Who is Babah Tarawally?
After fleeing Sierra Leone for the Netherlands 17 years ago and spending the first seven of those years filing an asylum application, Babah Tarawally began working for independent media outlets in Africa. Alongside this work, he contributes stories and columns to several newspapers. His novel De god met de blauwe ogen (‘The blue-eyed god’) was published in 2010 by KIT. Babah lives with his partner and two daughters in the Netherlands.
The way people from different cultures deal with the loss of a loved one or their own impending death reflects their approach to life. Some people live accepting that life will one day end. For others, that thought is frightening.
By Babah Tarawally, Amsterdam
Two weeks ago, a Dutch neighbour passed away. He was 69 years of age. This is the second death I have witnessed in my eight years living in this neighbourhood. It cannot compare to the number I experienced in my hometown in Sierra Leone, where almost on a weekly basis death would crawl onto the doorstep.
Mourning the dead in the Netherlands seems a private affair. Deaths are mourned in perpetual silence, seeming to outsiders as though nothing has happened. There is no long queue outside the homes of the diseased and no loud cries of grief from loved ones.
I was surprised by how I had not noticed any sooner that my neighbour died. I heard of his death two days after he passed away. Immediately after getting the news, I rushed to his home to pay my last respects, but I was told that the deceased was already in a mortuary for preservation. Two days later, he was cremated. His ashes will be scattered in the ocean.
This was precisely two weeks ago. I still have the feeling that, other than his closest relatives, I am the only one in the neighbourhood who thinks about him on a daily basis. The other neighbours hardly talk about him. It is as though this man never lived on this earth, despite the 69 years that he did indeed. There will be no 40-day ceremony, where family and friends gather a second time in his honour. I ask myself how this can be possible. Perhaps death is a subject people in the Netherlands have difficulty discussing.
Perhaps it is the frequent occurrence and communal nature of death that forces Africans to accept dying as a necessary end. We are constantly reminded that it is the only sure part of life. And though death is common, we still shed tears. We cry hysterically when a loved one dies. If it were not for the weather, which threatens the physical body with quick decay and dissolution, we would choose to have our dead buried in our houses, to keep their memories alive for as long as possible. After all, in Sierra Leone we learn to celebrate the end of life as the beginning of a new journey.
Read all the other columns in the series Africans going Dutch.