“You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”
– Kahlil Gibran
It was an early morning in 1997 and my siblings and I were woken up to prepare for school. Only this time, it wasn’t my mum who woke us up. It was my dad. “Where’s mummy?” we asked. “Not feeling well,” came the response. “Hurry up or you’ll be late for school”. The weeks that followed would be the first time I saw my mum cry and the only time I remember her going days without her usual cheery, pepsodent perfect, white smile. It was the year Mma Sana, my mum’s eldest sister, passed on.
It’s been 17 years since. I realized that in December last year while talking to a friend who was going through similar. I also realized that besides a few photos and captions, I’ve never actually written about her, this woman who influenced me so. As my friend put it:
“I feel like there are all these amazing Ghanaian, African women out there, quietly awesome. But we don’t put them out there so all the kids have when they have to think of great Ghanaian women is Yaa Asantewaa”.
He invited me to join him in changing that. I thought about it, started, held off, and now here we are.
Mma Sana. That’s what everyone called her. Mother Sana, short for Asana. I was in Class 5 when she passed on. She was my aunt, true. But more than that, she was also my mother. Not just because she took care of me when I was a toddler and threw me nice birthday parties while I was stayinig with her, but because I actually believed she was my mother. Mma Sana was my mother and my real mother, well, to three year-old me, she was simply Zeinabu. I stayed with my aunt in Tema, Community 7, while my parents were abroad. It wasn’t until I joined my parents in Norway that I realized who had actually birthed me. Not that it would have made much of a difference anyway. In Dagomba and Ghanaian society, all your aunts are your mothers by default.
My memories of living in Tema Community 7 are a bit murky, but I remember them as generally being happy, with lots of attention and lots of other children to play with. What I do remember clearly was the first time my family visited Mma Sanaa when we returned to Ghana. Everybody was asking me whether I remembered her. I didn’t need to. I felt it instinctively, I was home. My family visited Mma Sana on numerous ocassions since we lived in Sakumono, not too far away. On one such occasion, I fell asleep while my parents and aunt were talking and they left me there throughout the night. In the morning, after bathing and having breakfast, my aunt had one of my cousins take me over to my parents.
Although she made no headlines (that I know of), Mma Sana influenced the lives of many. She was a strong woman. I find it hard to imagine women as being timid creatures, precisely because the women I have encountered throughout my life have been anything but “timid”. True, many of them might not fit the stereotype of an “iron woman” or loud-talking lady – which seems to be what many people refer to whenever the words “strong” and “woman” are strung together.
Theirs tends to be a quiet strength. A presence that needs no explanation. They tend to be unapologetic about who they are, not even feeling the inclination to discount someone saying otherwise, because they are that secure in who they are. Mma Sana was that and much more.
The eldest daughter of my maternal grandmother – who, I unfortunately never met – she took on responsibility very early in life, following her mother’s demise. My mother, her younger sister, was in high school at the time. 1977. Both my aunt and my grandfather insisted that my mother stay in school, which she did. My aunt herself? She never made it past high school; the responsibilities of leading a (chief’s) family set in early. My mohter would visit my aunt in Tema over the holidays. Mma Sanaa was a self-taught business woman who ran a very successful waakye (rice and beans) joint at the Community 7 taxi rank. People flocked from all over to buy her food and many a-time, simply to say hello to her. I remember walking in the neighborhood whenever we’d visit and everyone would say “Ah Jemi. You’ve come back. Mma Sana’s daughter. God bless that woman.” And then they’d proceed to talk about how she helped them or another person in one way or another. This occured, without fail, every single time we visited, and from different people.
Mma Sana was a spiritual, generous woman who was always helping, even when she herself didn’t have enough – she held fast to the Islamic principles of charity and generosity. I also remember her being full of life; like my mum, a great dancer. She was the bedrock to the maternal side of my family, particularly for those of us living in Ghana’s south (my other aunt held the fort up north – another strong woman, she stepped in for my mother to do the customary rites when my maternal grandfather (a chief) passed on. Sisterhood.). Every wedding, every child birth, every funeral – she was there, organizing, planning, fundraising, making sure everything went as it should. If it was to be done, if it was worthwhile, it was to be done well. And she did so with such style and grace. Her reputation preceded her.
My aunt was a married woman, but she was largely managing and supporting the family on her own, as her husband – my uncle – had been taken political prisoner for 14 years. All this while, she stayed by his side. She always visited him in prison with food – and from what I heard, not just for him, but enough for the other prisoners as well – and was relentless in her goal to secure legal assistance to prove his innocence. She never lost faith that he would be released. I remember her taking me with her to visit the prison once, but the officials didn’t admit me because they thought I was too young. My aunt stayed committed to the man she loved and had children with – even when many doubted, even when many turned away, and, I’m certain – even when many tried to persuade her to forget him and find another. 20 years. A love that stuck through it all. That’s who she was.
She was someone who saw beauty in the mundane; who saw the positives where most would see none. A kind heart who always cared for others. She was also a good dancer (see photo above). Looking at her photos my friend remarked that the resemblance between my aunt and I is in our eyes. Rightly so. The kohl/eyeliner I always wear is largely motivated by her. As a child, my sister and I would beg our parents to take us to Tema – just to we could wear my aunt’s “chilo”; the local version of kohl eyeliner. Even when my mother bought and kept one in the house, we would insist on Mma Sana’s chilo and would make the one and a half-hour drive from Adenta across the Tema Motorway to Tema Community 7. In Islam, kohl is regarded as a woman’s most beautiful ornamanet because it accentuates the eyes – the window to one’s soul. Wearing my aunt’s kohl made me feel beautiful, in her eyes. Because she would ooh and aah and fuss about me. And so, I’v kept wearing kohl – eventhough I rarely wear makeup – because it reminds me of her.
I was 11 years old when my aunt passed on, and though I couldnt’t understand it at the time – the fact that I would never see her again in person or that there would no longer be Mma Sana’s chilo to insist on – I could understand that my mother was hurting. During those days, I tiptoed about her, not wanting to upset her further. My aunt’s funeral was well-attended with well-wishers from all walks of life, far and near. The many lives she genuinely touched. I remember not knowing whether to cry or laugh, because in one breath people would mourn, then celebrate her. In fact, it wasn’t until months later, while sitting in class, when a friend from Norway passed away, that I finally broke and cried – for both my friend and my aunt.
How exactly do you react to news of a death? What words could you possibly say to assuage the feeling – or lack thereof – that those left behind, those closest to tthe deceased – might be going through? I never quite know, but I try not to sound like a broken record – because those mourning probably hear the same thing over and over and over again – or to inadvertently diminish the mourner’s experience by saying, “I understand”. How could I? Alhamdulilahi, the people closest to me are still with me. Even Mma Sana.
How did she die? She had apparently finished her Maghrib (early evening) prayers for the day and decided to take a nap while waiting for the Isha (final) prayer. Her nap became her eternal sleep. By Islamic standards, this is one of the “best ways” to pass on – in peace and in the presence of Allah.
Years later, when I left Ghana alone for the first time for college in the United States, I would remember her. When I was about to do something doubtful – or something I thought my parents might not approve of – I would stop, not because my conscience got the best of me, but because while they could not see what I was about to do, Mma Sana could – and I didn’t want to let her down. Whenever I’ve felt extremely alone, confused, or scared, I’ve thought of her and felt comfort. I have no doubt she’s up there in heaven, cheering me on, pleading my case. She is, after all, my mother.
That’s something life or death can never separate. The bonds between us, the difference(s) we make and the influence we have on each other. The echoes of living a life that counts for something. And in death, as in life, those truths are never more beautiful. And so, living or dead, we celebrate the people, the women, who have left an indelible mark on our existence, whether heralded or otherwise.
Because of them, we are.
“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
– Maya Angelou
Editor’s note: Since writing this, I have found out that the duration of my uncle’s actual time in prison is 14 years, and not the 20 years initially mentioned. This I have changed above. I have also learned the actual circumstances of my aunt’s demise are different from what I surmised. I was a bit conflicted about changing the “how she died” part of this piece, because, this is in many ways an account of my memory – or that of 13-year old me – of her and how it all happened.
It makes me wonder whether I heard my version of events from a relative seeking to spare me the actual details, or – more likely – that my overactive imagination crafted this story of her demise after prayers to protect me from dealing with the enormity of the situation and to safeguard my memory of who she was to me – an angel of sorts. In any case, I write this as a tribute to her and a life well-lived, and as such the real facts, once known, deserve to be included here – Mma Sana died from a pneumonia attack in the early hours of June 1, 1999, a Tuesday morning. Exactly a year later, my youngest sister was born. These facts further humanize her, and that makes her story even more powerful. She was human, like any of us, but that didn’t stop her from living an exceptional life of love, compassion, and service to all. The kind of life worth celebrating. Rest in peace, Mma Sana. We miss you.
Jemila Abdulai is a writer, creative, and the founder and editor of Circumspecte.