Death be not proud; for those left behind


With Latirr Carr

One of my earliest encounters with death was my coming across John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, Death, be not proud. The words would have a profound effect on my person and on my view of loss and death. Since then it would continue to be my prayer and my respite whenever death came knocking.

My first, truest encounter with death was when I was 13 and I lost my friend and classmate Yaw Ayisi. I remember not fully understanding what it meant to die. Of course I understood the concept of death; that a person who had died would be with us no longer. By then I had read a great portion of the books I would end up reading my entire life – my hunger for books would dwindle as the years ran by. Yet, it was when my class went to his funeral that the sinking feeling hit me. I remember being unable to swallow or breathe for a good while as I sat in the veranda of the church on the Churchill’s Town highway. I was inconsolable.


Soon after, death would come knocking again. One of my favourite people in the world, my Uncle Sam Roberts, would lose a battle with a long illness, and I would see him as he took his last breath. I remember not being able to understand what was happening as his hand went cold. I remember a neighbour coming in minutes after, rolling in full African attire on his bedroom floor, unable to control her grief. I sat, uncomfortably, on a chair in his bedroom watching death, grief and failed attempts at containing both, take over the air of the room that had been converted from what was once a room of love to a giant coffin.

Years later, at the same house where I had experienced the loss of my Uncle Sam, I would be yet again reminded of the inevitability of death. In the midst of a Christmas or New Year’s party (I cannot remember which), sitting in my cousin’s room as the dancing went on in the living-room, some of my older cousins would share a conversation about a couple who had locked themselves in a room the day before, after the usual hunting performance, and stabbed each other to death. As they explained and a chill took over my being, it was Junior Kelly’s Love so Nice which was on the DJ’s mixer, and since then, the song has only been able to remind me of death and loss.

On a more personal level, I also have had some close encounters with death. Those would require a series of essays from yours truly.

Months ago, closer to home, I would experience the loss of a parent…an unexplainable and extremely sudden loss. Whilst I am yet to fully understand what I experienced months ago, I appreciate the fact that it is almost like a philosopher’s journey to self-discovery. Before I could recover, I would lose my other father, my Pa Barra Ceesay. Just when I was beginning to understand my loss, to appreciate the journey, I would be forced to start all over again.

Driving to Banjul from the Kombos, right after the Bond Road junction and before the Cemetery, commuters are greeted by an interesting confluence of trees on either side of the road heading into Banjul. As you drive past Radio Syd (on your left), a couple of trees converge at the centre of the road, as if attempting an intimate embrace. Even in the hottest and sunniest weather, for that second or millisecond you drive under this natural occurrence, there is such coolness in the air, such calmness that is indescribable. I have learnt to slow down whenever I get there.

In the evenings, this exact spot evokes a different feeling. As the sun sets on Banjul and the golden reflections hit the greenery on either side of the road, the coolness and calmness beneath the trees is more of cold and hair-raising. As a few leaves drop to the ground, you can hear them rustle against the wind regardless of how fast you drive. It is chilling, this feeling that runs right through your spine.

At night, when the streetlights refuse to shine their light, even when you cannot see the shade, it is still there; you can hear it. It is no longer calm…it is not even cold. The shade over the highway almost seems to carry voices within it. If you drive slowly and you listen, like really listen, it speaks to you, if you dare slow down. Usually, from 50 meters away, my foot is stuck on the accelerator and the passengers in the car are all suddenly quiet. It is unexplainable. It is as if, somehow, we all feel this strangeness but are unable to explain it…to talk about it. It is as if we are all possessed!

As speechless as the feeling makes me…us, such speechlessness is exactly what I feel when I am to express myself on someone else’s loss. I am terrible with offering condolences. I have discovered that I lose my sense of speech. It is almost embarrassing. I could not even console my mother on the loss of her husband; my father.

For some reason, I feel sigil kor is too little. I love expressing myself and those two words make me angry! I say it, because I feel it is expected. When you walk towards the family, as the basang is laid on the ground, the women gathered around it with veils over their heads, everyone staring at you, expecting it. It is what you are expected to say; sigil kor. Even before you say it, subconsciously, the recipients of your consolation have their response waiting; sigil sa waala. There is no intimacy in it…it feels…empty.

Many times I have developed a stutter when confronted with the situation. I feel like anything I say would make the person feel worse. How do you console someone who has lost his father? …her mother? …his wife? …her husband? …their child? What words would make them feel better? Would a hug suffice? …a kiss on the cheek?

Then when the bereaved is in the presence of others, there seems to be a formula on how he or she should behave.

For some, she must not cry. Hana gomulor Ya’Allah? You dey question God? Na for tell God tenki oh mi sister. Man suma papa hawma kor sah. Weh me mama die na twelve years normo ar bin get. So, where tears were seconds before rolling, remnants of bad quality tissue paper manifest themselves. Then a glass of water is brought…hastily…and you are forced to drink. Apparently, it cools down the heart so you must drink. The water must not be too cold. It should be room temperature and you must drink it slowly.

For others, she must cry. Baiye len kor mu joiye. Na for cry deh mi sister. Acha joiyal mu gayna sa khol bi. Sor kor fa tiyeh dina la sornal deh. Go lock you sef na you room en cry. Cry tay you heart cold.

I remember my mother breaking down once and people from the two distinct schools of thought pleaded their own cases. I, inexperienced, confused, tongue-tied, just knelt on the floor in front of her. I didn’t know what to do! What could I say? How could I comfort her?

Then also, there is the school of thought, that says men should not cry. We must brave it up for the others. Yow goor nga! Fokk nga degeral! Yow sor joiyeh sa sister yi lunjor def?

…and it is worth noting that everyone who says anything always mean well. In death, all Gambians are genuine. Everyone is kind, remorseful, forgiving, sad, consoling. For that brief moment, like the shade on the Banjul highway, everyone is accommodating and generous.

However, like the shade also, every word(s) of consolation evokes a different feeling. Sometimes such an act of kindness evokes a feeling of anger; sometimes it evokes even more sadness. From experience, it is very few times that it actually does its job; console. Regardless, it is customary for us to try…to ease the pain…to show the bereaved that we are here.

So, when days ago, I learnt of the passing of Uncle Ebou Waggeh, I was again confused. What words could I write? What would I say to his sons (one of whom is a brother dear to my heart)? What would I say when I meet them at the funeral? That I had experienced it too? So sudden…so cruel…so inexplicably damaging?

The Avenue styled kissing or hugging trees on the Banjul highway are like words of consolation. They provide for a brief moment, some respite at best. More often than not, they evoke even more sadness…a reminder yet again of the life that is no longer with you and how good (or bad) the person was. Every word, spoken in kindness, for people like me that overthink everything, evokes a different feeling…unintentionally. Some words, are hair-raising and give you sleepless nights. Some words, like the shade on the Banjul highway at night, evoke fear…of life…of death…of its finality. Usually these come from the learned few.

Aduna amut sorlor. Nyun yeup lii lenyor khaar. Deeh du taagu ken.

So eventually, as tough as it was, I would find the words to convey to my brother Pa Abdou Waggeh; that his father was an inspiration to us all…that he loved my work and always wanted me to do more…that he had never been to my production and not told me just how grateful he was to see it…that if I ever migrated from stage to screen, he would have contributed to my journey.

It was all I could say. We are a confluence of many branches…springing from many roots. Some of our branches, old and withered will make great stories. Some of our branches, young and green, would tell short, bitter stories.

The Uncle Ebou I knew, respected and loved; who conversed with me like I was his peer and showed no complex for my age…he was a good man. In a world where older generation Gambians sometimes make it a point of duty to fight and tussle with the younger ones, one can say he was a diamond in the sand! A great man clothed in humility.

So I found the words eventually but I couldn’t find the voice. Death had come knocking yet again and all I could do was think, wake up and work.

It shall come for us all. When it does come, may those we leave behind be comforted by the lives we lived, because the words of the comforters, will never be enough.