My cousin is dead. I found out while immersed in work. A gorgeous Sunday morning with my cup of coffee — interrupted by a phone call I made.
Why is it that when we learn of death it’s always on a day that’s so gratifyingly beautiful.
My mom listened to me go on and on about my latest project that has been giving my cause for celebration lately — and then she dropped the news. I received it with shock and disbelief more so because it was the last thing I expected to hear. But that’s really the only way to digest the realization that someone related to you is suddenly no longer here.
I can’t remember the last time I saw her. I was definitely in my teens and she was in her late twenties. My father was her uncle and as with most Nigerian families — our home was a transient depot for family members who needed a temporary abode until they figured out what the hell they wanted to do with their lives.
So, uncles, aunts and cousins from both sides passed through. Looking back, I am grateful that I had that experience because to be honest there would’ve been no other opportunity for us to bond.
I had the great fortune of being born to a father who as the eldest son — had the pressure to exceed all expectations. And when his father died — leaving his illiterate mother the sole provider of five children — he had no choice but to pave an extreme plan that would take him to the other side of the world.
His youngest brother was the only one of the bunch that made it out — the rest remained and accepted the uneven and jagged path that lies before most Nigerians who are stranded at home.
My parents left America after completing their college education and by then — they had expanded their family to include my younger brother and me — our other brother joined the fold a few years later.
When we got to Nigeria — we were revered because we had been fortunate enough to live amongst foreigners and of course the fact that my brother and I were American citizens amounted to us receiving the royal treatment. It was as if we had been anointed by a higher power that translated to anything we touched turning to gold.
This sense of entitlement that was bestowed on us — only made the gap between my cousins and I even wider. On top of that were the obvious differences — I definitely had the air of exposure about me and my cousins were more homemade.
We got along but there was always that underlying evidence that I was destined for better things and they were going to be regulated to the callous lifestyle of a country that was too weakened by bribery and corruption to offer anything worth banking on.
Despite our assigned fates — there was a love and understanding that surpassed all the elements that we couldn’t control. But once I left for America to pursue college and the rest of my life — it was basically a wrap.
I never saw my cousin again. She was a feisty one — prone to moodiness and bouts of rage. Even back then — she was acting out the consequences of being raised by a brutal father and an impatient mother. I felt sorry for her and always hoped that she was doing okay. Not well — just okay. Enough to make life bearable and to keep her somewhat engaged in the crazy scenario we call life.
Her older sister — my other cousin who was gentler and less bull-headed passed away a couple of years ago in a bus accident. It was tragic and unbelievable. I was sad and wracked with guilt that I hadn’t seen her in years. And now she was gone. But at least her death wasn’t a mystery like most who pass away in my country.
The unfathomable truth is that unless you are murdered or killed by a road accident — if you pass away in Nigeria — the reason for your demise will have a disturbing amount of variables. There will be rumors and innuendos circling about but nothing really concrete or precise.
It is a frustrating process trying to decipher how and why family members in Nigeria die without any warning or any hint of what is to come. As if they were happily minding their business and suddenly lost consciousness.
I had a half-cousin pass away almost a year ago — and it all played out in the exact same way. Again — she and I hadn’t see or spoken in decades and I had no idea where she was or even what her life had become.
When my mother called to tell me she had died — I found out that she did have a family of her own. I asked what had happened to her — and I was told she had been sick for quite some time. Fair enough. I inquired further about her illness, the nature of it, and till today — I still don’t have an answer that makes sense.
It is happening again with this recent tragedy. My cousin was fine according to her older brother who I spoke to and then for whatever reason she never woke up.
According to my father — his deceased niece had been battling health issues and at one point was quite ill but got better. I challenged my dad to explain what exactly was wrong with her. Did she have cancer, or a heart ailment or what? He had no idea. All he could give me was an explanation of what it means to be sick and poor in Nigeria.
You have no access to medical facilities that are equipped to diagnose you and even if they manage to do that which is rare — they can’t help you. Most Nigerians who are desperate opt to go to India for treatment once their symptoms become too difficult to bear. But even that isn’t an ideal solution. Most come back believing they are on their way to recovery and end up dying weeks later. That is exactly what happened to my half cousin a year ago.
This recent catastrophe played out in a more typical fashion. My cousin probably managed her declining health to the best of her ability — realizing that that was the only option. She most likely didn’t express the extent of her discomfort because she knew it wouldn’t do any good.
She and her husband didn’t have the means to get her the help she needed and Nigerians are naturally very secretive when it comes to life-threatening conditions. They would rather suffer in silence and in private than become the center of attention. It’s almost seen as curse when you fall seriously ill to the point where you obviously can’t manage your condition on your own and none of the traditional remedies are working.
So now my cousin is dead and I am left to guess how and why. Maybe it was cancer, which I truly believe it was because it’s a disease that creeps up on you and sweats away your body and soul, until you are completely stripped. It is also a very difficult disease to treat when it is detected in later stages which I am convinced is the case for most Nigerians since they tend not to seek help until they are literally delirious with pain and suffering.
I feel angry, sad, and guilty. I could’ve easily been in her shoes if my dad hadn’t made the decision to come to America. I lucked out and she was stuck to bare the consequences of being born in a country that offered her not very much at all.
I hope she at least enjoyed her life to the best of her ability although deep down I am quite certain she had way more bad days than good ones.
Nigerians like to brag about the progress that has been made in recent years and of course the newly elected president who was a disaster when he was in power back in the eighties is supposed to make things even better.
But that’s all bullshit and propaganda. Nigeria is still an infested wasteland that harbors a population that still can’t guarantee consistently clean running water or steady electricity.
It is a place where people die after surviving unthinkable circumstances. It is a place that forces me to hope and believe that somewhere out there or up in the sky — there is a kingdom for the living — provided for those who didn’t live.
I am sure my cousin is there right now — praying that we all join her. One day.