What will happen when I die – Rudolf Okonkwo

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You have only read the caption. And you have already said tufiakwa three times. Na wah for you.

Abeg, wipe away that frown off your face. It is not your life, my friend. This is mine. So, indulge me. 

Don’t tell me not to be negative. Don’t preach to me about the power of the tongue – if I say it, it will happen. Yeah, if I don’t say it, it will still happen. All my friends and family that have long gone did not say it, but it happened to them. 

If it could happen to them, it could happen to me. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to you.

 

Oops! You did that again. You frowned your face and whispered, tufiakwa.

 

You cannot fool me that I have a long time to live. You don’t know. I know that you don’t know. And you know that you don’t know when it shall be. So, shove it. 

 

To be very clear, this is not what I want to happen when I die. This is what I know will happen. It will frighten you if I go into what I want to happen. Yes, if this were about what I want to happen when I die, anything I say now will become a matter of serious consideration when it happens.

 

While expressing shock at my death, you will remember what I said here. Some of you will recall them with fear. “These were the final wishes of the dead. We need to do everything to fulfill them,” some of you will insist. I don’t want to transfer that kind of headache to you.

 

For example, suppose I say that I want my body taken back to Nigeria and buried in the land where my people buried my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; even if I left no money for such an expensive venture, you would feel mandated to make it happen. In that case, you will tax yourselves to raise money to take my body home. Some of you may grumble, but you will still contribute because you don’t want to look like a miser in the eyes of our community. Some of you will find a sneaky way not to contribute. Yes, even friends I would have thought would be at the forefront of seeing that people go all the way to give me a befitting farewell, whatever that means. Some of you will hope and believe that the dead do not see. 

 

News flash. The dead see everything. The dead are the audience in their theater called the universe, while those living are actors on the stage called earth.

 

Some of you will only contribute after my funeral coordinator has shamed you into contributing. Don’t think I do not know what he did. He added you to a WhatsApp group called the Committee of Friends without your permission. When you ignored the messages from your peers donating, he called you and listened to you mumble and grumble about how excessive this appeal for funds had become. He let you finish complaining. Then, he asked you what you would rather be – the person contributing $100 towards the transportation of my body home or the person who is dead and others are donating money for you? That was when you used your tongue to count your teeth. That was when you reluctantly gave $100.

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I know you. You fear death, and a mere reminder that it could be you would make you do it. 

 

Don’t worry; I won’t burden you with all that. As I said, this is not about what I want to happen when I die. This is about what I know will happen. 

 

If it were what I want to happen when I die, I would be talking about my books, papers, and unpublished manuscripts. I would discuss how to preserve them and who should take charge of them. But if I mention names now, it will be an eternal covenant. I don’t want to do that. It won’t be fair to pass responsibility to others without providing them with the resources to carry them out. 

 

 So, I want to concentrate on what will happen when I die. 

 

 You will be shocked when you hear the news. Yes, you. 

 

You will scream, “such a young man. He didn’t look sick when I last saw him.” 

 

Almost all of you will want to know what killed me. 

 

Why? Is it not bad enough that I died? 

 

But I know why you want to know. It is only for your own selfish goals. You want to avoid being killed by the same thing. If you hear that I died of diabetes, you immediately Google what causes diabetes. If I died of an ulcer, you tell yourself that you will stay clear of all that WebMD.comsays causes ulcers. 

 

Must you wait to hear that ulcer killed me before you know the causes of the ulcer and avoid them? Anyway, there are many ways to die and many things to kill anyone, so I don’t see you foolproof yourself against them. 

 

After you have checked out what killed me, wondered and pondered if my lifestyle made me prone to that, and by extension, if I deserved the death I got, you will then say, “Na wah o!” 

 

That is the extent of the compassion you will show. You shake your head and move on. 

 

Some of you who care a little more will wonder how old I was. As if age had anything to do with death. Though I know secretly, you just wanted to see if you are far away from my age. Because all the while, you are wondering if it happened to me, could it happen to you? 

 

You will ask if I had a family. For those who care a little more, you will want to know how old my children are. You want to see if they are old enough to carry on without me. You want to know. If they are, you will feel less worried about any sense of obligation to them because you are my friend.

 

You will rush to your social media and post a black candle burning at night. You will write, “Devastating!!!” You will leave it at that. Your friends will congregate and ask you what happened. You will take your time. When you think the inquiry is long enough, you will come and tell them that I died.

 

You will post an old picture we took when you met me somewhere to show that you know me well. You will write a line or two about how wonderful I was. Some of you will still write in the present tense because you have not internalized my death. I understand. Then, you will migrate to my social media page. You will write RIP. I know. I don’t even deserve the minute it will take you to write ‘Rest In Peace’ in full.

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That is it. Your job is done. It is not like you know me like that.

 

As for you, you used to have my number. But you don’t have it anymore. The good thing is that you know who to ask to get it. Then, you remember that you should not call the dead. What if you call and I answer? You will instead call my wife.

 

You call to sympathize and confirm what killed me. It surprises you that half of what you heard about when and how it started is wrong. You ask if there are plans for my funeral. Then, you remember that it just happened, so there couldn’t have been a plan. You promise to call back. In the meantime, you will keep my family in your thoughts and prayers. Once you hang up, you forget about it. You move on with your life.

 

And then you hear about my funeral plans. Someone set up a WhatsApp-based committee of friends, even though I hated that when I was alive. They added your name to it. You hate it too. But you cannot protest because you want to set up one when you lose someone and want someone else to do it for you when you die.

 

You give the obligatory $100 minimum. You say to yourself; this is a tax we pay for our community members who refused to buy life insurance. But you know that even those with life insurance still partake in it. You have never heard anyone say, instead of a donation, to give money to a charity. That is what white people who planned for their eventual death say.

 

So, you see the flyer about my wake. Eayeah! Gone so soon! One of the flyers made by another group says, “Exit of an icon.” You wonder how many icons die daily in your community and how a community that loses this number of icons each month survives.

 

You ask yourself the point of coming to my funeral when I am not there. Your friends tell you it will be an opportunity to see my family. To what end, you ask? You do not know them like that, you say. Fair point. Another group of friends says coming to my funeral will give you closure. You tell them ‘thank you’ that you sleep well at night. Then another group of friends tells you that the day you pay your last respect to the dead is synonymous with the day you pay your last respect to yourself. It doesn’t make sense to you. So you sit at home that day. Every now and then, you wonder if I am seeing the people who came to my funeral.

 

Oh, you made it. You are at the wake. You are in church. You hear the sermons, the tributes, and the poems. You learn a lot of things you don’t know about me. For instance, you did not know that I dabbled in painting. You did not know about the girl who refused to marry me despite all my efforts. And you did not know that I was my grandfather – which raises the question, who am I now that I am dead? You did not know many things about me that I did not share in my published work. Some things you heard made you think hard about your life.

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During the service, you wonder how your funeral will be. What will people who gather say? Thinking of our friends who did not come to my funeral, you wonder how many of your friends will come to yours. Not that it matters to you. But you still wonder. You feel maybe they are just afraid of confronting death. You shake your head. You shed little tears along the way. It has a therapeutic effect.

 

You join the convoy of cars with blinking lights from the church to the cemetery. You watch as the vehicles pass rows and rows of graves with different-sized headstones. Some have fallen off, and some have no marks left to identify who was interned there or what year. Some have fresh flowers, indicating that friends and families have probably visited recently. Some look abandoned years ago.

 

You watch as my casket is brought out of the hearse and placed beside the grave. You look at the people around you. You see some covering their eyes with dark glasses to hide their tears. You notice that some are busy taking pictures and videos to share on social media. One of our friends is streaming it live on Facebook for those who didn’t come. The pastor says his final prayers. People start to disperse as the undertakers gently lower my body.

 

Reluctantly, you, too, disperse. You turn around one more time as you walk toward your car. You feel a deep sense of abandonment. If you were I, you say to yourself, you will feel abandoned too.

 

You join others and drive to the venue of the repast. Everybody is a little bit livelier after being physically separated from my body. The DJ is playing a mix of secular music and religious music. Once again, the pastor prays for my soul. And then, he prays for the food. As friends and acquaintances come out to say more and more about me, people eat and drink. There are side conversations about the premier league, the latest Afrobeat song, Nollywood gossip, and gossip about the latest couple we know to divorce and other marriages on the brink. As time goes on, people start to leave. Those who must catch their flights leave first. Those who must drive long distances to return to their homes and their hustles follow.

 

As the last person leaves the repast hall, he peels off my poster on the notice board outside the entrance door. For you, peeling off my memory will take days, months, or years. But off it will go, just like the memories of those who died before me.

 

Don’t even try to deny it. You know that I know that you know. That is why I have always told you that the only educated humans are the dead ones.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef” and “Children of a Retired God,” among others.

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