The Funeral

Successful Dr. Nontsikelelo must travel back to her village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and finally confront the past that she ran away from years ago in this story about tragedy, love and staying true to yourself.

Under the Arch

The Funeral

Successful Dr. Nontsikelelo must travel back to her village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and finally confront the past that she ran away from years ago in this story about tragedy, love and staying true to yourself.

Coming home to South Africa after tragic news, Dr. Nontsikelelo must reconcile with what she spent her life running away from. (Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Mika Chipana, Contributing Writer | Dec 11, 2022

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.


“It’s not a straightforward case, and the surgeon sent too many samples.” 

Nontsikelelo took a sip of Pinot Noir, swirling it in her mouth before swallowing. There’s nothing like a glass of red wine after a long day at work. Matthew, her fiance, gently massaged her feet, pulling a deep sigh from her. 

“I don’t understand. Why do you need more than one skin sample?”

Noni looked into his inquisitive blue eyes, smiling at him. 

“Skin cancer on the nose and on the bum is different. I can’t just use one to diagnose a patient.” 

He smiled back.

“You know, pathologists may be the most overlooked but important doctors there are. Without you guys, general practitioners would just give us painkillers and send us home.” 

A deep laugh escaped from Noni’s throat, causing her to spill some of her wine onto her pajama pants. 

“You give me too much credit, love.” 

Noni’s phone began to vibrate against her thigh. Her screen filled with a smiling picture of her brother. 

“At this time, Vusi?” she asked.

“Ubaba is dead, Non. Heart attack.” 

Her brother’s voice cracked at the end. Noni hardly knew how to feel, her heart suddenly heavy from hearing his sobs on the other side of the phone. 

“Will you come?” he asked.

“I’ll be there, Vusmuzi, for you.” 

Her brother sighed quietly on the phone, a heavy silence falling between the two of them. Noni hung up and stared at the blinking lights on her Christmas tree. This was not how she had expected to spend her time off.

“What’s it, babe?” Matthew asked.

Noni swallowed the rest of her wine, hardly tasting it anymore. She looked around at her Joburg apartment, suddenly feeling suffocated. 

“My father is dead. I have to go home.” 

The road turned to gravel as Matthew drove to Noni’s family farm in Ulundi. Cars littered the front yard, leaving them no choice but to park outside the gate. Matthew turned off the ignition. 


Noni looked at the brick house she had grown up in. Despite her pleas, her mother had refused a new house, insisting that the ancestors would look unfavorably upon the destruction of a home they had blessed. Noni took off her cushion-cut diamond ring, leaving it in the glove box of the car. Matthew gave her a pointed look. She looked at the indentation that her engagement ring left behind, sighing deeply.

“No, but let’s go.” 

Women sat in the backyard, peeling potatoes and carrots, chatting loudly and animatedly about the latest episode of some soapie. Iron pots with all kinds of stews and pap simmered over fires. The air smelled of freshly slaughtered meat and sweat, but clean, unlike the smog in Gauteng. Noni closed her eyes and took in the sounds around her. After years of avoidance, she was home. As she walked by, the women dropped their voices to hushed tones, some openly gawking at Matthew. Until now, she had forgotten that she was engaged to a white man. 

The inside of the house was equally as busy as the outside; girls she didn’t recognize were in the kitchen, preparing trays of scones and tea for guests. One thing had always puzzled her about African funerals. Why was it the mourning family that had to cater to guests, responsible for feeding them and making them comfortable? She led Matthew out of the small kitchen into the living room. Noni’s mother sat on the plastic-covered couches, dressed from head to toe in black. Her brother sat near their mother, holding her hand in his lap. Her mother stared at the shiny wooden coffin that filled the room while others sat on the floor weeping quietly for the man in the pine box. 

All eyes turned to Noni as she entered the room. She was taken aback by her mother’s hallowed figure; the woman who she had always known to be round and well-fed, a hulking figure from her childhood, was now a ghost she hardly recognized. Her skin was taught, green veins and worry lines visible on her tired face. She looked so weary it broke Noni’s heart. Her once-thick afro was shaven off, and a loosely tied headscarf covered her bald scalp. Her mother’s eyes turned hard at the sight of Noni and Mathew. A small sneer appeared on her face. 

“Nontsikelelo, you would bring a white man to your father’s house.” 

Noni had not expected a warm welcome, but these were not the first words she expected from her mother’s mouth. 

“Sawubona Ma. Unjani?” Hello Ma, how are you? 

Matthew stood awkwardly in the corner, not knowing how to approach the situation; he extended his hand to Noni’s mother, which she looked at as if he had offered her a black mamba instead. His cheeks grew red, making him stand out even more. Vusi whispered something into his mother’s ear, causing her to nod slightly. Noni’s mother turned to her, a slight scowl on her face. 

“Umfundisi (pastor) Zola will be here soon. Please go put on something respectable.” 

Suddenly feeling small, Noni looked down at her jeans and t-shirt, wishing she had worn a skirt instead. As Noni and Matthew turned to leave the room, her mother’s voice rose. 

“And Nontsikelelo, don’t come back into my house with that thing on your head.” 

Noni walked out, trying to hold her head up with as much dignity as she could muster. 

Noni arrived back at the house at the same time as the pastor. The yard had cleared, and she finally saw Lucky, their mutt, tied to the tap at the back of the yard. He chewed at a bone, not bothering to look up at her as she entered the house. The pastor went over to speak to her mother as Noni entered the kitchen looking for the scones she had seen earlier. 

“Thank you for coming, Noni.” 

She turned at the sound of Vusi’s voice; the two hugged tightly. 

“Anything for you.” 

She smiled up at him. 

“How is the world of defending criminals?” Noni asked. 

Vusi chuckled. 

“Diligently paying for my BMW X5.”

Noni rolled her eyes, biting into a scone; the pastor poked his head into the kitchen. 

“Siyaqala.” We are starting. 

Vusi nodded to him. Staring at the retreating figure of the pastor, Noni felt depleted. She’d hoped to skip all the traditional funeral rites, knowing it would further drive a wedge between her and her mother. 

“Vusi, I can’t be a part of this.” He stopped and turned back to her. “You know I’ve never believed in all of this, and now that I’m saved, it just doesn’t align with who I am now.” 

“Oh, come on, Nontsikelelo, why must you always find ways to upset Mama? It’s one weekend. Surely your Jesus can forgive you for a simple cleansing ritual!” 

Her brother’s flippant words struck Noni unexpectedly; again, he took their mother’s side as he always did. 

“I’ll stand there, but I’m not taking part,” she said, leaving her half-eaten scone behind. 

Noni stood back and watched as the pastor splashed water on her mother, aunt and brother. He muttered words in Zulu, using his other hand to spread the smoke of burning incense. Silent tears cascaded down her Aunt Lindiwe’s face, her father’s sister. Her mother merely stood, vacant eyes looking into the distance. The pastor put down the incense and led them to a fire burning in the yard; he handed the three of them medium-sized rocks. 

Each took their turn placing a stone into the fire, watching them heat up. Noni handed Vusi a pair of tongs which he used to pick up the rocks and place them into three separate zinc bowls filled with hot, murky, brown water. Noni wondered what had turned it that color. The water simmered, heated up by the rock. Her mother untied the shawl from her hips and used it to cover her head and shoulders as she dropped her face into the bowl. Vusi and Aunt Lindiwe followed while the pastor asked the ancestors for the family to be cleansed of any lingering spirits of death and evil. 

Noni looked around the yard. Her mother had always taken pride in her garden. Various fruit trees bloomed, shading the area. Noni walked over to a large rock she had often sat on as a child; it seemed much smaller now. Her eyes rested on a tall tree that her mother would break sticks from to smack either her or Vusi, frequently both. 

This yard was her childhood reprieve, a place she preferred over the house. In this yard, she had run around with friends, eaten all the mangoes she could ever dream of, gotten sick on sugar cane, and bathed in a plastic tub. 

The sounds of Aunt Lindiwe’s heavy panting brought Noni out of her daydream. Her three relatives lifted their faces from the tub, water gleaming and dripping off each of them. The pastor said a prayer over them and announced that they were officially cleansed; Noni wished it was only that easy. 

The smell of tripe filled the small kitchen as Noni’s aunty warmed food for all of them to eat. Noni’s mother shuffled into the kitchen; her face was wiped clean of sweat, a new doek fastened onto her head. 

“Why did you disrespect the pastor like that, Nontsikelelo? Because you are a fancy doctor now who lives in the city, you must be better?” 

Noni rested her head in her hands, a headache beginning to drum at her temples. It had always been a fight between her and her mother, and it seemed that nothing would change that, not even a dead father. 

“Mama, you know I’m a Christian now; I can’t, Ma.” 

Her mother’s eyes contorted in anger as she sat down at the metal dining table, small enough to only sit four. Vusi set the table; Aunt Lindiwe brought bowls of tripe, pumpkin, spinach, beef stew and pap before them. As the others began to dish food onto their plates, Noni silently bowed her head in prayer, only to find her mother staring when she opened her eyes. 

“I knew I should have never let you go to university in that province.” 

Disgust was plastered all over her mother’s face. Noni spooned some spinach and pumpkin onto her plate. Vusi laughed, trying to break the tension. 

“Let me guess, you’re vegetarian now?”  

Noni smiled thankfully at her brother. 

“Matthew is vegetarian, so it just sort of stuck.” 

Noni knew she had said the wrong thing when her mother brought her spoon down loudly onto her plate, causing bits of gravy to splatter onto her dress. 

“Bringing a white man into your father’s house. Years he was forced to work in the mines. He marched for this country’s freedom, and you dare disrespect his memory with that nonsense and during a ti—” 

A knock sounded at the door, saving Noni from any more of her mother’s animosity. Noni’s heart dropped into her stomach as the door opened to reveal a familiar face. Sbusiso walked into the kitchen with a box in his hands; his tall frame made the kitchen feel even smaller. Noni avoided Sbusiso’s pointed look by focusing on her brother, who shrugged, and then on her mother, whose face suddenly broke into a smile. 

“Sbusiso, ingane yami.” Sbusiso, my child.

“Ma, how are you doing? I am so sorry for coming this late. I couldn’t get off at work.” 

He kissed Noni’s mother’s cheek fondly. 

“Noni, get Sbusiso a plate, please. Vusi, bring a chair from the living room.” 

Vusi’s eyes locked with Noni, a playful, knowing smile lighting up his face. As Vusi began to get up, Sbusiso placed a hand on his shoulder. 

“Cha mfowethu. Ma, I have to go, but I will be back for the funeral tomorrow. I just came to bring the programs.” 

He placed another kiss on Noni’s mother’s cheek and accepted a Tupperware full of food. 

“Nontsikelelo, can I speak to you outside for a moment?”

Noni found herself rising from her chair; her mind suddenly separated from the movements of her body. Sbusiso, her first boyfriend; Sbusiso, her first love; Sbusiso, her second-biggest heartbreak. Sbusiso waved over his shoulder to everyone as they made their way out the door. 

“Usale Kahle, Ngizokubona kusasa.” Stay well; I’ll see everyone tomorrow.

The sun was beginning to set on the horizon, Noni’s favorite time. Ravens cooed in the distance as children were called back from playing in the streets. Shades of pink and orange painted the sky and a cool breeze blew through Noni’s skirt. 

“Did you know the bank now has a lobola (bride price) savings account?” 

They had reached Sbusiso’s 4×4 truck; he leaned on the car’s hood, eyes fixed on Noni. 

“Finally settling down, Sbu?” she asked. 

He tried to reach for her hand, and she took a light step back, her heart hammering in her chest. Years later and this guy still made her feel on edge. 

“There’s only one woman for me, and she’s looking right at me.” 

Sbu noted her step back with a smirk. 

“I am engaged to someone Sbusiso.” 

Sbu laughed out loud, his gold tooth twinkling in the low light of the evening. He clutched his beer-filled stomach as if genuinely in pain; Noni tried not to be irritated. Sbu finally stopped laughing and wiped tears from his eyes. 

“Even with your father gone, there is no way Ma Nosipho will let you marry umlungu (a white person). We both know that. Come on, Noni, surely Joburg hasn’t colonized your mind that much.” 

“We are not teenagers anymore, Sbusiso. Please—” 

“We are meant to be together. So I made a few mistakes, but I’m working at the Petrol station as a manager. I can take care of you now, Noni; you can come home and stop playing nurse.”

Noni stood back in disbelief, the day’s weight finally settling on her shoulders. Nothing good ever came from being home. 

“Good night Sbusiso.” She walked away from him, the air suddenly chilly. 

As Noni walked back into the small kitchen, Vusi was looking over the program, a picture of their father looking stern in his uMkhonto we Sizwe uniform. Noni’s stomach churned at the sight of the image. 

“Ready to read the obituary tomorrow?” 

Noni grabbed the program from him, shaking her head as she read her name over and over. Delivery of the Obituary: Bhekokwakhe’s firstborn, Nontsikelelo Mzamo. She had thought that coming home would be the worst part of this weekend, but she had been wrong; this was worse.  

As the tent began to fill up with more mourners, Noni’s mind traveled far from the events of the day. She listened to the whistling in the wind. She thought about the lab samples that would be on her desk Monday morning, and when she had listed all the types of skin diseases she had diagnosed over her career, she began to count the number of cars that went past the grave site. Her mind turned to anything but the sick, sinking feeling in her stomach.

When her brother took the mic, Noni’s attention floated back to the tent. Vusi spoke in crisp Zulu of how their father was a man of justice and integrity, a role model who inspired his pursuit of law. Noni had to bite her cheek to stop laughing out loud. She turned her eyes back to the pigeons outside the tent. Before she knew it, Matthew squeezed her hand tightly and placed a quick peck on her cheek. Noni took a moment to gather herself, unfolding the short script she had come up with some time in the morning. 

She walked up to the podium, the cameraman following her every moment. How ridiculous, a video crew for a funeral. Noni adjusted the microphone and looked at the vast crowd of brown faces. There were people she knew, people her father had worked with, friends he had drank with at the local tavern. Her mother sat in the front row wearing a large black hat with a large sparrow lopsidedly perched on the brim. It was the silliest hat she had ever seen. It hit Noni that in all three days, she hadn’t seen her mother weep. Even now, her mother sat with a straight face. Grief lay there, but not even one tear for her husband. Noni prayed for courage to get through this and cleared her throat. 

“Bhekokwakhe Shadrack Mzamo was born in Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal, on 17 October 1957. He is survived by his wife, Nonsipho, and two children, Nontsikelelo and Vusmuzi. He worked as a miner before joining uMkhonto we Sizwe in 1988.” 

A drop of water fell onto Noni’s page, blotting out her following words. She looked up at the tent ceiling, wondering when it had started raining. When there was no sound of rain, Noni wiped at her face and realized that tears had escaped from her eyes. When had she started crying? She looked up at her mother and her brother, a deep chasm opening in her chest. She had a choice:  one would keep her in bondage, and the other would liberate her.

“Utata wam wayeyisosha. My father was a soldier. He worked hard, and he also taught me how to read. One particular day he brought home a storybook called Sipho Goes to School. He told me that to understand life, one had to access the knowledge that came from books. Little did I know that those storytelling sessions before bedtime would turn into abuse.”  

Noni’s aunt signaled for the cameraman to stop recording. Her mother clutched her chest, hyperventilating. Vusi quickly rose. Noni held up her hand, choking back her tears. 

“Nontsikelelo, stop, look at what you’re doing to uma….

Noni looked into her brother’s eyes. 

“At the age of 13, I lost my innocence to a person I loved, a person I believed to be my hero. The words you have all spoken may be true, but the man I knew hurt me deeply. My biggest heartbreak was when I finally built the courage to tell Ma; she called me a liar. As blood ran down my body, she called me nothing more than a prostitute.” 

A murmur started in the crowd as people looked at each other in surprise and others began to leave. Unable to go on, Noni looked up as her mother began to weep, loud screaming cries that had her falling from her chair. 

Matthew came up then, wrapping Noni into a tight embrace. The two slowly walked out of the tent, leaving the chaos behind them; Vusi stared after them, finally understanding why his older sister had left home and never looked back. Noni knew from her mother’s cries that she had known. Mothers always know. In the car, Matthew turned the ignition on, putting the aircon on high for a shivering Noni. His voice broke the silence. 

“There will come a time for forgiveness and reconciliation, Noni, for both of you. It may seem unlikely, but believe that it will come.” 

Mascara-filled black tears left a trail down her face, washing away her carefully laid makeup. 

“Take me away from here.”