In the absence of context, most colloquialisms are murky at best. They defy explanation at first glance, teasing you into further analysis and critical thought until they can intuitively click into place. The following Giriama idiom is no exception:

Wet like a death message.

Wet? Really? Wet? Was drowning somehow involved? Is the afterlife in Seattle? Does the grim reaper wear Wellington Boots beneath his ethereal black robes?

But if you take that idiom and internalize it, mull over it slowly, compare it to your bank of memory experiences, it suddenly becomes clear. Wet like a death message. Yes. Of course. Both insidiously penetrate the home with an unwelcome chill, even if the doors and windows are shut against them. They cling to your skin in a way that passively leeches the warmth from your bones. They say nothing, ask nothing, justify nothing, but have the silent, fundamental power to drive you to seek comfort by pulling a blanket over your head and hiding from the world for a while. Yes, death and wetness have a great deal in common indeed.

As of last week, I had been to exactly four funerals. One for a distant relative, remembered only vaguely. One for the mentor-of-a-mentor, who succumbed to cancer at a ripe old age. One for a patient at an HIV/AIDS clinic I worked with in Tanzania, whose adolescent daughter literally screamed in unchecked anguish for the duration of the service. One for a friend who died a few days before Halloween during my sophomore year of high school. She had her costume in the passenger seat when she skidded off the road. Angel wings and a glittered halo.

Later this week, I will be broadening my cultural horizons by adding a fifth to the list: that of my friend and colleague, Mapenzi. I was informed yesterday that she was in a matatu that crashed over the weekend on the way to Mombasa, and all passengers perished. Such events are not uncommon in Kenya, given the state of the roads and mass-transport vehicles, yet remain unfailingly tragic. Most people know someone who has died in this or a similar way. I suppose I’m now “most people.”

When I first arrived in Watamu, the rest of my clinic was welcoming, to be certain, but it was tinged with an air of probing inquisitiveness: What is she doing here, exactly? How can she help? What do she and we have to gain from each other? Mapenzi had little use for questions, and was mostly glad to have a new colleague her age around. You might say she was my first friend at site.

To summarize a person in the two thousand words or less recommended by blogging standards is impossible, and regardless of effort, I can only remember her in flashes rather than broad narratorial themes. Mapenzi, borrowing my nail polish and making a running joke out of never returning it. Mapenzi, handing me her infant and saying “Now he is yours, you will raise him in New York and introduce him to Barack Obama. They shall be good friends.” Mapenzi, finding me wherever I am working alone and confidently demanding I share my seat with her, regardless of what it is – an exam table, an office chair, a cinder block. Mapenzi, laboring patiently to teach me a handful of Kigiriama words and phrases, all of which I inevitably butcher. Mapenzi, squealing with delight when she finds out that the Giriama name bestowed upon me by a cadre of village women at the community well is ALSO Mapenzi (“Now we are true sisters!”). Mapenzi, bursting into the room to tell me that her son walked three steps by himself for the first time that morning. Mapenzi, listening to Lady Gaga on my iPod and cackling. Mapenzi, huddling against the 65-degree rainy season in a goosedown ski parka. Mapenzi, quietly explaining malaria medication adherence to the mother of a sick desperately child, who gazes at her with reverent awe. Mapenzi, summoning all the strength in her five-foot-two body to deliver a tendon-shattering high-five.

Mapenzi, laughing.

Mapenzi, smiling.

Mapenzi, alive.

It rained today. Three times. It’s expected to pour daily for the rest of the week, almost certainly including the day of the funeral.

Wet like a death message.

Advertisements