He is the grim reaper, the great leveller, the fearless one, the inescapable, and many others names. These are all oblique references to death that attest to its power and perhaps human helplessness.
Some in Rwanda give their children names that seem to acknowledge this as reality.
For some reason, when death is personified, he is male. Perhaps it is because he is seen as strong, unrelenting, powerful, in short macho, the very image of all dominating male.
All other evils, especially those that involve cunning and trickery, are female. Even with death, gender is in opposition – brute force versus guile.
For this article we shall give death a neuter gender. Maybe that’s a way of trying to blunt its force or fear that its personification conjures. That is why we wish it would stay away and will do everything to do that.
Rwandans had a way of trying to ward off death, especially if it had been a frequent, if unwelcome, visitor to a particular home and in its grim way taken away their infants.
They gave their next children unattractive, ugly names, usually of despised animals that even death would find repellent and so spare them. Or, at any rate, they thought they could fool it this way.
Whatever name we give it or however we try to keep it at bay, it will still occur. Then we say the person is gone, lost to us. They cease to be and we begin to refer to them in the past tense even before they are interred.
We grieve and mourn their passing but not always in the same way, at least publicly.
The small fellow goes away quietly, mourned only by friend and family. Of course, the loss is keenly felt and the grief very deep, and its expression heartfelt and most profound.
The great depart in much the same way as they lived – in grand fashion. Their death has significance beyond individual loss and grief because their lives are not theirs alone; the public has a big share.
And so when they pass on, they cause a wave, not a ripple. We are made to feel they are gone. Some aspects of life come to a halt. In a sense they impose their departure on the rest of us. There is grief, of course, but of a different kind.
That’s how it always is with a person’s passing, great or small. Some will cry; others will struggle to stifle their joy. Some will grieve; others will feel relief.
Many more will not care. Still, it will come and as Robert Bolt has Sir Thomas More say in his play, A Man For all Seasons, “death comes for us all, even for kings”.
And last week, it came for Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi. Naturally he is being mourned in his country and in the region.
For his family the pain is genuine, deep and personal. For some that benefitted from his life (the jackals as Henry VIII calls them in the play quoted above), the anguish is in terms of what they would have gained but now have lost.
Some will only see loss as doors opened to advance their interests. For country the grief is sincere if he was a good man and leader, indifferent if he was so-so, or muted rejoicing if he was really bad.
We in this country mourn him, too. He was a neighbour and in such matters neighbours must be close and comfort the bereaved. We must also show him and his people respect and fly flags at half mast.
Pierre Nkurunziza was no ordinary man. He was president of Burundi and Supreme Eternal Guide. And so his passing is bound to be greatly felt.
Indeed his death was followed by jostling among his close associates to get to the front and influence the nation’s politics. The opposition was watching and waiting to see what would happen but also positioning themselves to fill his place.
There was a constitutional uncertainty about succession since the existing terms providing for the speaker of the national assembly to become interim president pending elections had not envisaged a situation of a prior election and a president-elect waiting to take office. These were perfect conditions for chaos.
The Barundi were wise to that possibility and acted quickly to avert a constitutional and political crisis and maintain stability. The constitutional court ruled that president elect Evariste Ndayishimiye should be sworn in immediately as president of Burundi.
For now there is continuity. But there is also hope that there will be change. Nkurunziza had become a recluse and secluded Burundi with him. Perhaps now it may come into the open again.
The East African Community could also become fully functional once more.
Maybe this is more hope than real expectation that it will happen. But then the future is always about optimism, and grief is often followed by hope.
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