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Remembering Stella and all those we lost in 2013

By Sulaiman Momodu

 (beyondborders.column@gmail.com)

 As 2014 begins in earnest when most people would have made their New Year resolutions, please spare a thought for those who started 2013 in the same way – just like you – but who sadly did not end the year. While some people shockingly died in tragic accidents without any moment of forewarning, others returned to our Maker after a brief illness, or through circumstances that will forever remain a mystery.

 Among those who started 2013 but could not end it was Stella.  Stella could have been anybody’s sister, daughter, or aunt. She could have been any Sierra Leonean who never had the chance to attain our unenviable life expectancy of 40 years plus, the time when “life begins” in other parts of the world.

 We all have to pass on one day and nobody makes a New Year resolution to die. Stella’s New Year resolution was to end her course in the university and contribute to the development of her country.  Like a candle in the wind though, her life had been blown out.

Stella passed on at the very young age of 30 plus leaving her husband, Badara, her two lovely boys who are too young to comprehend what has happened to their mum, and family members. For Stella’s life to end in her prime was not only tragic, but an additional painful loss to our human capital.

Stella’s memories have been endless and flashbacks of our last meetings non-stop. As a small boy, my brother Alfred Jalil ( now an engineer) and I saw her hours after she was born. A new arrival in the family was something to smile and cheer about. For years to come, we would play together as one happy family, protecting her, as big brothers usually do, against aggressive and bullying boys.

But while it was all joy to see her grow into a smart, intelligent and beautiful lady,  a greater part of 2013 was a painful experience for the family to watch her in great agony. In particular, it was an unprecedented emotional experience for Aunty B, who sacrificed everything to give her the needed love and care for days, weeks, and months. Hospital after hospital could only give pain killers for her medical condition not until one medical doctor came out with the right diagnosis. Subsequently, Stella was flown to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where she spent eight long months, most time grimacing in pain, as doctors administered various lines of treatments. The doctors in Accra had a consensus. Stella’s condition had not been detected early enough.

During my visit to the hospital a few months ago, I was stunned to realize that Stella was not the only Sierra Leonean patient at the medical facility. As if Korle-Bu is our main medical referral facility, she was there together with other compatriots who were literally there to die.  Some of the patients gave me a message to deliver to our president. “A plea from Korle- Bu to President Koroma” was the title of my article.  Basically, our compatriots had expressed very deep disappointment and frustration at our medical services and facilities, the high cost of seeking medical attention in other countries, and had passionately pleaded that President Koroma visited them to witness their sufferings firsthand. Patients at the hospital were upset that their country had failed them, but let me resist the temptation of using adjectives to describe irresponsible and unaccountable governments who misuse second chance.  As I left Accra, Stella prayed that we meet again in a manner that made me fight back tears. “Brother, let us pray that we meet again,” she sobbed. “As soon as I get well, I am coming to visit you in Liberia,” she promised. On my way to the Kotoka airport in Accra, she called me up and with a barely audible voice, she lamented that one Sierra Leonean patient had died the previous night.

To state the obvious, death comes to every family and every community. We expect death when our family members have lived many decades. There is a time to be born and a time to die. Biblically speaking, one is expected to at least live up to three score and ten – seventy years. However, in contemporary Sierra Leone, most people are no more shocked to hear about death. I have been living out of the country on assignment for some years now. Most times the news I hear upon asking after friends, including media colleagues, during visits is sometimes depressing. “Oh! You don’t know?” I am sometimes told. “He or she died last week or some weeks ago.”

The scores of deaths of especially young people in our country is a great abnormality which tells a lot about our health and medical system in terms of infrastructure, equipment and professionalism. When Stella started experiencing an unusual pain, she promptly sought medical attention, but was not correctly diagnosed, hospital after hospital. Annoyingly,  some senior medical doctors in the country, who should be very eager to improve on our medical system, were shamelessly busy looting donor funds.

While Stella was on her hospital bed, the world paid tribute to Nelson Mandela. At 95 – four score and fifteen if you like – the world celebrated Madiba’s life. He did not only live a fulfilled life, but his legacy will live forever. Mandela once said that the last breath one takes should be on behalf of the people. This should be food for thought to all, especially those in authority and aspiring leaders.

With a very strong faith that never wavered, while in hospital, Stella received word that her classmates had graduated. She was supposed to have been among them. With health as top priority, Stella was hopeful that she will also graduate one day.

Before the end of the year, Stella was flown back home. The medical condition had taken a severe toll on her. She was now a shadow of her former self. As the clock ticked to the end of 2013, Stella breathed her last. She was gone. But despite the fact that she was sick for some months, Stella’s death was still a shock for she was a life not yet lived and extinguished. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.  To Stella and all those who went to the world beyond in 2013, rest in peace!