Memorial Service for a Friend

I can’t call it funeral for a friend and totally rip off Elton John, because Pape’s funeral was Thursday in Dakar. The Diops are Muslims, and, like Jews, coming from a hot climate they have strict rules about funerals taking place as soon as possible. But since Pape’s business and family and friends were mostly here, the big ceremonial mourning and marking of his passing took place this morning at his home in la Patte d’Oie. I was there to express my sympathies once again to the family and to see how these things are done.

Arriving in front of the house, I found a large crowd of men seated under an awning blocking the street.

Reading koran

In the center were a group of men reading Koranic verses. Many of them were older friends and relatives. The guy in green on the left is Amadou Thiam, Djibi’s older brother and Mariatou’s husband, who was acting as host but also sat down and appeared to do a bit of reading. The readers were going rapidly through the pages, occasionally handing folders around, and most of them seemed to be reading out loud at the same time. I think the idea was that they had split the Koran up among themselves and were probably reading the whole thing. There are about 77,500 words in the Koran – about the same length as the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and it is conventionally divided up into 30 more or less equal parts to be read one each day in a month. There were about 30 people reading, they were at it for about an hour and a half and it is reasonable to think that they uttered 2-3000 words each during that time. So I think Pape got a farewell couched in the entirety of God’s message to humanity. Muslims believe that the Koran is what God had to say to his people, and He said it to all of His prophets, including Jesus and Moses and plenty of others as well. But only in the case of Muhammad was that message successfully copied down and transmitted to posterity – all the other prophets were killed or ignored or misunderstood or got confused before being able to get the message through. The Koran is in Arabic, and so of course I didn’t understand very much, and the readers were going lickety-split anyway. I did recognize an odd word or two here and there. Nonetheless, the ceremony was quite moving because of the obvious piety and devotion of the readers and listeners.

This was the second religious service I sat through in the last 24 hours without being able to understand anything, interestingly. Because Pape’s service started at 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to a Christian service first. So I decided to go to Saturday night Mass instead. My neighborhood Catholic parish, St. Camille, has a Saturday night service but what I didn’t know was that the service was in Moore (more-ay), the language of the Mossi people who are the predominant ethnic group in the Ouagadougou area. I understand even less Moore than I do Arabic. Luckily, the Catholic Mass is the same in every language, so I just made the English responses at the appropriate places. I did sneak out the back after the communion part rather than stay to listen to church announcements I couldn’t understand. The Moore sermon was only slightly more confusing than some sermons I’ve listened to in English or French. Having read the readings for this week in English I could pretty much figure out what the priest was talking about from people’s reactions – he was talking about a good Lent (the word is the same in Moore and French) and fasting from various things that cause moral harm (some examples used French words). I’m good with that. No booze and floozies for me. Until Easter…

So after the Koran had been read, a few people got up and gave eulogies, in Peuhl or Wolof (Pape’s family are native Wolof speakers, the Thiams are Fulani and speak Peuhl). I don’t understand either language but you could hear people’s feelings in their tone of voice. Pape had a lot of friends and touched a lot of lives. While they were speaking, there was breakfast – yogurt and porridge – and then a group of men started singing.


They had really nice voices and harmonized well. Again, I couldn’t understand anything but the music was pleasant and people were clearly moved. After a while, the hat was passed and I kicked in, and then a soloist started up.

Praise singer

He was really good. He sang solo for over an hour without a break. I believe he was doing Pape’s biography, with commentary. People clapped and snapped their fingers from time to time and seemed to be getting really into it. When he stopped, lunch appeared. Lunch was roast mutton – remember that sheep from the other day? – and rice, served in big bowls to groups of people. My group got through all of our meat but left a little rice. A whole variety of people showed up to eat, including a little kid who had a shoeshine kit and got to shine my L.L. Bean boots.

There’s a line in a Grateful Dead song:  “there’s a little boy who wants to shine my feet.” I thought of that.

Feeding the poor is an important part of any ceremony here. All kinds of neighbors and shoeshine kids and wandering somewhat dazed-looking people got a good meal.

The women, by the way, were seated inside the courtyard of Pape’s house, where they could hear the music but not be directly seated with the men. They weren’t in complete purdah of course, this isn’t Saudi Arabia. For one thing, they were going back and forth to a neighbor’s house where the cooking was going on. You can see them in the background of the photos above. All the women that I knew came by and greeted me, and the little kids of both sexes were running around without anybody harassing them. But the idea that there are two different worlds for men and for women is part of Muslim culture here.

Oh, and I did see the sheep, tied up in the courtyard, so perhaps he has more time yet. Or else they hadn’t gotten started on dinner yet.

sacrificial lamb

After a while, I took the occasion of the call to afternoon prayers to bid farewell to the Thiams and to Pape’s uncle, the senior member of the family. The memorial gathering looked like it was set to go on for some time but it was getting seriously hot and I was tired. I actually fell asleep in my chair for a few minutes while the singing was going on. So I took my leave and came on back here. No doubt they are still at it and I wish them the best.


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