Distance of Days
In Memoriam Hafeedhoh Bint Thaabit
d. 5 September 2019
Obafemi Awolowo University. Thursday, 5 September. 2 pm. I am with Ayo on the stairs of Odùduwà Hall, where a youth empowerment-cum-entrepreneurship program, sponsored by Coca Cola, is going on. Nearby is a little crowd around a table, where young women and men, in red vests bearing the name and the sponsor of the program, register students.
We lean side-by-side against the rail as we express disappointment at the just concluded Phonetics and Phonology lecture, which was held in an unannounced venue. Just then, Ayo, his look relaxed, almost jovial, says, Why are they crying? He points at about four or five hijabi ladies, two from our class. They are leaning on the opposite rail, their backs to us.
I am thrusting my way through the throng of students on their way to Auditorium II for the Neoclassical Literature class. Ayo is ahead of me. He is on the stairs that connects the bare ground to AUD II. He halts, still on the stairs, and positioning himself to make way for the passing crowd, he searches for my face with his. When I get to him, he whispers, Hafeedhoh is dead. My heart staggers. For a short while, the shutters of my mind go blind. Báwo leṣe mọ̀? How did you know? I ask. Someone posted on our class WhatsApp group. Who?
The news has been broken by Kareemah. Later, I’d learn Alayo had used Kareemah’s number to announce because if she did otherwise, she wouldn’t be taken seriously. Death is a different matter really, but Alayo jokes a lot too.
The picture is becoming clearer: Alayo and Kareemah were the two Muslim ladies from our class crying at Odùduwà hall. Hafeedhoh’s roommate, who Alayo got the news from, who in turn was told by Hafeedhoh’s mother, was at the hall too. So, probably when Phonetics and Phonology class was on going, Hafeedhoh was breathing her last at University College Hospital, Ibadan.
Only a few people are aware. It takes a little more people to know before a grey sky is cast over us like a blanket. There is no one who doesn’t know the girl. Even to those who haven’t seen her before, Hafeedhoh is the name that accompanies those poems and brief prose that frequently invade our class group. Everybody will have a feeling to hold on to, picked up from one of work probably. It could feel like a relative dying, dreamlike and surreal.
It is past 3pm. I am sitting beside Ayo and Martins, another friend, in AUD II. My phone is dead. I started my laptop to continue a story I had been working on earlier on my phone. I still do not believe the bad news yet. Boluwatife, a friend who is closer to Hafeedhoh, comes around. He tells me Mr. Kàkàkí, the innovator of Chriative Mind Literati, needs his team, of which I am a member, for a meeting on the organisation’s upcoming literary workshop. I pack my things and leave with him.
It is about fifteen minutes to 4pm. I am at the English department’s lobby with the CML Team (in persons of: Boluwatife, Rofiat, Martins, Philip, Ife Williams, and myself) in a brief meeting with Mr. Kàkàkí.
Mr. Kàkàkí, in a black long-sleeved shirt, ash trousers, black socks, black palm slippers, an ash school bag fastened to his back, after talking about the printing of stickers, flyers, and handbills with Boluwatife, who is in charge of publicity, blurts out the following: Have you people seen Hafeedhoh? I have been trying her number without success. I dropped messages on her WhatsApp. We swap glances. Everyone is keeping their calm, pressing more into the brick rail we lean against. No one wants to talk to Mr. Kàkàkí. Then Rofiat, seemingly shivering in her pink cape and flowing floral gown, speaks: Sir, she’s dead. My heart staggers. Rofiat is beside me, and I can hear the straining of the invisible rope that draws her voice. Ọkàn mi so’rí kọ́. My soul drops its head.
Mr. Kàkàkí thrusts his tablet into my open palms, and as though ready for a fight, he grabs his waist and brings down his hands. He dips a finger into his mouth, brings down his hand again. He places his palms on his head, screams gently.
On the day I last saw the girl that died in my set, Mr. Kàkàkí says – his set graduated last year – she told me how she was going to die. I talked to her. Prayed for her. Yet she died. I was teaching Hafeedhoh that night, and she said she was passing through something worse than the former girl’s situation. Though she was not considering suicide, we talked and prayed against it. I talked to her. Prayed for her. Yet she died. Why is everything revolving around me? He adds.
Every eye is fastened to Mr. Kàkàkí. Three classmates of ours – girls, all in tops (red, blue, cream) and clingy jeans – silently walk by. I walk up to them and give them each a brief hug. They speak with their countenance, which beams with pity. Moments later, another girl stops briefly behind me, and says: What happened? Why are your faces like these? Is it because of the girl?
I nod. I know the news is out there spreading and spreading already, like a lone bird in an empty sky. I know I should stop pretending as if it hasn’t happened.
I am on my way back to AUD with Boluwatife. Bolu tells me it is not yet confirmed whether Hafeedhoh is dead. Some people have gone to her house, he says. They will find out. Bolu’s talk, in a way, calms me, but I know that is just a manner of speaking. Is Bolu finding it hard to believe too?
About fifteen minutes past 7pm. Joke, a close friend of Hafeedhoh’s who has seriously been taken by the news and has been posting on her WhatsApp status that Hafeedhoh should better come back because she mustn’t have forgotten about their future plans, uploads a status that says Hafeedhoh has been confirmed dead and buried, may she rest on in peace. I say to myself: Now, this is what it is. My heart staggers. The shutters of my mind go blind. Hafeedhoh, in black scarf, black top, tight denim, and leather slippers, is all I see.
I am chatting on my class WhatsApp group. Pouring forth from concerned colleagues are pictures bearing Hafeedhoh’s face and R.I.P HAFEEDOH. There is talk about observing a candlelight vigil. It would be the following week Thursday. We will be dressed in black from head to toe. We will set out at the departmental lobby, move to Anglo-Moz park, and dismiss.
I suggest there should be a compilation of all of Hafeedoh’s, the writer and poet’s, works that the department could be asked to publish. Only a few people comment on the suggestion. Wish all these were done for her when she was alive, a colleague, Amber by WhatsApp username, texts. It is a comment I will never forget.
I message the four class representatives: Vera, Gallant, Ijeoma, Philip. Gallant does not reply. Nice idea man, Philip texts, we will look into it. Ijeoma sends the message, a heart emoji after it: I’ll see who I can talk to. Thank you for your suggestion. Vera and I talk about the suggestion. She says though that it will be after the candlelight vigil, we should do it. I offer myself to the publication and to writing an introduction or explanation to her works, and the like.
Minutes later, I change my WhatsApp display picture to a photo of Hafeedhoh, taken on a street inside Alumni hall of residence.
In the picture, she spreads her palms before her mouth, lips rounded to a kiss, one end of her black scarf extends under her elbows, which have been brought together, across her floral top and unto her tight jeans with rolled up mouths. She bends slightly, her right leg stands straight, but her left is drawn apart a bit with the toes, peeking out from her leather slippers, raised, the way a curious lizard raises its head. Far in the background are the clear sky, palm trees, two buildings, and on her right, just beside the white air conditioner, is a motorcycle leaning against the yellow building with red perforated blocks. Her shadow stretches behind her. The sun, out of the camera’s eye, must be up in the sky.
Then I post on my status a picture of rocky wall, edited by one @Jerry_Dotprince, with the words: HAFEEDHOH LIVES ON, R.I.P, PROLIFIC WRITER AND FRIEND, above which is an emoji of a struck heart, the arrowhead sticking out, and below which are two crying emojis.
I begin to receive replies to the status. Mike, a very good friend of mine since the days of my secondary school, replies: Sorry for the loss. She’s in your department abi?
My class gan-an gan-an, Mike.
Sorry man, that’s so close. Everything will be fine.
Amen, I answer, then add: She wrote all of her pain before she died, Mike.
She definitely was talented, he says. Try and get over it soon bro, and I hope it’s not too much for you. She had an illness??
Yes o. Cancer.
You can’t be serious. Cancer?? How? Why???
Throughout a semester, she was in the hospital and could only come for exams.
So sad. At what age??
I don’t really know; she should be around 19, 20, 21. Imagine, she just clocked another year this July.
May the Lord have mercy, he says.
Really, really, amen, I reply.
Just stay calm sha.
Trying to be, my good friend.
Don’t take too much time brooding over the whole thing. If there’s a dream you both shared, I think now is the time to take the responsibility of fulfilling those dreams. You won’t let her down, would you??
Neva. Neva, I shall come thru for that.
I’ve always believed in you, he texts, then sends two emojis of raised arms with clenched fists, and the curtain falls.
6 September. Koiwo Street, AP, Ile-Ife. It is around 11pm. I am on my bed. I just finish reading a PDF compilation of her work. During the course of reading, as I learn snippets of her life, I come close to crying – four times – but tears merely well up my eyes. Once, I put down my phone on the carpet, where I sit, and fall backwards behind me onto the bed, grabbing my head as tears fill up my eyes. My heart staggers. The shutters of my mind go blind. Hafeedhoh, in black scarf, black top, tight denim, and leather slippers, is all I see.
I do not know Hafeedhoh. We never chat. We never talk. We never share any dream, as Mike thinks. I never see her more than twice or thrice. I never read her works more than twice or thrice. I never hear her voice. She never hears mine. I am not her friend, her acquaintance, or her enemy. Why now then does she, in her black top and tight jean, appear in my heart? Why does she appear to me? Why almost every thirty minutes since the news of her death do I see her oval face with cat eyes and cupid-shaped full lips?
Yet, I do not know whether or not I believe in ghosts.
But really, I have made the mistake of not meeting her. She being even the writer with by far the most fans on my class WhatsApp group, even just as per writer-to-writer, it does not occur to me to reach out. I bear this ache in my heart, and every time I think about how I never meet her, like a card from its pack, she shuffles into my mind. Heightening the ache is the fact that Boluwatife has met her before she slips into eternity and thereby closer to her. For this, I will forever envy Boluwatife. Maybe I should have met her. Maybe she has a message she would have liked to deliver to me, and maybe she would have delivered it. Maybe. But now, death has made all these impossible. It has lodged between myself and Hafeedhoh a distance so thick.
If it was her ghost visiting my mind, I plead for forgiveness. Though I do not intend to atone myself for my wrongs to her, I have plans for Hafeedhoh. I have picked her death date as a black outfit day for myself; a day to be robed from head-to-toe in black. I wish to get close to her family and loved ones. I wish to occasionally visit her grave and drop roses (her signature as a writer) on her resting head. I can see myself already, as in Hollywood movies, trudging in the rain, black umbrella over my head and my black raincoat sailing in the watery wind, towards her grave, three roses in a paper box.
I remember her words in one of her works: The world that never regarded you when you are in it will become loyal to you when you are out of it. I am sorry I do not do or plan to do all that I intend to do now when she is alive. Yet I do not care about forgiveness. She says, also, in another of her work: The truth is, not all confessions are worthy of such forgiveness; most who unveil hidden agenda deserve the condemnation they receive; most who disclose vengeful motives merit the punishment that follows.
Saturday. It is minutes past 6 in the evening. From Awolowo Hall, I am going to the bus stop with Mr. Kàkàkí, who as we walk side-by-side shares with me what he knows of Hafeedhoh.
Hafeedhoh, when she is able to, has private tutoring sessions with him. Despite her cancer – alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma – she goes to sell barbecue at the Ọmọ́le estate, from 8pm to 11pm, comes back to campus, then stays under his tutelage from twelve to two. Though the tutorial is a two-hour lecture, she presses him to take her till four in the morning. She sleeps from four to seven and then goes to her hostel in town to prepare for the next day. Such is how she spends her days.
Hafeedhoh is the strongest lady I’ve ever seen, he swears. She travels regularly from Ibadan to Ife for a surgery which she needs two weeks to recuperate from. Yet she works, standing for hours in front of the barbecue table, serving various kinds of customers, with such condition. Her parents must not know about that. If they know, they would have her grounded in their house, providing whatever she needs.
The day Mr. Kàkàkí is to see her for the last time, Ope Dara, the girl in his set who commits suicide, comes to see him also for the last time. It is mid-June. He is taking Hafeedhoh in one of the Admin Extension lecture rooms when Ope phones – she rarely does – she wants to see him.
On that night, Ope Dara tells him she is going to die on 8 July. He talks to her, as usual. She talks differently. She talks beyond her years, beyond her horizon. The Spirit tells him this is not the same Ope. He grows impatient in his speech.
She wants to sleep. He takes her to one of the lecture rooms upstairs, where she can have a cushion bench to sleep on. He sees her sleep off and come back to check on her several times. The last time he comes to check on her, around 5am, just when he has conceived how he would follow her to her hostel – despite how close they are, she never allows him to know her hostel off-campus – she is gone. He then understands she isn’t the normal Ope. Thrown in the towel, he returns to Hafeedhoh.
He tells Ope’s story to Hafeedhoh.
Why does she contemplate suicide? Hafeedhoh asked him. Tell her to let us exchange life. I don’t live a peaceful life, I pass through a lot, yet I always wear a smile. I have tasted death, during one of my surgeries, and I have chosen to live. On that day, Hafeedhoh continued, the oxygen was disconnected, and instead of being in comatose during the operation, I became conscious. Unknowingly to the nurses and the surgeon, I was aware of everything going on, was feeling every contact on my body, was hearing every conversation. I cried, screamed, and shouted, but my voice was off; it was all a mere mouthing. My soul was drowning in pain, yet nobody in the room noticed. Just when I felt that death had finally come and surrendered to his wish, I started to think of my mother and what I have passed through in life. Then drops of tears dribbled down my cheek. It was the tear that a nurse saw and the oxygen was reconnected and everything reset. Since then I believe I saw death, but only chose to live.
On 2 August, Ope passes away. Mr. Kàkàkí doesn’t understand why she ends her life. He goes into a marathon fasting and questions God. In reply, he learns Ope is peaceful. He learns the damnation attached to suicide is unsealed from Ope’s neck. He learns she could have not died – after all she doesn’t die on 8 July 8 – but that other than the forces upon her, she is spiritually weaker.
Ope confides in Mr. Kàkàkí. Since she has no friend or acquaintance. She revolts him, but only left with no option, she gives in to him. She abuses him and wants no sight of him. He has to call her one day and thank her for all he can: for being alive, for chasing him away from her, for being tired of life, etcetera. She weeps and breaks down. Like a yeasted dough, their bond, in all ramifications, buoys henceforth. He is no stranger to her parents too, and he is now, after her demise, considered as their son.
His initial plan is to link Hafeedhoh to Ope, make Ope hear Hafeedhoh’s story, get Hafeedhoh’s doctor to take them round his hospital wards, so that Ope will see people paying their lives out just to live. On hearing Hafeedhoh’s demise three days ago, he starts to question God for the deaths being revolved around him. He intends to come to our LIT class to publicly call Hafeedhoh out – he hasn’t been able to reach her – before Rofiat lets the gun fly.
When death occurs, we Yorùbá say the prayer that may deaths be far from one another. It is saying, for a change of language, that the death that has just occurred will be spaced with so many, many days from the deaths of those still alive. At the basic, there is a distance, in time and space, between the dead and the living, which the prayer aims to expand. And so it is between myself and Hafeedhoh. Hafeedhoh is far from me, from us. She is probably with the armies of souls at the bank of a river in the kingdom of places beyond. Yet, she is still with me, absorbed in a terrain of unforgetfulness, much to my surprise. Isn’t it a shame that my death should be distant for so many, many days to someone’s who occupies my heart even after her death? When I say the prayer, it is with shame. May the days of death be sufficiently spaced.
Som Adedayor is a Nigerian writer. He currently runs a degree in English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University, Osun state. He was longlisted for 2019 Koffi Addo Creative Nonfiction Prize, and his longlisted essay ‘Madam Philomena’s Memoir’ will be published in Writivism annual Anthology. He has been published in Connotation Press, Sahara Reporters, Agbowó Mag, African Writer, and elsewhere.
*Illustration: ‘A portrait of Hafeedhoh’ by Sef Adeola.