Monday September 26 (evening)
Bong Bong Bong. A drum sounds across the evening air. It's five-thirty. At six-fifteen it sounds again. I know this slit drum with its low throm will call us to the evening meal but no one moves. I am waiting for a sign. My colleagues will call me, I'm sure. Before seven it sounds twice more.
I'm wondering if the cooks are getting impatient with our tardiness. I crawl out from my mosquito net cave to see what is happening. I wander out to the front of our accommodation, pause and take in the scene of clusters of men in quiet conversation and go back to my room. By now it's dark.
Soon, one of my colleagues comes by to explain that the drum announces more than a call to meals. What we are hearing is the announcement of more deaths in the region. The news has reached us through neighbouring villages and, no doubt via the ever-present mobile phone. The drum marks the arrival of this information. It is a mark of respect.
I am told that a big chief has recently died and that the belief is that this will herald a string of other deaths. The big chief, it is held, should not travel unaccompanied into the next life. A wise man, a magic man, who claims to see the fiture says ten people will pass away over the next week. I am a sceptic when it comes to the paranormal, but sure enough the drum will beat out new deaths each day we are here. I lose count.
I am reminded of my parents deaths, both of which held an uncanny sense of timing. My mother's descent into a coma was slow and painful to watch. The dreaded breast cancer had come back to take her years after her masectomy. Though it was inevitable, the timing was unknowable and yet, she seemed to know. In her final hours she held on until all the family had arrived back from holidays and other out of town activities before offering us her last breath; my father, a man who acceded to my insistent urgings and lived two years more than he would have chosen, eventually made his quiet exit two weeks before my long planned overseas trip with my wife.
He was our big chief. He was also a believer in reincarnation so he knew he wouldn't lack company on the other side - requiring none of us to accompany him. He was always such a considerate man.