RIP Pathou: A Congolese Funeral
Noon. It's burning hot. I sit in the back of a pickup truck with a few other guys from a production company, somewhere between Kikwit and Kinshasa. The driver isn’t messing around. We’re doing at least 60 mph on a seemingly endless, straight road cutting through the green savannah. After 30 minutes, the driver takes a turn; a dirt road heading into the bush. As he rambles on, we pass by several small villages, some consisting of only a dozen huts.
I start thinking about how I would spend my days in one of those villages. No electricity, no roads, no running water, no phones, no supermarkets, no nothing...
Women are cooking on an open fire. Men are working or farming, trying to feed their family. Children play and try to follow us for as long as they can keep up with the truck. Chickens and goats roam around waiting to be the next meal. I can’t imagine how I would cope with a life like that; just trying to survive one day after another.
We’re close to our destination now: a small village where the funeral of a teenage boy is about to take place. We were told that he died of tuberculosis and will be buried today according to local traditions. When we arrive, children start gathering around as always. It looks like a large village, larger than the ones we saw on the way here anyway.
Most people are gathered around one hut. When I walk over I notice that everybody is standing around a brightly colored coffin. Next to the coffin some women. Crying. One of them keeps reaching out. It’s the boy’s mother trying the grab hold of her son. It feels strange taking pictures of this scene. Behind the crowd the lid of the coffin is leaning against a hut. Against the next hut, a cross that says: “RIP Pathou”. Pathou. His name is Pathou.
I wander around and see few guys are heading into the bushes behind the village. They gesture us to follow them. After a short walk, we arrive at what looks like the cemetery. Nothing more than a dozen wooden crosses scattered around in the bush. A small group of men is digging the grave where Patou will be buried in. The sun burns relentlessly but they don’t seem to be bothered. Like machines, they keep digging deeper and deeper in the ground.
I start taking pictures when suddenly, part of the grave caves in. Panic all around. Someone is buried under a pile of dirt and they quickly try to dig him out. Soon, he emerges and, as if nothing happened, he starts digging again. When they’re about to finish, I decide to head back to the village.
There seems to be something going on. A crowd has gathered in the center of the village and a few younger guys –I guess around 16 years old– are pulling and pushing each other. In about 30 seconds the situation escalates and in the corner of my eye I see a guy storming out of a hut swinging a machete. Shit, what’s going on? Slightly panicked I observe everything from a distance not even thinking of taking pictures. Luckily, the village elders mingle in the fight and manage to calm down everybody.
“There was a discussion between Patou’s friends over who would be helping to carry his coffin,” our driver tells me. I’ve seen it a few times now here in Congo; a discussion can escalate quickly with people flocking around in seconds.
When the dust settles again, a man, who appears to be some kind of priest, starts ordering everybody around. A dozen guys pick up Patou’s coffin and everybody starts walking to the cemetery. It’s so confusing. There’s a lot of weeping and crying but also cheering, laughing and singing. This is not at all the kind of funeral I’m used to.
And that sun, god, that sun. It’s burning me alive and it seems to be getting hotter every minute. I try to observe everything and take pictures where I can, trying not to disturb anything. At the cemetery, the “priest” leads the ceremony. I know that the family is devastated but the overall atmosphere feels more like a celebration than a funeral. At the end, they place Patou’s coffin in the grave and start filling it up. Everybody starts singing now and heading back to the village. A small pile of red dirt with a cross stays behind.