“Speaker for The Dead: Someone who retells the life of a deceased person. A Speaker for the Dead tells the story in all truth, holding back neither good nor bad, so that the deceased may be better understood. ”
The last time I did an essay as a Speaker for the Dead was for my mother. My father’s response was to write me a 27 page letter outlining all of the reasons the essay was the final straw, and he had to dis-inherit me.
Speaking for the Dead is not always a pretty thing. Be forewarned.
So this is my story.
I met Sobonfu, shortly after she arrived here in the United States, having just married Malidoma. I met her at Kripalu, where she led a Women’s Mysteries retreat. About 18 women attended.
I was struck by the quality of her smile, with that lovely gap in the front, and by her sense of humor. Her English was still a little wobbly; but that mischievousness penetrated the language barrier.
I was a practicing family doctor back then, and the only other woman of color at the weekend event.
She shared stories about what it means to be a woman in her community, preparation for childbirth, how children were cared for and parented. Her worldview blew our minds.
We Dominator Culture types interrupted her presentation to ask many clarifying questions:
“Wait… what do you mean when a woman is pregnant, the Village gathers and goes to her home and sings “you are a little mother now’? YOU go to HER?
Sobonfu looked puzzled. “Why yes… especially if it is her first time. Sometimes those little mothers do not know, and we have to tell them!”
What do you mean “the baby speaks to the mother, and tells her it’s life purpose, name, talents? From the WOMB?
“Yes… around 7 months we let the baby come forward and speak (okay– I could translate that into “the . In the ceremony, the father must get the baby’s rock from outside…”
What do you mean, “The baby’s rock?”
Well, the father must find the baby’s rock, so that all the baby says will be recorded. He will usually find it, because when he looks, the right rock will move a little bit, and he will know it is the baby’s rock.”
As 18 of us looked at her in astonishment, she added “Don’t you use SILICON in your computers? The stone holds the memory!”
Then there were OUR questions for her.
“What do you use for birth control in your community?”
That one produced a look of puzzlement and then, astonishment as she understood we were asking questions about timing intercourse, menstrual cycles, and ovulation.
“What, can you all not SMELL?”
There was an awkward silence, as I thought of the amount of information we were washing away with vaginal fresheners and douches.
As a anti-genital mutilation advocate, I worried about what her community did as rites of passage from girl to woman, and I asked her about “cutting”.
That one also took a while to translate. When Sobonfu “got it” she just looked at me with astonishment, then began to laugh. That practice was definitely NOT a part of her culture; nor had she heard of it, until my question.
On the Saturday night of our weekend retreat, she created a ceremony for us. She took me aside (I think because I was a doctor, but perhaps because I am African slave descent) and whispered intently, “You must help me with this ceremony. These women have a blackness in their wombs that is like a sucking hole. We must pull out the poison.”
The ritual was this: each woman lay down on the floor. Sobonfu or I took a raw egg, and rolled it slowly around the woman’s abdomen, circling towards the center, below the belly button. She instructed me to suck the poison into the egg, then to carefully put the egg into a large basket. Once all the eggs were collected we sang, and dance, then went outside an buried the eggs in the ground.
Sobonfu did the ritual for me. I did NOT do the ritual for her.
And, I think that is where it all went a little wrong.
I wanted to write more about that. I don’t think I will, now. I just want to say that by the time Sobonfu was living into her own death, she looked like Anansi the spider to me. She looked like Spider Woman in all the different cultures that worship that archetypal goddess.
“As long as you keep getting born, it’s all right to die sometimes”
― Orson Scott Card,