I was waiting by the car in the market in Butembo when the man walked by with the screaming baby in a bag. I didn't ask to buy the kitten, I simply stopped the man and asked him why? Why are you slowly killing that tiny being inside of a closed plastic bag? He responded, "six dolars," and I responded by handing him money. During moments like this I have absolutely no control over my body, and after the moment had passed I was left sitting on the side of a road with a terrified kitten in an improvised wicker basket.
I was waiting by the car in the market in Butembo for Jean de Dieu and Pere Sylvestre to return. We traveled to Butembo for the day in order to pick up Frere Ibert who spent the last week at the hospital with a pulmonary infection, and to attend the funeral of une Soeur who passed away the night before.
Soeur Marie-Terese was sixty-five when she died of blood cancer. The funeral lasted five hours and two rainstorms, one of which broke through the roof of the church, spilling water onto rows of mourners. We arrived half an hour late to the service, as the funeral was unexpected and the roads no less difficult.
The ceremony took place inside of a large church with high ceilings made of metal. The metal acted as a microphone for the rain, making it difficult to hear anything but the roar. Her coffin rested in the middle of the church in front of the altar and beneath a statue of Jesus on the cross two-stories tall. The mass was in Swahili, so I didn't understand more than a word here and there, but when the choir of women sang I didn't need their words to understand the emotion.
Every church choir here has forced me to contain an overflow of emotion at the first sound of the voices. Even the eldest choir members have the nasal quality of voice that makes them sound like children. The sound is jarring at first, yet the synchronicity of their voices and the contrast with the deep sound of age in the male voices has an arresting effect.
During the regular masses in Mulo, there are children everywhere. The youngest cling to nipples that look as if they've been through the washing machine several times. Toddlers entertain themselves in the aisles and each one belongs to every woman in the room. When a child wanders towards the back of the church hard-bent on playing in the rain, the mother at the front of the church need not worry as a pair of arms will inevitably dart out and scoop up the little explorer. If a mother is seated in the middle of one of the long wooden benches, the tots are passed happily down the row like warm little loaves of bread. I entertain myself during the long Sunday masses by disentangling their invisible leashes, playing a game of Guess Who My Mom Is. If each woman stood up and popped out one breast in the middle of the service, there would be a stampede of tiny feet, then silence and the game would be over.
For this mass, the children stayed at home, and I must join the rest of the attendants in the singular thought of death. Being part of a species that naturally believes it is the center of the universe, it's easy to think of death as being a blaze of glory. Large and important and loud. When I really imagine it, happening to me, it makes the sound of a match being put under water. Just a small fizz that begins and ends quickly and only those in close proximity hear it. Watching the coffin in the middle of the room I'm frightened by the silence of her passing. I never knew her, and last night while I slept I didn't feel a thing when her match went out.
Death of any kind inevitably brings up the questions that feel like they're heavy and important in some way. It forces you to reach for your center. I ask myself all the typical why questions that I regularly avoid. What's the point? Why try at all to do anything good or bad when it all will end in a wooden box, with a stranger in the crowd who never knew you and sadness left behind in those who did?
A man in a perfectly pressed suit walks up to the coffin, stopping me from sinking further into unanswerable, cyclical thought. He is stout and has a strong presence, but the people in the church look almost offended that he is approaching the altar. The nun who was speaking hands him the microphone and steps down. Again, I can't hear or understand what he says, but his body language and the thickness of his neck speak of power. I can tell simply by the way he walks that he must be the Chief in this area. He talks briefly, and when he steps down the mass shifts back into its somber groove. You can see the shift happen in the bodies of the nuns relaxing in unison against the pews.
At the end of the mass the mourners approach the casket in hordes. It is closed, but I can just make-out the glint of glass on top. There is a window in the wood where her resting face must be. The adults approach the casket and peer in, eager to pay their respects and the youth follow suit, eager to see what death looks like in a box. A elderly man is walking around with a photo of Marie-Terese. She has a kind, chubby face and two circular scars on her cheeks that look like dark blush, but are tribal marks of beauty. She has a cross dangling from her neck, a white nuns habit on and a glass of orange juice in her hand.
I have the shameful urge of youth, or maybe humanity, to approach the casket as well. But I decide it isn't fair to meet her without her permission, so I watch from my pew as the people file past her window. Once everyone is seated, several men pick up the coffin and begin to carry it to the back of the church. The choir stands and fills the aisle behind them. I close my eyes and try to feel the heaviness of her death and pay her my respect, even though we never met. I try to imagine her as a living personality, now that I have the image of the orange juice to give life to. I've heard she was kind and full of life. Suddenly I can feel the borders of her life in my mind. They're solid and real and comforting. Her life feels like a misshapen oval surrounded by a picture frame. It feels important and whole. I think of a quote a friend once told me, "You are here for a purpose. Know that what you contribute matters to humanity, for we cannot make it without you." I imagine her strange little oval fitting into the world like a tiny but necessary cog, and I feel like in some way, we just met.
When I open my eyes, Jean de Dieu is waiting for me at the back of the church. We leave together and I am immediately ushered into the procession of singers behind the white van that is carrying Marie-Terese. We walk about fifteen minutes to an opening in a small field where a deep hole has been prepared. There is more singing, Swahili, rain and then sun. The Chief is joined by three soldiers, darkly clad, with stern faces, machine guns and large boots. I am angry with them for distracting the mourners by mixing fear with grief.
The men lower the coffin, fill the hole and everyone walks back down the road to the compound where the Nuns live. There are large trays scattered on the ground throughout the courtyard containing rice, potatoes and beans. People are crouched around each tray scooping up food with their hands. Everyone begins to chatter and the reason we are all present seems forgotten.
After each person is full and has a little beer in their bellies, we get back into our cars and leave the nuns to remember their friend in peace. Jean de Dieu, Sylvestre and I head to the market, where the kitten joins our crew. We are not at the market long and afterward we head to l'hopital general with the complaining kitten sitting in the basket on my lap.
While we wait in the dark for Ibert to come out, a young woman with an infant gets into the truck beside me. Pere Sylvestre is not a small man, a woman from Mulo is already in the front seat and Ibert has yet to join us. But the woman with the swaddled baby sits happily beside me, gazing at the infant, completely oblivious to the surrounding world. I watch her watching him and decide not to voice my concerns about space. The ride home from anywhere here is always just as much of a task as the day, but somehow we always seem to make it back. This time is no different. Jean de Dieu jumps in the back of the truck with the woman's belongings and several bundles of branches, Pere Sylvestre drives and Ibert settles in next to me.
I feel ridiculous holding my tiny screeching kitten next to the woman's suckling infant. I can feel the kitten's tiny form on my lap trying to tremble away his fear. Pere Sylvestre tells me that the sound a cat makes, "niyaow," means for you in Kinande. We bounce home in the dark, now a very strange group, with Pere Sylvester having an even stranger dialogue with le petit chat.
-Who are you looking for? he asks in French.
So, now I have a kitten named Niwande.