I wanted to be an anonymous observer - a good scientist - when we first moved the village of Bili (Democratic Republic of Congo). Didn't work.
I went to a funeral last night. Church funerals around here last all night - a full worship service, family members crying and comforting each other, choirs, friends and family singing hymns, and everybody dozing or sleeping for varying lengths of time. The man who died was an old man, and a respected leader in the church, so lots of people came to show respect. I only knew him in passing. I wanted to go “incognito,” something that a white person finds difficult to do during the day.
What I found is that a white person can’t do it in the black of night either.
I tried. I went alone and didn't use my flashlight. But then I got lost; there are no street lights around here. So I asked someone to help me. They took me to the house where the funeral was being held. I told them that I didn’t want them to take me to the position of honor where a missionary would normally be seated, but that I wanted to be like a normal Zairean. They laughed, told everyone around what I had said . . . and then proceeded to take me to the body of the dead man. His wife and children were singing and crying loudly around the body. My new friends told all of the other mourners to leave, and they pushed me up to the dead man’s face. So much for anonymity.
His wife and I looked at each other for a few seconds, neither of us knowing how we were supposed to act. So she started crying again, and I mumbled a few ill-formed words of sympathy in Mono. I looked at the body for a few minutes, thought of his family’s grief, and then made my escape.
I again told my friends that I didn't want to be seated with the "important" guests, so they put me in the front row with the choir. I stood in the dark and sang happily. The picture was beautiful: mourning family and friends surrounded by the church comforting them with songs of joy and hope. Maybe now I could enjoy the fellowship without being displayed in a glass jar.
Wrong again. Somebody found and lit a bright pressure lamp and put it on top of a ladder, right in front of the choir. Not only was I sporting the only white skin around, but that skin was now gleaming under the brightest light in the whole village. I gave up. I sang with vigor, danced with the choir, and smiled at all the staring, welcoming eyes focused on me.