really getting good I have to stop. We are at 1,500 words, and this email format doesn't like to get any longer. So I will continue writing this and send you the completion of this African funeral story in a few days.

Stay healthy,


Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

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