10kg bags of carrots and potatoes and onions were stacked around and under tables in the small room. A group of women crammed in around the tables littered with fresh vegetable peelings. I greeted the women, took the rather dull knife that was handed to me and found a place around the table. Potato in one hand and knife in the other, I began to scrape the skin from one vegetable after another.
The short walk with Rakgadi to her sister’s house had seemed endless. We had little to say to each other—her grief weighing heavy upon her, my nerves jostled at the thought of the coming cultural interaction. I had helped prepare meals at weddings and other village celebrations, but never a funeral. No, I shouldn’t have offered to come and help. I should make an excuse and leave soon. I am the foreigner. I am the legoa (white person). What can I give? No, this is not about my comfort level. This is about supporting Rakgadi and the community. This is not about me. This is not about me.
As we peeled and diced and chopped, the women talked freely. But there was a blanket of sadness that hung about the room. This was not the lively and jovial talk that I was growing accustom to.
I went about my work quietly, occasionally smiling to myself at the small bits of conversation that I caught. My hands grew tired as I struggled with the dull knife. Potato after potato, carrot after carrot and the hard rinds of the pumpkins. After the bags of potatoes and carrots, bags of onions appeared on the tables. One onion, eyes began to sting. Two onions, eyes were watering. Three onions, large tears were brimming, making it difficult to see. Four onions, the tears were spilling over and we began to laugh in spite of ourselves.
The laughter and the tears were freeing to all the women at the table. Some how they brought us closer together. The laughter and the tears. Laughter and tears over the potency of onions, but laughter and tears over something much deeper, as well. It is the unspoken thing around the table. It is what we cannot say or admit to. It is the horrific and the painful—layers as potent as the layers of the onions.
In that moment, we found a common bond—a bond around the laughter and the tears. That bond would carry us through the onions and the rest of the pumpkins to the finality of tea and biscuits as the sun set over the day.
Rakgadi would soon walk me home and gather blankets to bring back. She and her sisters would spend the night—cooking all through so that when morning came, all would be ready for the funeral guests.
As the sun set that night, I heard the song begin. The song of mourning and lamenting that would drift through the night air until the first rays of sun returned. I listened to the song as I laid in my bed, remembering in its slow rhythm the laughter and the tears. The laughter, the tears, the song—they all merged and melted into dream as I lay in my bed. Dream and hope for something better the next day.