On Death in America: A Nigerian Perspective

The first time I saw a corpse was walking to the barracks with the house help, near 21 road junction, Festac Town. Actually, now that I think of it, that’s not true. I did see Grandma’s corpse, but her case is different. Her body was carefully prepared and placed in a white dress. It is different when you see death the way it comes, no embalming, no dressing the lips and pursing them together, no closing the eyes.

They said he was a thief. Maybe a robber. I was filled with childish surprise and fascination at the same time. My older cousin saw him first and being protective, asked me not to walk past that road, but for that exact reason my curiosity was piqued and I had to see it. Yes “it,” not “him”– far from “him” by this time. It, a decrepit animal wasting, putrefying in the corner.

So I decided to take that route to buy supplies — probably eggs — that afternoon. It was like rubber, like a polythene bag with air pumped into it lying by the roadside. It looked like it would burst and for the fact that it dared to die so unashamedly I was not sure what next it would do. There was no decorum now, no pause to sing hymns around the casket and trust it to stay still and civil.

***

All these years in North America and I have yet to see a man or woman dead on the street corner or anywhere for that matter. I see the dying — the old men and women in the nursing homes who have begun to smell like clothes forgotten in an old wooden drawer, like balms and aches and secretions, like a musty ancient castle’s door flung open. That smell of age.

I sometimes see the aged still trying to make a living, like the old lady that had served me dinner one night out on a date. She was so old and trembling and I didn’t know when I started crying as soon as we left the restaurant. If she was still working at that age, when would she rest? When would her family take care of her in old age? When would she sit on a porch somewhere and smile on at a life she had already lived? I cannot stand seeing old people work. I cannot stand the way old age is nothing here, whereas it would be grace and glory and respect where I am from.

***

Corpses take me by surprise in Lagos. A man screams into the night and the next day they tell you the neighbourhood watchmen hacked him to death as he tried to rob the estate. You drive past a busy road and one is rolled up by the corner just casually like that. A moment of shock and you, too, drive on and continue with subsistence. I wonder who takes them off the road. They never stay long enough to smell too bad.

***

In North America I have never seen the neck of a chicken wrung and then sliced with a sharp knife, the blood dripping into the sand like a growing red ink blot. I have never seen a goat die in Ontario or in Alberta for that matter, despite its popularity for meat. I never saw a cow fed for a few days until the butcher was ready to wrestle it to death. I have never had the smell of singed hair greet me then walk on to see men roasting the head of a ram in some corner. I have never had to return the gaze of a roasted ram, eyes haunting and wide from staring at death, teeth shut with such finitude that it looks like an electrified mummy.

***

Recently I watched a lady on the bus get off just to make sure the spider on her hat landed safely on the grass.

“I just want to give it a chance at life,” she said.

I wondered what it is that would make something like that cute and yet unrealistic where I am from. Why not just squash the spider? We have no patience for things like that and I wonder why. North America has softened me; the last time I was in Nigeria and the glue trap caught a rat, I made sure to take it outside to “give it a chance at life.”

***

When I take the bus, especially in Aurora, Colorado I sometimes look around. I know looks don’t tell but it is like a game I play with my mind. I wonder which of these men and boys looks likely to pull a trigger. Tucked between the high end hospitals and the classy downtown, you’ll find Colfax. The bus 15 that goes on Colfax is filled with too many people that look like they are sleepwalking through life. On Colfax, the people that get on the bus are different. Poorer and with weathered callused bodies, they talk of paying bills and of prison. Some say they are black leprechauns. Some tell you how high they got last night. Some make out words that are inaudible. Some sit around wearing the kind of tan that comes not from a nice vacation but from years of being beaten by the elements. I sit on the bus and hope I won’t be shot. People shoot people for no reason in North America, and quite often.

***

Life feeds on death everyday, from the food we harvest to eat to the vultures and their carcasses. In North America though, you do not have to see life’s shadow unless you really insist. You do not have to see a man die or a chicken die for that matter. Food comes to you packaged and sterilized. Everything comes to you packaged and sterilized, even babies — you have to apply hand sanitizers before carrying them.

Safety measures they call it, or some hard bought semblance of it. So hard bought is this safety that here the aged wait in vain for their children to come and be with them at the hospice because the children will not come to look at their dying. So hard bought is this safety that neighbours do not know each other. So hard bought is that when you too die, you will be hidden, but isn’t it better than four teenagers somewhere in Nigeria sent back to their source in a blazing fire for supposedly stealing a computer? Isn’t it better than somewhere in the Middle East where a father stares at the space where his little boy’s brains used to be? Isn’t it better than all the hastily dug pits all over the world that bodies roll into unceremoniously?

***

Death is a possibility I hold in my body always. My body. Is it my body? Wasn’t it my parent’s body? Wasn’t it an afterthought of their dreams for themselves, this body that I now call mine? This body that writhes in pain and dances in pleasure. This body and all its conceptualizations of independence, privacy and sanctity. One day the mortician will look at me on his night shift. There will be neither privacy nor sanctity as he cleans me out and makes me look good for one last goodbye. Well I hope I get one last goodbye. Not everyone is that lucky.

***

One day, while I was in secondary school and still excited about biology and body organs and dissecting and classifying, I saw a lizard limping on the other side of the dividing wall between our house and the empty plot of land beside it. I remember how I was drawn to kill it and to study it. The thought crossed my mind to cut it open and study it. I didn’t do this eventually- not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t want to stain my shirt and I was afraid of lizards and I was afraid to drawing blood.

We also started setting traps for rats when they got out of hand- running around the house at night. You should have seen the traps from twenty years ago — they were more vicious as they killed on the spot– but these ones were glue traps that would catch them but not kill them. One time I heard a rat whimper as it tried in vain to set itself free from the glue. Again, I couldn’t do it but I did think of studying it, dissecting it with a blade, and pins maybe.

To study, one needs to cross the boundaries and autonomy of a body, of a people, of a community, like many died during the holocaust and all those times the British took spoils from Africa. And this draws into question where study intersects with power. How much of our quest for knowledge is actually driven by a lust for the kill and a fascination with taking life? Where do science and power meet and become something more diabolical, especially in the context of a far more vulnerable subject?

***

There are long nights when I am sure that I do not want to live. I am sure that this living business is not for me. There is too much pain around the world. In 2014 it seemed the news from home had become much more terrifying. I went to sleep in Colorado thinking of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, thinking of the bomb blasts. All the pain around the world suddenly hit home in a visceral and far too painful way. I was reminded that anything can happen, and that everyone is going, going, gone. Every love will be wrested from me eventually and I do not know that I am strong enough to deal with it. Then I remember that this living business is incredibly short. I might as well keep at it, it is not like I have it in unlimited supply.

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***

It is a weird feeling isn’t it, to be thrown into time in a shriek from your mother, with a primal birthing push and to never recover from that thrust into life? To walk through this life with the “idiotic stare of the blank canvas,” the urgent madness of the knowledge that this is “your one wild life” and so easily it can go and so easily it can be wasted. So easily it can be taken from you and so easily you can take it for granted. So easily you deceive yourself into thinking you have something to lose and you play small and shortly after you die.

***

There are many ways to arrive at turning a healthy black man into a corpse in America. You can kill him by shooting him in the back on his way home from buying Skittles and iced tea. Yes, of course, why was he wearing a hoodie and looking gangster like that? But you may not know the latest development in killing black people in America — the chokehold. New York police waylay a grandfather coming out from a beauty supply store and five men surround him, hit his head on the ground, give him the chokehold until the life has eased itself out of what he used to be.

***

Whenever my mum goes, “Do you remember Mr. X?” I go, “Why, did he die?” You always carry that distance in your chest, that fear of the news of loss from so far away and that inability to mourn properly from a distance.

Finding out your cousin died much later and not being sure how to send condolences to her siblings because they have moved on and you don’t want to hurt them, being that you are the privileged one who does not have to have your siblings die. You tell them sorry. You pity them. It’s only human for them to hate that you always have to pity them. They are always the ones struggling, losing loved ones and you are the city girl with pity and money and gifts for them; but then what else can you do?

***

There are different grades of life and different grades of death of course. Don’t tell me that a child that dies in Europe has the same value as a child that dies in Africa. Don’t tell me Palestinian children’s death is mourned the same way the death of American children is. Check CNN, check BBC and see for yourself. Didn’t it take the world a couple of months to begin to look for 240 missing Nigerian girls? If they were American wouldn’t they already be found before they were raped and before their lives as they know it are extinguished? They have died a million deaths already and we will have a task before us in resuscitating them to life if they are found alive. #BringBackOurGirls. There are different grades of life too. The man that uses a razor to crush the windpipe of another man, is he a man in the same way that other men are? The woman that plans and executes her child dying in a hot car, is she a woman like other women are? Tell me.

***

Life is forever going too fast. You remember it when you lose someone. You remember the odd ways they were written into your consciousness that you didn’t remember until then. Then you forget, and then someone else dies, and you realize you must keep in touch. You must do coffee every now and then before you all die. Then you forget again and then you remember again. So spins the world. So today we mourn war and it ends, but somewhere it springs up again. Somewhere, someone’s childhood is stolen, like a magician’s rabbit in a black hat. Like that. He lifts the hat and it is no more. Spectacle for you, but who knows what poor rabbit thinks of all this.

***

No one rolls on the sand to mourn their dead here. No last rites. No rituals. For all the hullabaloo about human rights, no human rites. No villagers dancing and singing to escort your casket to the grave. No filled church with people dressed flamboyantly, representing what you meant to them, showing up for you this last time. No reception where your entire neighborhood fills your whole compound, where cows are killed and served, rice and soups cooked and served, and souvenirs distributed to celebrate the life you led. No, here everything is enacted civilly, conservatively, sparingly, even death.

They just say, “He passed.” Such a flat way to say something so visceral. No metaphor to rub the pepper into your skin so that the bearer and receiver of the bad news can let out a heart-wrenching shriek. The catharsis is useful. Nobody mourns here. Everything is done quietly. My ancestors would probably roll in their graves if they were buried the American way, like they had no loved ones to give them a ceremony befitting their exit.

 ***

I know that life is beautiful in the same way that it is ugly. In the same way that it is maddening and deafening, it is strikingly stunning. Let us live before we die. Even if we live once, we cheat death forever. If we dance close enough to the lick of death’s fire we know what life is. One day death will wrap us up and we will yield, because we looked her in the face a long while ago. We died before we had to die. We let go before we had to. We loved before it was no longer an option and so we will go, like warriors. Or so I hope. Isn’t all this living a study in dying well?

So wake up, my brother, my sister, before you rest in peace.


This essay is nominated for the Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments section will be considered by the judges. Official contest rules