The second of November is the All Souls Day. Catholics, and some other Christian communities, shall be commemorating the dead.
The fact that this has been commemorated since long time, it’s unsurprising that non Catholics alike would be conscious of this day to remember their beloved ones. In fact, in matters as this there is little boundary observed. The feeling of loss, the longing for our departed is something that touches us deeply beyond our religious margins. It touches a human heart. And this sets people at one despite whatever their religious affiliations are. Hence, I can imagine how many other people are actually drawn despite themselves into such commemoration.
Some will go to pray at the tomb of their beloved departed or perform intimate gestures of devotion, like putting flowers. This is healing. To some extent, it is an encounter of the level of its own that brings somewhat consolation. If only all people had this privilege.
Many are the people who not only suffer the loss of their beloved ones but on top of that they have no place where they can visit them, speak to them and perform those intimate rituals of love for them. This is really a pity. Yes, to be so doubly deprived can be quite devastating.
The frantic combing of the cemetery that I fell in two year ago made me appreciate how the tomb can border between healing and breaking a person’s heart. I’m afraid there are many others who are afflicted like Cecilia.
Indeed, you appreciate water when the well runs dry. Then you learn to keep water jealously and use it sparingly. This is not just a nice phrase, certainly not; not after what I experienced on that day.
If you have a father, cherish him; if you still have a mother, cherish her. No matter how outdated their counsel may sound in your ears they have nonetheless not outlived their usefulness. You may perhaps not appreciate that today, but I guarantee you tomorrow you may hunger for a discourse no matter how empty, no matter how patronizing, no matter how archaic but so long it’s the words from the mouth of a person you know loves you –a parent. Perhaps the case of Cecilia can instruct you as it did to me.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, 2nd November 2005. I was in Kidal –northern region of Mali- where I had gone to visit the small Catholic community to celebrate with them the feast of All Souls. It was during that visit that a woman arrived in the family where I had been accommodated. There I got caught up in her drama.
The woman’s name was Cecilia. She came from Tessalit, another desert town, some 250km further north towards the border with Algeria. Cecilia came to Kidal in search of her father. Not many people could know him except few elderly people who spoke with dim memory of a judge who had worked there some 39 years before. They were of little help to Cecilia. They couldn’t tell her where she would find her father and talk to him.
That was the search that brought Cecilia to Madame Irene’s home. Madame Irene not only remembered the judge but she also had an idea, though not with certainty, where Cecilia would likely meet her father. That however entailed a good search. For Cecilia that was already something. Finally she had somewhere to start from. She got some hope. You should have been there to see how her face beamed with what seemed a mission-accomplished though just in sight. And for that encounter with the father; she just could not wait. By charity we were conscripted into that pilgrimage to her father though at the peak of the day’s heat of the Sahara.
As I remember that day my body twitches. With the temperature of 49˚c I had felt like I was being grilled under my clothes. At the same time I had felt animated by an incredible, internal energy which I just could not account for as we went different directions in that expanse cemetery, combing tombs. We were to read every single placard. For all that effort, pity for poor Cecilia, all was in vain; if only all tombs still had a poster.
Cecilia’s natural smiling face that had shone at the beginning of the search become agonized and fatigued. Yes, you just could not miss the effect of that chilling, dark cloud that suddenly reigned in the midst of that messaging heat. She was like a child excitedly running to welcome the upcoming father but only to be greeted with a cold shoulder; a complete refusal. Far from her hopes the day ended up in a miscarriage.
Cecilia is a teacher, wife and mother. She is married to a military man of some rank in the Malian army. She has two children. After I visited her later, I remained with an impression of a happy family. Nonetheless, deep down her there was still an emptiness; a longing.
Cecilia had never seen her father in her life. That is why that was going to be a big day for her. Certainly, she would not have met him; but standing before his tomb, seeing it, touching it, and kissing it would certainly have made all the difference.
Cecilia’s father had died tragically. He was a victim of the harsh conditions of the desert life. He had gone hunting with his friends where they got lost and their water reserve got dry. But the desert heat was no less relentless; there was no village or a stream where they would appease the thirst. And how long would they hold it? They became so parched that they just could not resist doing what they well knew was not the right way –they drank petrol. That was their end. When that happened, Cecilia was still in her mother’s womb.
After her father’s death, Cecilia’s mother moved to the southern part of Mali, Segou, where Cecilia was born, educated and started working. When she was later transferred to the north she took the opportunity to meet the father. That’s how I met her and got involved in her drama only to come out of it a little wiser.
I often received young people who came to talk to me. Most of them were tired of their parents who pontificated things to them. They felt their parents did not understand them and only restricted their freedom. Patronizing though some parents might be it’s often out of the best of intention –out of love for their children. While this conflict of generation gap is real and for sure can be annoying, nevertheless, young people need to be a little more objective and appreciate their parents’ good will.
Today, when I hear someone speaking ungratefully about their parents, there is this mantra that spontaneously plays on my mind: you will search my tomb, you will search my tomb, you will search my tomb. It always rings.
And thus the case of Cecilia makes me think of the families of the victims of genocide in Luanda, war in Angola, victims of war in the Congo, victims of September 11, the victims of the Iraq war, the victims of the Israel-Lebanese war, the numerous young Africans who die on the way to try their luck in Europe; some die parched in the desert and remain to be buried by wind while others are merely dropped in the sea like a stone. Many of such families have to anguish like Cecilia. Perhaps, this is but just one sign of how limited we humans are. As we walk the journey of life, often we bump into what we cannot surmount. We are face to face with our helplessness. This can be painful. However, there is a little consolation.
This commemoration of the dead is, though we go to the cemetery, however not about tombs. No matter the way our dear ones have fallen or no matter where their remains lie; like those whose tombs we know, our sentiment and prayer for them is the same. We love them. We hold them dearly in the memory of our hearts. May they all rest in eternal peace.
© Evans K. Chama 2007
A Missionary of Africa studying theology in Jerusalem