A Kenyan Malaika, death, resurrection and life

It is Easter Sunday.

In Pre-Viral times, the big stores employed a multitude of tempting stratagems which would have served as a reminder, as they usually did months in advance of any contemporary festival. The Easter Bunny on the fire truck yesterday also made it quite loud and clear, or this Sunday too would not stand out starkly from an otherwise miscible week.

This morning though, a Malaika in my house reminded me again. We have very few religious icons or idols at home and this Angel was a special purchase. It was at the Westlands, Triangle Curio market in Nairobi, Kenya, that a very persuasive vendor convinced me I needed it for Christmas. So here it stays around the house all year long and lends itself to any festivity, be it a divine birth, a resurrection, a harvest, vanquishing of evil, heralding of the seasons …

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Malaika by DES

It is an angel of divine workmanship as I see it, crafted out of banana fibre and wire. Nairobi has many artisans that work with banana fibre. It’s a painstakingly laborious process to prepare the false stem of the banana plant for these fibres, boiling and softening the dense inter nesting leaves, scutching the phloem off to give it a smooth finish, drying the strands that can be woven and transformed into fabric, baskets and beautiful handicrafts. Given the passing of the years, this particular angel has retained its natural golden glow; it survived but I hear since, that the Westlands Triangle Curio Market does not exist any more as it made way for road development. I knew a few vendors and artisans there who created intricate pieces of crafts for me, people with names, those that had so much to share then about their work and livelihood at the Curio Market. A little death that must have been and no resurrection.

And fast forward to death today in Viral times, where the media has a rolling montage of deathly scenarios and deathly places, ambulances deafeningly signalling near death or an attempt to escape it on mostly empty roads; here too stories of personal loss have become a mere statistic.

My family spoke of recent deaths in my native village, people touched by the scythe of declining years; in the days of social distancing, even the dead go alone. There used to be a time when the community helped the bereaved family grieve a loss even the weeks after the funeral. How do you grieve a loss now, without touch, feeling, or even the empathy and kinship of an attendant community surrounding a grave. The bereaved feel abandoned; physical distance amplifies perhaps the magnitude of loss borne alone.

We remember people we lost at the end of last year, family gone without forewarning. Sadly, human death is not followed by resurrection. I happened to come across a social media friend request from a now deceased family member. I still see existing profiles of people long gone, like virtual mausoleums, a digital incarnation of sorts, but never a resurrection except in the messages of visitors that pass by on occasion seeking catharsis.

It is a few millennia since the first recorded (c. 1900-1600 BCE) resurrection. When the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and war, the divine Inanna, descended through the seven gates of the underworld, to visit her grieving and widowed sister Ereshkigal, the death of whose husband she was indirectly responsible for, the bereaved goddess of the underworld in her grief and rage killed Inanna. She had her corpse hung on a hook, where it had to be retrieved by those that descended in turn to mourn with Ereshkigal and cry in unison with the goddess, making her grieving voice their own, her tears and pain their own. Only then did the goddess soften and allow her sister Inanna to return to earth alive, transformed and resurrected. Even a goddess of the underworld needed cathartic release of her pain through those that mirrored her suffering as their own to effect a resurrection.

With the social and behavioural change being wrought today, consoling the living and grieving may too be transformed. How would we attempt this across a virtual landscape, divided in space and time?

It brings to mind the words of a kiswahili song that was recorded for Idan Raichel’s album, Within my Walls, by Somi, an American singer of Rwandan and Ugandan descent.
It is about an orphan named Maisha or ‘Life’. It was originally written for child soldiers in Northern Uganda. Maisha seeks comfort in the celestial object that we know is truly dead, the moon. It is a grieving cry of an abandoned child. Only in a profound empathy would lie the redemption and resurrection of such a lost soul.

Maisha sings …

Peke yake na kusikia kwa mwezi
Yatima alilia ndani kivuli
Peke yake na kusikia kwa mwezi
Maisha anasali kuopolewa……

……Mwezi, ukipo
Urudi ili atafarijiwa
Mwezi, ukipo
Urudi ili aweza kulala

Alone and listening to the light of the moon
An orphaned child cried to the shadows
Alone and listening to the light of the moon
Maisha prayed for someone to save her……

……Moon, if you are there
Return so that she might be comforted
Moon, if you are there
Return so that she can sleep

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