The day started gently enough. I slept in and skipped my morning run, instead making a Starbucks instant mocha from my slightly-delayed Christmas package (thanks, Ma! You’re the best!) and enjoying the cool morning air and the solitude. Which lasted for all of a minute and a half, before three girls from the Mongol horde—excuse me, El Hadji clan—appeared, little noses pressed against my screen door in an attitude that I find alternately endearing and obnoxious, depending on my mood.
But this morning they were being sweet, and as there were three (and not twenty), I let them in and set them to coloring while I worked on Fulfulde, using them to check vocabulary now and again.
And then my translator, Baigovor, appeared, and things got a little hairy.
We were slated to go up into the hills to some of the more isolated villages in my health district to do interviews and consultations. He had insisted that we borrow a moto so that he could drive, rather than going with my friend Moussa, who is my primary means of transportation. I had assumed he was taking care of those arrangements. He thought I understood that he wanted me to. As such, neither of us had, necessitating a last-minute scramble, which finally turned up the least encouraging machine I’ve seen. If it had been furniture, it would have been described as “antiqued”. The seat was tied on with a red-and-white checked keffiyeh. This might have been bearable, but that the road, which wound steeply up into the hills, had been torn apart by Sodecoton trucks barreling through to collect the cotton harvest. After the second time the moto tipped over, I declined to remount, walking the rest of the way and meeting Baigovor at the top.
Towards the end of my interviews in Ndouzeng, I was shown to the village’s main midwife. We spoke for half an hour or so about birthing, malnutrition, and traditional healing. As I stood to leave, she called me back into her compound, where she gifted me a rooster. He made a terrifying journey back down the mountain clamped firmly under my arm, thrice being almost thrown into the bush as I was forced to leap off the moto, or risk falling off. He is now hobbled under a tree behind my house. I have named him The General.
As we were pulling into the final stretch home, Baigovor abruptly confirmed that I wanted to see the cadaver, right? Communication not being one of his natural talents, I probed further to figure out what on earth he was talking about. Turns out, the lamido’s father-in-law died, and we were in the three-day period during which the body was displayed before burial. Wanting to get the distressed and panting General back home, I reluctantly agreed, assuming this would be a villageoise version of an open casket, minus the formaldehyde and plus a baking African midday sun.
Boy, was I wrong.
Imagine, if you will, a rag doll of enormous proportions, twice the height of a man and infinitely broader, arms and legs like couches, swathed in every kind of fabric—a sort of tribal fetish Michelin Man, the part representing the head bristling with porcupine quills, the lap littered with woven bowls, calabash gourds, and iron-handled knives. This, propped up against the compound wall, was what greeted me as I walked up, having left Baigovor and the moto a respectful distance away, the General hanging by his feet from the handlebars. I thought maybe the figure was a sort of giant gri-gri, a larger-than-life homunculus made to represent the dead man’s spirit, or something. I looked at it curiously, then assuming the body was laid out inside the concession, I turned to enter.
The deceased’s daughter was standing in the doorway. “Would you like a closer look at the body?” she asked, gesturing at the monstrous doll.
That was when I realized: this didn’t represent the dead man. This was the dead man. Somewhere deep inside the layers and layers of fabric—onto which a child was now clambering, reinforcing my couch metaphor from earlier—there was an actual cadaver, wrapped into oblivion, into an almost grotesque parody of a chief or warrior.
It was a strange moment of cultural navel-gazing. I was almost repulsed, but found myself immediately probing why: is it less grotesque to want to view an actual corpse, albeit powdered and made nice and surrounded by lilies? It bears no more resemblance to the living counterpart than this fetish did to the man within; at my grandmother’s funeral, I remember thinking she looked like a wax model made by someone who had had her described to him but had never seen her in person. They’re only different ways of obscuring death. What lies wrapped in that rag doll is no longer the chief’s father-in-law, any more than the chemically altered, lipsticked form in my grandmother’s coffin was, in any significant sense, her.
That night that tamtams rolled for this man. I could hear the drums and the shrilling cries of the dancers all the way from my house, late into the night.
Ashes to ashes.