“Climb every mountain / Ford every stream / Follow every rainbow / ‘Till you find your dream…“
Trawling recently through the hundreds of emails Mom and I exchanged, I was surprised to find the number of times Mom quoted these words to me from The Sound of Music.
I once asked her what her favorite song of all time was. Mom had far more important things to fill her beautiful mind with, but the one song she remembered both by name and artist was ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.
‘Imagine’ is about a better world; one in which humanity has evolved past all the things that divide us. Lennon even includes religion on this list and asks listeners to imagine there’s no heaven. Strange perhaps – given the circumstances – but this probably resonated with Mom a lot.
Mom started her life a devout Methodist who took Religious Studies at Wesley Girls High School and spent weekends with her headmistress, Mrs. Garnett, preaching to Cape Coast’s unconverted. As she grew, Mom would marvel at how people become so focused on getting into heaven that they forget how to make this world a better place by doing the one thing that all religions seem to agree we should: Love our fellow human beings, regardless of who they are, as we love ourselves. Mom had an understanding of the complexity, depth and ultimate beauty of Love. Importantly, she lived it out.
Mom dedicated her entire life towards Love and making this world a better place for other people. Her pioneering anti-FGM work aside, she fought to create better outcomes for everyone around her: for her own mother, for my aunts and uncles, her nieces and nephews, and anyone close to her. Mom loved me in spite of my flaws and mistakes, and she spent all of her money – all of it, including her pension – ensuring that my younger brother and I had better futures too; futures that we are duty-and-love bound to pass on to your beloved grandson, Cassius, to his unborn cousins, and to their descendants.
Instead of speculating on who gets to go to heaven or not, Mom made Love something that you live out.
I can think of no better life.
Mom always, always went against the grain. It is an African stereotype to spare the rod and spoil the child, but Mom never whipped us. Not even once. She didn’t have to: her look of disapproval was worse than any whip. Africa teaches us to respect our elders to the point of silence, but whenever anyone tried to silence me as a child, Mom would stop the conversation and insist that my opinion was heard. In spite of her stature, Mom loved surrounding herself with and mentoring young people. She saw our potential. She saw our humanity. She saw everyone’s humanity.
However, Mom would never let you forget that she was African. Proudly so. She shed the colonial aspects of her name and kept her Ghanaian citizenship right up until the end. When she joined the World Health Organization, she wore African wear every single day – before it was fashionable to do so – just to make a point. On her last trip to Ghana, we visited a beauty store to buy make up. Two shop assistants insisted that she buy foundation a few shades lighter than her skin. They were not ready for the five minute lecture Mom proceeded to give them on black beauty and the importance of self-pride.
The greatest gift Mom ever gave my brother and I was to send us home to Ghana when we were little (I was eight and Ebow was six) to learn our language, know our culture and to know that we have alternatives. She taught us that we were citizens of the world. I remember exactly where I was – stuck in traffic on Spintex Road in Accra – when Mom told me she respected me for my decision to move to Ghana, now almost ten years ago. I don’t think I have ever felt more proud.
Mom and I used to speak every single day. Our conversations were long and rambling and touched on everything; from what was going on in our lives to what was going on in the news. Her existence silences anyone who says women are less intelligent than men. If I have any smarts, they come from her. If I am a feminist, it is because of her.
In her last days, before she went to hospital, we rekindled our old conversations. She shared with me her struggles, her fears, her hopes and her plans. And she gave me advice. Mom always had a wise word to say:
“A word to the wise is enough”
“Procrastination is the thief of time”.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss”
“Nyansa ni, wo bu nu bϵ na won ka n’asϵm”
Her favourite proverb was from her father: “Those that make it are the ones who toil far late into the night whilst others are sleeping“. Or, as she would sum it up, “from kring kring to krang krang.”
Mom, you toiled for everyone but yourself and now it is your turn to rest. When I think of your passing, I am not overwhelmed with sadness but rather with pride and inspiration. If ever anyone ever found her dream and fulfilled what she was put on Earth to do, it was you. You focused quietly on your work and on living a life of Love. Real, applied Love. And in death, your work and your worth speak louder than many people I know who blow their own trumpets having done far less.
How can I not be proud of that?
Tributes & Obituaries
- The Guardian
- The Independent
- The New Yorker
- The New York Times
- The Times
- The Washington Post
- El Telegrafo
- Thomson Reuters Foundation
- Cosmopolitan Magazine
- Options/Girl Generation
- Equality Now
- Girls Globe
- UnCut/Voices Press
- Hilary Burrage
- Royal College of Nursing
- Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
- City University
- International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics
- Trust for London
- The Orchid Project
- Women’s Support Project
A Poem by Alice Walker
Leading Voice Against the Practice of Female Genital Mutilation
To be great means to put our love to work for all of God.
This means Everything. And so you are defined.
The tiny portal of human life itself
must feel our care;
the blameless vulva
through which nations
pass must know our praise
It must not be harmed.
Thank you, Efua,
sister at the barricades;
we will stand side by side here,
forever. Protecting the people
bearing the dubious gift
of being, for so long, and so
misunderstood. But knowing
in our own bodies
what it means to hurt.
Torture is not culture.
May the light of self love
dawn, as tribute
to your Goddess witness
over all of Life,
Efua Dorkenoo, presente.