The sand-garden

The woman is wearing a bright yellow capulana, splashed with green and white. Her blouse is lavender, with royal blue stripes. She has a red, white and beige headscarf. She sits in a pool of shade, under a mango tree, with two friends. One wears a lime-green and orange capulana, a headscarf of the same material and a soft pink T-shirt. The other has a capulana with white, purple and scarlet circles and a mustard blouse.

These three women have come to mourn the loss of a friend’s child. They are not alone. In fact there are around three hundred mourners, all sheltering from the relentless sun, waiting for the service to begin.  Each women has a different-coloured, different-patterned capulana. Shades of magenta, indigo, aquamarine, emerald. There is no duplication or repetition.  The men too are wearing bright clothes: browns, creams, greens and blues; squares, checks, spots and stripes. My eyes are full.

The family arrives, with the simple wooden coffin. The mourners gather in and around an outdoor chapel (a bare, white room) and the service begins. There is no hymn book, prayer book or order of service. There are no chairs or pews, nowhere to hide. Everyone stands in an elongated circle, facing one another. Each tear will be seen and witnessed. A lone voice starts to sing a Shangana hymn and the crowd joins in, a cappella. The music is achingly beautiful and each person sings from the heart. There has been no rehearsal, but all know the words and the harmonies – or can instinctively find their place in the harmonic structure. After some time, another service begins, just a few feet away and so their songs rise up and mix with our songs. Somehow the different keys and rhythms fit together, producing spontaneous antiphonal waves of sound. As you hear it, you know – with both wonder and sadness – that you will never hear these exact sounds again.

A signal is given and everyone files out of the cool chapel, back into the oppressive heat. The cemetery is a vast patchwork of sandy plots, criss-crossed with meandering paths and studded with the occasional tree. There are simple stones, wooden signs and wild flowers.  The mourners form a straggling, colourful procession as they pick their way across the paths. At the graveside, another circle is formed. The grieving family sit under a tarpaulin for extra shade while others huddle under bright umbrellas. Words are spoken by anyone who has something to say, some comfort to offer. Eventually, the coffin is lowered into the ground and covered with sandy soil, which the gravedigger builds up into a mound.

Into this mound, the mourners place flowers, all higgledy-piggledy. Orange and yellow marigolds, pink and purple cornflowers. A sand-garden, planted in tears but inherently heart-warming and hopeful. A tender gift of colour.


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