Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Last Diary of Alhaji Modibo Sallah

[to be handed to his wife at the hour of his death]

A toubab sat with us at lunch in the University cafetaria today. The talk turned to religion, and he began to announce loudly that he was an atheist, and a proud one at that, that he saw no use for religious belief. He was in a bad mood, I think, and he did it to provoke some form of reply, but everyone ignored him. I looked at him and was sad, that a heart that God had made could get so hardened by experience it could not see His careful design all around us, His purpose manifest and clearly written in everything: from our foreheads to the leaves on the trees.

And I felt glad, that I had not acquired such a hardening, that my heart was free and soft still, that I could see.

And then tonight as you slept - for I write this in the moments of your slumber, when you are at peace, in that nighty you love that has a small hole over your left thigh - I saw how you lay at rest, the rise and the fall of the pillow next to the mound formed by your now rising, now falling breast. And I looked at you, and I thought what more proof of the existence of God does one need? Those cheeks, how could random chance have formed them? That laugh, how could it find its way into the world unless it were purposely put here?

And now my own breast is filled with a heaviness, and my breath comes slow and labored, and I think I shall put down this pen and come lay my head next to yours, and settle into your sleeping embrace as you shift and make me space without ever waking up, as if you can feel me there, even when you are gone.


I went for more tests today. The disease is far advanced, they tell me. The doctors have a bleakness in their look, their eyes will not meet mine, after they have read my charts. And this gives them away more than the words that they mumble, the shock they feel that they try to hide. I wish to reach across the desk and pat their hands and say, there, there, it's OK. Death is not the end. We say it over and over, yet can we believe it, truly, if we are so distraught over it. No, that is a wrong thought. It is not the death that distresses us - it is the time after. When our departed are gone, and we cannot be with them anymore.

I think of the look on your face, when I had to travel for even only a few days. How lost you seemed, when I came back, like a child set adrift in the world and often disappointed, and now meeting people who could possibly be her long-lost parents. And I think now, of this journey that I am about to embark upon, of no return, and I think what you will feel, and my heart aches, and I can no longer support my shoulders, and they slump…

I am sorry - I am morose, the night of the tests. I just snapped at you, after you asked me for the hundredth time what was wrong, and I could not tell you. I pushed you away, and told you to leave me alone and stop being so meddlesome. And when you climbed into bed and turned toward the wall it….

I am sorry. Sometimes I must stop writing, so powerful are the emotions in me they will not leave my hands be stable, to grip pen and direct it at paper. I am coming to bed now, to climb in behind you and hold your body, stiff with hurt, until you sleep, and I shall know you are asleep because you will relax, you will get warm, your back will settle into my stomach and you will become soft, as if your life were melting into mine, and both become one, and nothing else mattered in the world, beyond our embrace in the night….


It saddens me, that you will never forgive me, for concealing this from you.


Do you remember when I took you to see Orchestre Baobab? How excited you were, that evening. I had bought you gold jewelry on one of my trips abroad, and all that afternoon you showed it off to everyone who came to visit. I walked past again and again, listening in on the conversation, feeling proud at how excited I had made you….

There is a reason we do not know the hour of our deaths, that even to the last we see our futures spread out before us, and though we are aware that they have endings we never think of them as now, they are always before us, in the distance, at some future appointment...

You danced, to the songs that night. Under the tent top in which we sat with the other dignitaries and government officials. It was you who drew me to my feet when the floor was thrown open. Bul Ma Miin, was the song playing, and I still cannot hear it without a smile coming unsummoned to my lips. I, awkward, as you led me to the center. And as you showed me how to move, with your hands, what steps to take, I began to relax, to enjoy myself.

Later in the car when you asked if I had enjoyed myself I pretended I had only gone for you, to see you happy. And you gave me a peck, and said thank you, and were genuinely grateful. You thought I was being selfless, and you did not see: it was quite the opposite. It was watching you smile like that, it was watching you so happy in the world, abandoning yourself to it completely, it was for this that I did all I did. It had taken a carefully planned series of actions: the jewelry, the restaurant dinner, the tickets to the concert. And with each one, and the way it widened your grin, I was filled with a happiness, an enrichment of good humor, a sense of having achieved something worthwhile.

And now I will tell you a secret, that I would never open my mouth and speak: only you were ever able to make me feel like this. You asked me, sometimes, why I loved you. And I blabbered something about how beautiful you were, how intelligent. Even, once, when I was feeling rather poetic, how you were the sorseh to my maalor, the sowe to my dang or some such nonsense.

But it was none of these things - here was the simple reason: it was the way you made me feel, about myself. As if God had written I and my destiny separately, and you were the glue, the thing that brought us together and held us tight so one could be achieved and the other achieve it.


I wish to beg for understanding. I wish to say, look, I did what I did for a reason, did you not have the best three months of your life, did you not have a good time?

Yet I know the answer to that. The illness has filled me with ill dread and an anomie. I am irritable and hard to live with, I know this. I watch myself speak to you, I watch how impatient I am, but it is as a mother watches its wayward child, who has long passed the age of child-training, disgusted yet unable to do anything to stop myself.

I am filled with a dark and dispassionate bile, that turns the smile I feel into a scowl, the affection I feel into anger. I have lain in the dark and listened to you weep silently at my latest cruelty, my latest act of humiliation, when you have thought me asleep. And I have been filled with such a deep sorrow and such a deep shame I have willed the disease to hurry, to run its course and remove me from your life. And a perverseness has grown in me, a thought filled with meanness, that perhaps it is a good thing, that perhaps you may grow to hate me, that perhaps you will leave, even, before the event…

But always I will wake in the morning to find you making me breakfast, and getting the bathroom ready for my morning ablutions, and laying the sajaada and getting your kaala so we can pray, and for a moment I am able to pretend that everything is alright…


I made all the funeral arrangements today. I called Alaji Mbowe, who I can trust to be discreet, and gave him money, and instructions. I also told him about this diary, and where I keep it, so he can give it to you.

I think perhaps this way it will be easier on you - the arrangement of funerals is not a business for women.


You surprised me vomiting in the bathroom this morning, and the shock on your face and the beginnings of an accusation almost led me to confess everything, to answer your suspicious questions with the final facts, the terminal explanations. But by some good fortune I held my tongue, and insisted on food poisoning as the cause, until at last you took me to bed, and gave me stomach medicines, and made me lie down and not move.

And then, my love, you sat and spoke with me, as the mosquitoes returned, and the lights went on, and off, and on again, and the street grew quieter and the air more damp, and the Sun set, and young children played outside, and I had no mind for these but that you would continue to speak and not stop, and I wished I was your tongue, that lived in your mouth and showed your mind to the world. And then again I wished I was your eyes, that see with such clarity, and such kindness, and are filled with such wisdom. And then again as I drifted off into sleep on the back of your voice (which meandered still, like a lullaby) I thought perhaps what I wanted to be most was your life, to be lived by you, your seconds and your hours, your months and your years, that I would begin with you and end when you ended, and my whole subsumed to your happiness.

And I slept and your voice still found its way into my dreams, and it occurred to me that your voice in fact had originated in my dreams, and only then found its way into my waking life, and not the other way as I had always supposed, and thinking about this I fell satisfied into a deep sleep.

I feel refreshed, tonight. You will forgive me. I know it.


I can feel the beginnings of a delirium, at the edges of my sight, and it is an intense heat, and behind it there is a darkness.

Sometimes when you speak to me this is all I can see, and I do not answer for minutes on end, until you repeat the question and I jump and regain my memory and my location. You give me worried looks, but you are afraid to repeat our fight of the other night, so you hold back and do not ask.

I am so tired.



Can bare write.




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