They say that there are only 2 things we know to be certain- taxes and death. That in retrospect seems to be western philosophy. In my case, I was only certain of death when growing up in Africa. From a very early age- perhaps when I was only 5 years old, I realized that taxes may not be demanded or could be avoided. But not death. Death was the god of life.
Death is a fascinating phenomena and since it rudely crashed into my consciousness when I was only 5 years old, I have never stopped ruminating on it. What is the purpose of life- is it to die or is the purpose of death to show proof that something indeed lived? And yet death was not the first phenomena I experienced growing up. It was love and maybe this is what makes the finality of death so visceral. As the only son of my father, I have always been the apple of the family. I was showered with affection and my mother made me know I was loved and destined for greatness. I was protected as well. Protected from death and the knowledge of it. Although I was growing up in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria fraught as it was with religious killings, I never knew that humans die. I never thought that they could die because others wanted to kill them. It was only cows that died because my father wanted to celebrate the Eid al-Adha with our Muslim neighbors. Chickens too died when Christmas was to be celebrated. And oh the pain! I would cry, cry and cry every time a cow, goat or chicken was killed for the festivities. Years later while running after one of my father’s chickens I mistakenly stepped on the head of one of them. The chicken which I had named Sparko (because it was often in fights with others) did a triple-somersault, started to writhe violently, its eyes popping, spittle foaming at its beak until it came into everlasting motionlessness. This was the first killing I ever did and I was in shock and cried, cried and cried. So I too had become a killer! The shock and agony! I came to know that animals died because humans killed them for festivities or because of an accident. But as to humans, why did they die?
To me, the child I was, thought that humans only died when the good guy killed the bad guys in the movies. Or when I and my best friend- Olamide killed them while acting out the scenes we saw in the movies. I also killed the bad guys I made up using the jerry curl rolls in my mother’s salon. Yes I had that sort of imagination- the mind of a storyteller. But despite these associative awareness of death, I never once seriously considered the true meaning of death and whether in real life humans did die or not.
My consciousness of the true meaning of death was formed at the start of the Zango-Kataf riots in the Northern Nigerian city of Kaduna in 1992. In the few days following the start of this crisis my mind would have achieved some higher order of awareness. On the day the crisis started, my mum woke me up for school as usual. The air was heavy with the harmattan dust and cold. I said my good mornings and she led me to have a hot shower. She then rubbed me over with castor oil- shea butter baby lotion and applied some Vaseline to my lips to protect them from cracking. I then ran off to my Father’s room to help myself to the Morgan’s pomade there. I loved the spicy lemongrass smell on my hair. I then got into my pressed clothes and had breakfast- which was often varied- could have been sweet or Irish potatoes, Yam fries or rice often with eggs or beef or goat meat in groundnut oil based tomato sauce. And of course there was Pap (corn or millet pudding) which I loved with condensed milk and lots of cane sugar. Man, did I love to eat? I had two bags to school- my school bag and of course my lunch bag. I would often have 2 meals in it- one for the mid-morning break and another for my after school lunch. I usually had lunch in the school proprietress’ house while waiting for my mum to pick us- my sister and I . Mummy and daddy were friends to the white missionary woman who owned the school. She was British and she was super nice.She had a lot of toys too. So I loved staying at her place.
I also loved school and was my class’ storyteller. I often narrated the movies I watched at home. I remember my first standing ovation. The class teacher had finished the lessons ahead of the 2pm closing time so she asked if one of us could tell a story. I offered to tell a story about Jesus Christ of Nazareth-his conception and birth. The class and teacher loved it and I became the official storyteller of my class. This one story boosted my social profile and I had a squad of 8 or so boys begin to follow me. In essence I became somewhat of their Christ and they were my disciples. I would lead them to play games at break time, tell them stories and distribute tasks for the day. Hanging out with my crew was something I looked forward to. I loved school.
On this day in particular, the class lessons were proceeding normally enough and I was participating actively in solving problems, asking questions and contributing to the lessons. Suddenly there was a commotion,someone ran into the class shouting, “Rachel! Rachel!Come with me!” We were all startled. Our teacher was more shocked than startled. It was a parent that had run in. Then more parents ran in and all hell broke loose.
What is going on? What is happening?, “our teacher asked, her quavering voice betraying her fear.
A riot had broken out in the city and parents were running into the school to grab their kids. The school teacher soon disappeared. Luckily I saw a familiar face- my sister’s. She had come for me. Despite our sibling rivalry, she still showed up as the big sister when there was trouble.
“Come we will go to the Headmistress house,”she said grabbing my arm as we ran.
“Where is your mum?”, the headmistress asked as we got into her house.
“We do not know!”, we chorused.
“Okay stay here. I will be back”, she instructed.
Soon enough she was back. But she was not alone.
“Mummy, Mummy!”, I and my sister screamed in excitement.
“Yes my dear, let us go home”, my mum said anxiously.
“Do you think that is wise. Why don’t you stay here until the governor imposes a curfew and the soldiers are in control? Your husband is in the south, so there is no one at home.Why the rush? Stay here!”, the white woman interjected.
We ended up staying the next 2 days in her house. Oh the British and their tea! Every morning we had tea. But even more interesting was having the whole school yard and field to myself. It was eerie quiet. But I loved the swings. I loved the singing birds and the flame-headed lizards. I loved to throw off the massive caterpillar colonies from off the walls. I loved her garden too with its many mangoes and sweet smelling roses. It was my first vacation- staying in someone else’s house. I loved the building too. Colonial in its style. The doors were made of glass tiles fitted in square cuttings of steel. The windows had the same style and used hinges that had to be unscrewed to open them. The fans were old and the floor- was made of wood boarding. Oh the smell of old wood. We prayed in the mornings when we woke up and at night when we went to sleep. It was 2 days of bliss.
“We will go home tomorrow morning”, my mum said to my headmistress on the evening of the second day.
“Are you sure about that?”, I understand the situation is calm now in town but should you not wait here for a week before venturing out?
“I do not know if my husband is back in town and I don’t want him looking around for us. If it is too difficult heading home tomorrow, we we will head back here”, my mum insisted.
“Okay very well done. God keep you safe. As soon as the governor announces that schools may resume, we will reopen the school”
We hopped into my mum’s red Datsun car and she drove us home. The streets were empty. Dead empty and she drove along with caution.
And then I saw a pig. Dirty fat yellow things. There were black ones too. But mostly yellow. They loved to bathe in the murky pond in front of our house where a large sand deposit collected drainage water. It was eating something. Something large and black on the road ahead of us.
“Mummy what is the pig eating?”, I asked curiously
“Jesus!Jesus!”, my mum screamed as soon as she saw what I had pointed her to, “My son, close your eyes”.
I closed my eyes. But my mind knew what it had seen. A dead human being. And this time it was a pig doing the eating even though other humans probably had done the killing.
I have always thought of that scene we came upon that day. Who was the person that pig ate. Was it male or female? What were its dreams and hopes for life. Did that person ever imagine that they would end up that way?
So in the end there is no death that does not serve a purpose
What was the meaning of life if someone could end it as quickly as it began often over trivial quarrels? Or was that the purpose of death- to make life so flimsy that it becomes precious enough for the living to want to keep it. In any case every living being will have its own appointed date. How and when is the unknown. If this is the case, death should not be feared. What one is to be afraid of is a death that serves no purpose. And yet nature has solved this problem as it converts all life forms into various energy states when they die. So in the end there is no death that does not serve a purpose.
Note: These collection of musings are excerpts from a new book soon to be published. All rights remain reserved by the Author.