By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
In the course of our lives, we must have encountered this interrogative question that titles this essay and its variant, that is, ‘who are you or/and ‘what are you? We may also have asked the same question of someone who may be standing at the door or at the other end of the phone or in a situation where someone attempted to flaunt/abuse authority or power. Who are you to determine my life? What are you? Are you God? Very early in church we were drilled, thrilled, and educated on the sermon What is man? Our teachers and preachers pointed profound attention to the vanity of that being called man, that being who returns to the dust, that being who is different from an animal because of the hope of resurrection. What is man that he should puff his shoulder in the presence of the Almighty?
The title question and its variants raced through my mind last week when I witnessed a burial at Atan Cemetery in Lagos near University of Lagos, that cemetery which by all standards ought to have been shut down as a resting place for the dead. Is there any corpse that can really rest in peace in that violated and decrepit cemetery except perhaps for the World War veterans section or the recently set up Ebony section? By the way, who maintains that WW section of Atan Cemetery? The person deserves a gold medal. There the notion of the archetypal six feet grave is buried in history. The cemetery is a study in chaotic order, putrefying assemblage off dead flesh, representing an assault and sacrilegious insult on the dead. A city that does not honour the dead or the memory of the dead is a dead society. Some cynics ask me why Lagos should worry about the resting place of the dead if living persons dwell in decrepit hovels in the name of residential accommodation! Accommodation in Lagos is fitting subject for another day!
The burial was of a woman who was not known by society. She never made the headlines. She never flaunted her pictures on social media. She was once the wife of a big man, a big man who became reduced in size after retirement. The marriage ended. She fell into hard times. Died in penury. Almost at the mercy of good hearted people in the twilight of her life. She had a child who had not found her feet in the world, if a place she had secured. As I walked into the cemetery I saw gravestones and tombs of the rich and powerful. ‘In ever loving memory of…’ Another tombstone from 2009 read ‘Though you are gone father, you remain in our hearts..’. I wondered: are the children still alive? Which hearts? There was the tombstone of a 17years old. Beautifully adorned. Perhaps to reduce the pain of an early death on the parents. Certainly a rich family. Even in death, there is class in burial rites and resting places. Sometimes, beside a gleaming tombstone, we would see a caved-in grave. If you looked well, you would see some bones. A skull. And I asked myself: who are you?
Who are you? I have also run into this interrogation when someone asked the question: do you know who I am? Don’t you know me? Hehehehehe! Underneath the question is the assertion ‘I am a big man’ or ‘I am a big woman’ or ‘the wife of a big man’ or ‘I am the boss of the place’ or ‘I am the owner of that big car’. In Delta State, those rascally fellows would retort to that arrogant question: Na you dey feed me?
The final place is so humble. So crammed with no space between one grave and the other. This is how it all ends for us all. Whether the grave is beautiful or dirty or narrow it is a grave. The body is lowered. It is a final act. Some who had asked the question: do you know who I am? Are there, dry of bones, ignored by the living, forgotten by society. Some who built mansions in Ikoyi or GRA in Ikeja are confined to one tiny space next to the grave of a pauper. They do not talk to one another. No expensive handsets. No arguments. No ethnic conflicts. No kidnappings. No lust for beautiful women or handsome rich men! No cars. They are not aware of their place of abode. The memory of them is fading or faded. So, who are we?
After Caesar is assassinated the loyal and faithful Mark Antony arrives the scene, and makes a powerful speech which I often use to illustrate the vanity of power through contrast when I teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to final year students of English: ‘O mighty Caesar, dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well! He also refers to Caesar as ‘thou bleeding piece of earth. In the final analysis, that is what we are. Living dust and dead dust.
So, that moment when we think we are powerful over people, over our children or dependants, over tenants, over students, over citizens, over workers, over the country, let us remember that we are nothing but the dust. There is this Bishop who used to say to us in our days in government that political office holders should be compelled to visit the mortuary once every year. It is sobering to do so. It is a reminder. It brings one back to the reality of the world.