As her time in Sierra Leone comes to a close, Alissa encounters a wedding and a funeral that perfectly sum up the nature of life and change in Foindu.
While staying in Foindu, I am constantly reminded that life is continuing as usual, even though living in the village occasionally makes me feel like the world has been paused. Change somehow always finds a way to creep in.
A few days ago, I woke up to the news that Regina’s uncle had died. She took me to her late uncle’s house, where family and friends had gathered. We sat there for a while. Everyone was speaking in Mende, and didn’t look particularly sad. Many of them were talking about random things and laughing. It looked like a casual family gathering, except for three women (the man’s daughters) sitting in a row apart from the group relatively silently. Eventually, two women brought large pots and started two fires, cooking rice in one of the pots and cutting up leaves to make a sauce in the second. I went back to my house so the family wouldn’t feel the need to feed me. Later that afternoon, I heard a woman singing and crying near the house. I went to the street and saw a group of people walking towards the town, one of which was Regina. A few minutes later I saw a coffin being carried up the road.
That night, Regina explained the Muslim death rituals in her community. When someone dies, the family gathers to sympathize with each other and puts together money to host a meal while friends stop by to share their sympathies. Poor families just make rice and a soup, but some rich families can afford a sheep, goat, or even a cow to put in the sauce. After the feast is cooked and served to the sympathizers, the family goes to the mosque and prays over the body. The body is then carried in the town coffin to the cemetery, which is near my house on the outskirts of town. There, the men dig a hole and the people pray and sing before burying the body and bringing the town coffin back to the mosque, marking the grave with flowers that they plant. Regina said that 3 days after the death, they would have an offering of rice and another feast, and then on top of that, the family would host two more feasts: one 7 days after the person’s death and one 40 days after the person’s death. She said that this is very expensive for the family, so they have to take out loans from friends and all pitch in to help pay for the feasts.
On Saturday, three days after her uncle’s death, I was awoken at 4 a.m. by the sound of movement in the room next door. When I got out of bed, I found Regina toiling over two large pots, one full of rice and one full of a sauce that she was preparing for the feast. When the food was prepared, family members stopped by with various containers, taking the feast to the family.
Later in the day, my fellow intern Aaron and I walked into town to get water, where we happened on a marriage in progress. Our friend Saidu, a teacher at one of the primary schools in Foindu, explained that is was a Muslim marriage, one of the three kinds of marriage common in town (the others are Christian and Traditional).
He explained that all we had missed in the ceremony up to that point were the introductions as the groom’s family came to the bride’s family. We were able to watch as the groom’s family asked for the bride to be sent out. According to tradition, the bride’s family sent out a woman wearing a shroud that covered her face. The bride’s family asked “Is this who you wish to marry?” and the husband’s family replied “This is not the woman.” The bride’s family sent out three to four different women (traditionally the bride’s sisters or cousins) before sending out the bride. With each wrong bride, the bride’s family asked the groom’s family for transportation money to go and find the right bride, which the groom’s family happily hands over. When the bride is brought out and the groom’s family says “This is the woman,” there is singing and rejoicing. The bride, wearing a white shroud, then sits on a mat placed on the floor in front of the groom’s family.
The groom’s family then gives the woman a package of kola nuts, wrapped up in large green leaves tied with a thin string. This package represents their love for her. The bride then slowly unwraps the string around the package, being very careful because if the string breaks, the marriage will be off. As she unwraps it, she stops at certain intervals, when the groom’s family will give the bride’s family more money, before she can continue with the unwrapping. Once it is unwrapped, the wife begins to eat the nuts. Typically, the husband would join her on the mat and they would feed each other some nuts to symbolize their love. At that point, they would be married.
However, since it is currently Ramadan and the groom was fasting, the bride (now a wife) just ate some of the nuts by herself. The wife then takes the remaining nuts and divides them into two parts. One half she hands to her mother, who distributes it to his family. The other half she hands to her father, who distributes it to his family members. I was given one nut and became “part of the marriage.” The nut was very bitter and turned orange where I bit into it. A prayer was then said, with everyone covering their faces with their hands at particular points. This was promptly followed by the new wife receiving a lecture from the elders about the importance of obeying her new husband.
The wife’s family then went into the house and selected two people, one man and one woman, to present to the husband’s family as the caretakers of the marriage. The caretakers are someone the couple can go to if an issue comes up while they are married that must be resolved by an outside party. In this case, they selected the wife’s mother and her elder brother. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family money to show they approved of the choices. The husband then selected one man and one woman from his side of the family to act as caretakers of the marriage as well. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family more money so that they could take her to her new home. They also gave the wife’s family food that had been prepared by the husband’s family earlier in the day. Everyone who wasn’t fasting took part in the feast. The imam then blessed the marriage and the ceremony was over. The families celebrated with dance and song for the rest of the day.
And thus life goes on in the village of Foindu; there are births and deaths, marriage and heartache. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to witness it, and occasionally be a part of it. As my time comes to a close in Foindu, I am finding a great appreciation for the people here; their culture, their resourcefulness, their openness, their willingness to help each other and look out for each other, the simplicity of their lives and relationships, and their appreciation for those in their community. I feel honored to have been able to have been a part of their lives for the last two months, and I know that the experiences I have had here and the people I’ve met will have a lasting impact on my life.
Thank you OVP,