From Crónicas africanas: Espejismo y utopía en el reino de Swazilandia [Editorial Colibrí: Puebla, Méjxico, 2001]. By permission of Antonia Kerrigan Agencia Literaria, Barcelona, España.]
Ignacio Padilla is one of Mexico's most notable writers. His novel Amphitryon was an international success and is available in English as Shadow Without a Name. "Funeral Among the Oyameles" is a chapter from his nonfiction work Crónicas africanas, inspired by the time he spent in Swaziland in the late 1980s.
Not too far from the border with Mozambique and not far at all from where, some years ago, President Samora Machel's targeted airliner went down in flames**, Swaziland offers an unusual forest of oyameles. In that part of the country, dense forests are conspicuous in their absence, as are fruit trees and baobabs adorned with vines and inhabited by gibbons. Only the oyameles are there. Anyone who casts a glance from the small airplane that transports him to the Mbabane airport and manages to make out this mass of tight treetops, lofty conifer branches, would think it an hallucination or, worse still, an error of African nature trying in vain to seem glacial or at least European.
This forest, however, has an endless supply of closely fitting stories at its roots: no one knows for sure where these trees come from, and it's not easy to ferret out. Once when I asked him about the origin of that forest which reminded me so much of the land around Puebla***, a forest ranger told me that the oyameles of the holy forest, along with the oranges and the lemons, came more than a century ago from the other side of the sea, from a country called Mexico, which at that time was still free to conduct business with South African nations without fear of international reprimands****. Hearing this, I could not help feeling that I was once again an instrument of the fortuitous, immersed in a dream of landscapes hitherto unknown which suddenly, with the logic of dreams, were shown to be strewn with the trees of my childhood. From then on this forest became something sacred for me too, even if the mystery which I found in it was rather distant from that which, as I learned later, the Swazis attributed to it.
For the Swazis, the origin of the oyameles matters very little. Although, or perhaps precisely because, their appearance is so foreign in an African setting, this forest of Mexican trees is sacred to the Swazis, for which reason very few have left it, or will leave it, with their lives. When I had the opportunity to approach it, I found in its defense neither guards nor soldiers, but only isolated huts whose inhabitants respected, watched over, and inculcated respect for their forest with the simple invention of macabre stories: perverse spirits and murderers, meteorological oddities, earth tremors and fantastic animals which caused even more terror than the leopards that, as the local newspaper noted from time to time, roamed loose in the area feeding not only on cows and pigs, but also on children just old enough to be taking their first steps beyond the maternal eye.
By the time King Sobhuza II***** died, thousands of nights during which no one entered the woods had already passed, almost a century in which the Swazis watched over its mysteries, bowed before its trees, and sent up prayers when they passed it, remaining safe by resisting the temptation to search it for good wood to ease the mountain winters. But when Sobhuza died, the kingdom's inhabitants knew that one night soon the forest of the oyameles would be visited.
The landscape was dark although its residents did not hesitate to look out their windows when the procession passed. About midnight the cowherds and we the impertinent observers managed to see from a storeroom by the trail the first lights, flashlights and torches of tarred cloth which were moving to the ponderous rhythm of those who had exhausted themselves crossing the whole of the kingdom. They were marching forward, impassive before the cameras, twelve men who carried the embalmed body of King Sobhuza II. Later I learned that those were His Majesty's best warriors--at least such was the claim, although not one would have known war--who were the chosen of the council of elders for the ritual obsequies of the deceased monarch. Behind those twelve, sweeping the road with their long skirts of straw and cloth remnants, came the line of the wives, proud that we were watching them escort their husbands and the dead king, that we saw them, even if from a distance.
The warriors were visibly exhausted. Swaddled in a straw mat, the king's embalmed body weighed more than they had imagined, perhaps because that cargo would be translated, not long after, into the weight of their own bodies. They arrived, even so, at the entrance to the forest; six of them remained standing, supporting the body, so that it not be profaned by the earth which awaited it. The other six, meanwhile, rested in a semicircle around the fire, ate a little rice, and drank a considerable quantity of spiced beer. Later those six relieved the first group of carriers, and they continued their rotation as the hours passed, while the women, in a circle a certain distance away, seated before a smaller fire, lifted their voices in a song that seemed more like the howling of the hyena, half laugh, half knell. A few could not contain themselves, and they looked out the corner of their eyes at their tired and hungry men, the tallest and most formidable in the kingdom. They suffered with them; they caressed them with a tearful glance, and so they bid them farewell.
I can only speculate about the rest of the story, but the rigorously ritualistic character of those rites allows one to posit the accuracy of exactly the following: an hour came which is not registered on Western clocks, but rather in the gale that began blowing unexpectedly under the open moon. The warriors came together, extended their arms to carry or to touch--although there was no need for the strength of all of them--some part of King Sobhuza's body. The last torches of pitch were fed by the women. From that point forward there would be no lamps, but only the fire of the ancestors losing itself among the oyameles.
Shortly, those of us looking on curiously took note that the flashlights and those who carried them were swallowed up in the forest. The song of the women just outside the trees grew louder, as if they wanted their men, on their macabre path, to hear them. At that moment the warriors must have been nearing the center of the forest, greeting an old man who had been awaiting them for three days. Immediately after, they had to bury the king under the austere gaze of the old man who had also been appointed ahead of time by the king's council.
Suddenly the women, by common agreement, became quiet. It was the precise moment in which the ritual did not oblige them to sing, because only in complete silence could they hear the twelve detonations that without warning shook the forest and the night. Some of them, unable to restrain themselves, moaned; they released a strangled cry which I hope that no spirit heard. Then, heads down, they resumed the song and took the road home, to Manzini or Mbabane, where the other members of the tribe would receive them with a respect which would not, however, suffice to assuage their suffering for the warriors, lost or won for the eternal and secret memory of the king's crypt. In that same moment, but in the forest, a sweating old man buried the chosen who, in their turn, had buried the royal corpse.
No one could tell me if that old man left the forest of the oyameles that night or if, in order to preserve the secret of the exact site of the royal tomb, he too set aside his life as the other warriors had done.
*--A type of fir tree.
**--Many suspect that the South African government shot down the plane of the Marxist president of Mozambique.
****--A reference to the days of apartheid.
*****--1899-1982: King of Swaziland.