Ancestral Auras

A Beautiful song from the choir at Bana Nsenga’s Funeral

They say “When it rains, it pours.” I have never seen this cliché ring more true than here in Zambia. I returned from the US to find that our beautiful little farm had become a jungle, overgrown with head-high grasses and trees which seemed to have doubled in size in just the few weeks we were gone. I was welcomed warmly by Kapembwa and our friend Samuel, who is a Kansas-born Peace Corps Volunteer who now lives with us and graces us with his presence (More on that in another post). I was happy to be so well-received, and relieved to be home after such a long, taxing and emotional journey.

I spent the next two weeks working in town every day to select the young women for the Bakashana program while organizing details for the MTV Grant that we received and also keeping the computer training going at the Resource Center. Focusing so much on the program, and taking over all of Claire’s work for a short time, I gained a real appreciation for how hard she works, and how multifaceted her skill-sets must be to balance so many things at once (all without writing them down!). I made many lists, so that I could manage to keep my sanity.

The Young Ladies (Bakashana)
The Young Ladies (Bakashana)

It was a difficult readjustment, being so busy and unable to pursue my passion of working on the farm, all the while missing my partner and trying to hold together the program. I was grateful for a visit from two old, incredibly close friends (Helmi and Karo), an Austrian-born couple who hosted us graciously and lengthily at their farm in Colombia back in 2012 (more in the same, later post). Claire returned to find us eagerly awaiting her, yet our reunion was bittersweet as she found me sick in bed with Malaria. We slowly reconnected, trying to reconcile the staggering loss of Sri, and also piece back together our life so far away from US family and friends.

Bana Nsenga
Bana Nsenga

Shortly along this journey, as we connected through the depths of mourning, we received another lesson in impermanence. Banakulu Nsenga – the wise grandmother who sold us the land where we’ve built our home, and who taught us so much about life, culture, and the area in which we live – passed away. The family had been anticipating her death for some time, and we had visited her eldest daughter’s home several times in the previous week, bringing some porridge powder and just sitting with our dying grandmother. Near the end, she was no longer eating or responding – the only sign that she clung to this world was the labored breath in her lungs. She remained that way for a week before I received a call from her son, Bashi Mwango (to whom I’ve referred as a great teacher in previous posts). “Bamayo Nabafwa” (My mother has died).

We came home from town and went to visit the family. Her body was kept at the mortuary in town, but the room where Banakulu Nsenga had spent her last days was full of mourning and the echoes of prayers. Entering into the house, the atmosphere was thick with sadness and the musty scents and auras of other worlds. Wailing which could pierce and soften even the hardest heart erupted from the room, and upon entering I was overcome by a wall of grief, tangibly thick, and tears from the depths of all the loss I have experienced poured forth.

Wailing and Singing from the Funeral

Outside, I found Bashi Mwango and his wife and a host of others attending to endless details for the hundreds of visitors preparing to come. He had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and looked as disheveled as I have ever seen him. His grief was veiled under a hardened demeanor, focused on accomplishing all of his cultural requirements. I asked how we could best help, and he responded – honestly and with hesitation – with a request for food. He explained that it was his responsibility to feed all of the people coming to mourn, and that because Bana Nsenga was very old and very respected, the entire village, as well as the extend family and members of other villages, would be coming.

After retrieving dried fish and vegetables from town, I returned and spent the day with Bashi Mwango. We ate together, just the two of us – a simple meal of caterpillars and canola (and Nshima, of course). I was impressed by the humility of this beautiful man – eating so little and so modestly while women were busy preparing chickens and goat for the incoming family and friends.

We continued together for the afternoon, Bashi Mwango taking care of the needs of all his visitors while I tried to help as best I could. It struck me as unjust that instead of mourning his mother, he was obliged to host and look after visitors. Despite his obligations, he didn’t seem to mind. He told me, when I asked him about the situation – “These are our friends and neighbors, and they have come to provide moral and spiritual support, to ensure that my mother’s soul happily and successfully leaves this world. The material strain for us is heavy, but is of secondary concern”. Another reminder of how far I am from releasing the materialist perspective ingrained in my psyche.

We spent the whole night together, along with nearly the entire village, around bonfires of full trees towering overhead, raging for warmth and to ward off mosquitoes.

Claire with Bana Nsenga
Claire with Bana Nsenga

The women stayed separate from the men, many of whom (including Claire) spent much of the night mourning and wailing inside the house. I found the men’s mood to be resolved, and few spoke of the loss or the sadness they felt. I am not sure whether this veiling of emotion is culturally programmed or the ‘nature’ of our gender. I feel more sure that such hardness is rooted in ego and a fear of showing weakness, and that embracing a softer method of grieving which embraces less anger and more sadness (which requires the relinquishment of the illusion of control and power) could go a long way to healing the wounds of this world. While men have placed themselves in positions of power, it is the emotion and softness of the feminine which holds the proverbial strings of this world together, and can restore balance to humanity and Mother Earth.

Such were my thoughts as I slept fitfully on a sack on the ground, huddled between Bashi Mwango and his cousin and scores of other friends and family from around the village. The fires burned deep into the night. Each time I awoke, I was amazed to hear the Catholic Choir (the church at which Bana Nsenga prayed) melodically singing. Their energy rose and fell with the wailing and grieving of the family and friends in attendance, and the 20-some singers remained on their feet all night, their harmonies so powerful they seemed to harness and draw energy from beyond this world.


In the middle of the night I found an old woman hovered over me, dressed all in black. I was amazed and startled when I realized it was Bana Nsenga. She was immersed in the energy of one who has left this world. She reached down and touched me, and my whole body was overcome with a feeling of warm tingling, bringing with it peace and tranquility. I was grateful to have known and been touched by such a wise and wonderful soul. I awoke further into consciousness of the world around me, not sure if I had been dreaming, to find the first light of the sun flirting upon the horizon.

That morning, we buried Grandmother Nsenga. At the body viewing, the wailing of the women softened my heart, and I cried for Bana Nsenga, and for Sri, and for all those I’ve lost. I cried for the slow acceptance that my life is steeped in the impermanence which creates the foundation of this reality. Some other men were softened to tears, as the body was carried to the traditional graveyard, deep in the woods. The thud of dirt sounded hollow as it covered the coffin, as if her spirit had already left. Those who remained wailed out their last goodbyes to a beautiful woman.

Bana Nsenga at her Granddaughter’s Wedding
Bana Nsenga at her Granddaughter’s Wedding

When walking back to the house, I found myself in a conversation with an old man, hobbling along with a hand-carved walking stick. I asked him “Bashikulu, what happens if it rains the night before burial, with all mourners gathered and sleeping outside? What do all the people do? Where do they sleep?” I had asked this question of others, who either avoided answering, or said flat-out that they did not know. This surprised me – it seemed such a pragmatic concern. It rains almost every night in the rainy season, and funerals are frequent; it must be a consideration.

He looked me in the eye and his eyebrows rose in unison with a slight twinkle in his eyes emanating from deep in his soul – “We elders know how to commune with the ancestors. We ask them to keep the rain until the spirit of the departed has left this earth”. I thought “Oh, of course. That makes sense.” I realized later that this acceptance is a reflection of how long I’ve been here, and how much this place, its nature and its people have changed my perception of reality and what is possible. Our conversation meandered to the maize harvest, and he discussed the drought which we had been experiencing. He told me, in hushed tones, that if it didn’t rain soon, many people’s maize would fail, and suffering would be widespread.

After a short period of socializing at Bashi Mwango’s house, I parted ways and headed back to the house with Claire, Samuel, and our friend Bana Mpundu (the Mother of twins). We hastened our pace as the winds picked up, and the sky darkened to the west. We arrived home just in time to batten down the hatches. The skies opened and the ancestors released their grief. What began with infrequent large drops quickened into a frenzy of rain, which developed into a full-on downpour. With the wind howling and the rain soaking the cracked earth, I thought of Bana Nsenga. She is now an ancestor, looking over this place and her people – providing her family with needed rain, and her son a needed chance to rest and grieve in peace.

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