There was a man who owned an immortal horse named Biche. When one mare was too old to work he bought a young one and named her Biche. On and on like this. The man who owned the horse died after a protracted illness—an illness which, many agreed, could have been better treated. At his funeral, the priest said, “nothing in life is lost.”
A mother wrote her son. “In this life, my boy, we are sometimes forced to eat shit. If this happens, eat as you’ve been brought up to eat. Then wash your hands afterwards.” The boy’s family had lived as Muslims for generations in India but in 1947 his elder brother decided to take the family to the newly created Pakistan, to escape the persecution of muslims. It was when he arrived Lahore he received the letter from his mother.
Babatunde died twelve years ago. After almost forty days of fasting without water, we were told his sweat became blood. He didn’t believe in hospitals, and so kept his chronic ulcer hidden from his brother’s family. When it was clear he was dying, an ambulance was brought to take him to the hospital. It was too late. Our friend who was with him at his moment of passage repeated his final words: “I just received an assignment!”
In 1899, Ologbosere, the Oba’s son-in-law, was betrayed. “The king told me that he had heard that the white men were coming to fight with him, and that I must get ready to go and fight the white men…when all the people called the mass meeting at Benin City and selected me to go and fight the white men, I went. I had no palaver with the white men before. The day I was selected to go from Benin City to meet the white men all the chiefs here present were in the meeting, and now they want to put the whole thing on my shoulders.” Alas!
I will show you a secret connection between men pictured after their arrest for treasonable offences. Behold a trio for yourself: Ologbosere in 1899, Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, Isaac Adaka Boro in 1967. They are always half-naked!
Ten years after he sat on the tribunal that condemned Bukar Dimka to death, Mamman Vatsa was also condemned to death by a military tribunal. Both men were killed for their role in failed coups. In the afterlife there will be matters of national interest to settle.
I want you to know: “Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life”—John Berger.
Thus it is written by Saint Paul: Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. After Saint Paul Ibn al Arabi writes: “I see and note the faces of all who have lived and will one day live, from Adam until the end of time…”
The night she died, I had a plate of beans in front of me. I was four. I was sitting in the dining. There was a kerosene lamp on. Yet the room was darkened. This is all I always remember.
Also the night she died, S.O heard a strange wail below her window. A piercing cry into the night that continued until the first hours of dawn. The voice was exactly like that of our dead relative. “I was so scared I didn’t bother to look down the window,” S.O said.
The Professor died in his office in Ile-Ife, where he’d met students and thought deeply about the meaning of his research. When I heard I remembered the story of an old cobbler who died while mending shoes. An angel is said to have borne him heavenward.
A poem on leaving:
in a prayer blanket
for our recumbent figures
the interminable horizon
of lost love
I know you twice
first as azure
second as marigold
those who leave
I have dreamt many mournings
I dream you leaving.
I want you to know: I have no idea why this essay takes an uncertain shape. But I allow its profuse burst: “According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is loveliest. And of writing, profuse and distinct as the burst of its fronds, it possesses the major effect: falling back”—Roland Barthes. And in addition, I want you to know: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” I write so that if you’re human you might know you are not alone: in our common fate lies solace. I write this as a valediction forbidding mourning.
There is no one whose poems on death moves me like Kofi Awoonor’s. In the final poem of his final collection of poems, in the final stanza of that poem, I read:
Through the green garden
of my house
I watch the main rain come
in little drops, season by season
marking alas…the time
when I draw nearer
to that perfect understanding
which may perhaps be granted
beyond the clay
and the grave.
Everyone must have seen the final picture taken during “Doctor” Ishola Oyenusi’s life, smiling to his death. (See below, if you haven’t.) Excuse me if this is an inappropriate quote for a sentenced criminal: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
An astonishing fact about the number 8. On September 8, 1971, 6 members of Ishola Oyenusi’s crime ring died by his side. An eighth man was also shot with them for an unrelated armed carjacking. On 29 April 2015, 8 prisoners condemned to death for drug offences were executed in Indonesia, including 4 Nigerians. 8 might be the number of solidarity in death.
“On the eve of his execution Andrew Chan married his Indonesian girlfriend, Febyanti Herewila, in a ceremony on Nusa Kambangan, the prison island where he awaits the firing squad.”
Arthur Judah Angel said: I was chained; I was given my last meal on August 2, 1994. 38 others were executed that very day. Only God knew how I was spared. He was the one that made my name disappear from the book. I did not know how it happened. But it happened. I died, in fact. Every person on the death row dies every day. I am able to clear my name because I am alive. If I had been executed, nobody would believe that I was innocent. If I didn’t make it, no one would know. I knew many people who were innocent in prison. Yet they died in prison. Only people like me, who were close to them until their death, knew they were innocent. The rest of the world learnt that armed robbers were executed on so and so day; nobody knew they were innocent.
The original version of the story in the first paragraph appeared in: John Berger, Photocopies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), p.95; the story in the second paragraph appeared in the same book p.103. For context on Ologobosere, see “1899: Ologbosere, of the Benin Empire.” The Awoonor poem is from: Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope (Dakar: Amalion Publishing, 2014), p.37. See 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 for the quote from Saint Paul. For Andrew Chan’s story, see: “Who were the eight people executed in Indonesia?” For Arthur Judah Angel’s story see: “1994: Not Arthur Judah Angel, death row artist.”