My parents named my sister after my grandmother Inacia. When my sibling had her daughter, she named her after Adeline, my brother-in-law’s grandmother. Inacia had passed away on my parents’ wedding anniversary and Adeline on my birthday. A metaphor for life, then, that jubilation is not without counterpart. Though those two matriarchs never met, they may as well have been kindred spirits for their fierce independence and straightforwardness, qualities I already see in my niece. Having not had the chance to grow up with my sister, on this the longest sojourn in my ancestral homeland, perhaps it is not too late to mitigate that shortcoming by being in the life of her daughter, the latest addition to our family.
The trouble with being a transnational is not simply the impossibility of existing in multiple places at the same time, but coming to terms with knowing that life and death happen even when one is not “there,” wherever there might be. Yes, there was every joy to be had, this year, in watching my niece take her first steps, utter her first words and, finally, say my name. But on the other side of the planet, in my other life in America, Andy, a close friend, was to succumb to a hit-and-run accident. I had to mourn from afar, again. Only, this time, the geography was the other way around, and I wondered, again, if my presence might have changed something, anything.
Around the same time, my godmother came to the end of her life. I was in Goa when she breathed her last, and I wondered —if I had the choice—if I would have chosen to be elsewhere. But how would that change the grief I felt? It was becoming only too clear, that while I had lost loved ones before, I was at that point in my life where the space between those losses might only get smaller.
A neighbor, whose father had died not too long ago, asked about my mother who was being treated for a recurrent illness. It was how I had found out that my godmother had taken a turn for the worse—both women had been referred to the same hospital. While my mother was being attended to by the doctor, I went up to see my godmother. She had been sedated, and the family kept vigil outside the intensive care unit. The priest had already administered extreme unction. I tried not to dwell on the future and what it might hold, nor did I want to think about how this scene may be one I might bear witness to again.
Outside, the monsoons pelted rooftops and turned the streets the characteristic red of Goa’s laterite soil. I recalled how my godmother would come to see me at my grandmother’s house where my family used to stay during trips from Kuwait where my sister and I were born. The last email I wrote Andy was to tell him about my godmother and to share my niece’s latest exploits—he had gotten to meet her on what was his only trip to India earlier this year. It was only after that I realized he never got to read my message.
I tried not to be angered by my neighbor’s question, which came from a place of concern and memories of the parent she had lost: “Your mother … Are you looking after her well?” Instead, I recalled with shame what I had said to my uncle nearly twenty years before. It was right before I left for America. I could not have known that it would be the last time I would see my grandmother when I said to my father’s brother: “Take good care of her!” My uncle, a patient man, simply replied, “Do I not?”
I could not return to Goa when my grandmother died. It had only been a few months since I moved to America and did not have the means. I was saddened, too, to be absent at my niece’s birth. Instead, that November two years ago, I was doing battle with graduate school in London while desperately missing my family in Goa, as well as the relative warmth of the California autumn. I shared news of the newborn with my flatmate, a fellow student of Nigerian and Ghanaian origins. She promptly responded, “Another ogbanje!”
Our friendship had been firmly cemented when at a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart, we both remarked upon the phenomenon of changelings in Chinua Achebe’s novel. The ogbanje of Yoruba and other Nigerian traditions are children destined to die and be reborn in the same family; often considered malevolent, we decided that Achebe had incorporated these babies that traverse spiritual and physical terrains as a postcolonial metaphor. Ogbanje might symbolize the past reincarnated, but also remade in the present—always evolving, but never certain. Achebe’s death this year reminded my friend and me of how we related his use of ogbanje to our own understanding of otherness in the lands we called home—of being transnationals. Ogbanje became our code word to refer to those we identified as having had similar trajectories to ours: fellow travelers trying to make a home in several places, but never really at home in any one place.
That my friend should classify my niece as an ogbanje seemed apt, named as the little one is for her great-grandmother, born to my sister named for our grandmother. Those names that have traveled through generations allow nostalgia to live on, even as new memories are made and baby steps are taken. Despite the impossibility, I will always regret not being there for those moments in life—both of loss and gain—that happen elsewhere. But what will carry me is knowing that the stagnancy of memory is life’s deepest well, even when life happens in many places at the same time.
R. Benedito Ferrão writes from Goa. Find his blog atthenightchild.blogspot.com, or on Facebook at The Nightchild Nexus.