Sounds of Africa
The crying woke me. It began as one woman sobbing, then was joined by another, then another, until a chorus of wails pierced through the quiet morning. The cries grew louder, then settled into a mesmerizing rise and fall of raw emotion that left me transfixed. Was this some religious ritual, I wondered, thinking back to the muezzin call to prayers that echoed through every Muslim country at dawn. Or perhaps some ancient tribal custom to start the day?
As I headed outside to investigate, I was viscerally reminded that Africa is not a gentle country. It leaves no sense unassaulted. A wave of oven-hot heat rendered me instantly sweaty as I stepped outdoors. The air had a dank, acrid smell of cooking fires and was heavy with the relentless dust of the dry season. I began the ritual slapping of swarms of potentially malaria-infected mosquitoes seeking their breakfast and carefully made my way past the hospital’s hopelessly inadequate and run-down children’s ward.
My husband and I had been traveling for six months already, and had just arrived in Africa to visit his aunt, a missionary nun who had lived and worked in Zambia for the past 25 years. We were staying with her and several other sisters at the mission’s hospital in the center of a small town in the middle of the country.
I moved in the direction of the wailing and soon came upon an amazing scene. There was a large gathering – a circle of women – some sitting on the dusty ground, swaying rhythmically and chanting. Others were screaming and wailing at the top of their voice, flinging their arms and shouting. Young mothers with babies strapped on their backs were sobbing and moaning with abandon, tears streaming down their faces. The crying enveloped me, penetrated me, and I stood among it motionless with hypnotic fascination.
I retreated a bit so as not to intrude and collided with one of the hospital nurses. Another one has died, she told me, and the women in the family have gathered to grieve and send the spirit onward. The men are arranging transport back to the village, and the building of a coffin. I struggled to comprehend a ceremony that was so unlike the quiet and restrained grief of the Irish Catholic funerals of my upbringing.
I looked over again at the strangely compelling scene, and focused on the woman in the center of the circle, screaming and yelling inconsolably and beating her chest, overcome with grief. In anguish, she kept kneeling over a small, still shroud, sobbing. It was her child. Its life had been stolen by one of Africa’s many thieves – AIDS, starvation or malaria. I had no idea a heart could break so audibly.
I turned to leave, completely overwhelmed by the sense of grief I had witnessed. On my way back to the hospital, I became aware of another group of women beginning their mourning cry, then a third. During my weeklong stay at the hospital, it was a sound I would hear with unrelenting frequency. Every morning the hospital gates would open for visiting hours and families would stream by, anxiously hoping that their relatives had survived the night. As the news spread that a family member had died, the wailing became a chorus of the many voices of grief. It was the sound of Africa crying.
Each of the countries I had visited in the last six months had its memorable sound: The honking horns of Bangkok, bicycle bells of Beijing, the haunting didgeridoo of Australia and the singing pubs of Ireland. Heartbreak was the sound of this village. It was the sound of a dying nation, heard every morning in hospitals and villages all over Africa.
If only it were silent…