In our sometimes unfortunate journey through this planet, we must experience death. We experience the death of loved ones, unloved ones, and ultimately, our own deaths.
I rarely meditate on the meaning of many of life’s phenomena – I like to joke that I have the emotional depth of a banana – but this week, death has really been with me. Michael Onsando has written extensively on killing (here, here and here), more than I ever will. Still, we have barely touched on death here, and with what has happened this week, it is necessary.
I never thought the biggest mystery of my lifetime would be a missing plane. I have followed the story behind the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, MH370, like I follow a movie. It has even become material for my nightmares.
Flight MH370, carrying 239 people en route to Beijing, disappeared from the radar off the south coast of Vietnam on 8th March 2014. On 24th March 2014, the Malaysian prime minister cited an analysis of satellite data from a British company as well as accident investigators, stated that the plane went down over the southern Indian Ocean, and that as it were, there were no hopes of anyone having survived.
Several planes, ships and search parties from 14 countries have been searching an area of 7.8 million square kilometres for the plane. Australian officials spotted two objects that could be related to the flight, but no one is sure as yet.
It frightens me that this has happened in the 21st century, when people are lining up to take recreational trips into space. Flying is the safest way to travel – a traveller could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before dying in a fatal crash. Yet an accident like this happens and manages to instill extreme fear in anyone who has ever thought of taking a flight.
In moments like these, we are reminded of the fleeting nature of our lives. One minute, we are here, the next, we are not. And the fact that this could happen at any time terrifies us – perhaps this is why long conversations about death inspire discomfort as opposed to interest. One minute we are on a flight after having said goodbye to a loved one, the next, we are fighting for our lives, be it in the middle of the ocean or on land.
On 23rd March 2014, three gunmen stormed Joy Jesus Church in Likoni and opened fire. Official reports had the death count on that day at 3, and it has now risen to 6 as at the point of writing this article. A first person account by a witness at the scene, however, puts the death toll on the day of the attack at 18.
Reports on the number of suspects that have been identified differ, with some sources saying they are 59 and others, 100. This is said to be retaliation for the raid of Masjid Musa mosque by the police some weeks earlier, where an official death count says at least two people were killed. Yet again, a witness account wildly disagrees, putting the death toll at a minimum of six. This all happened because of a standoff between the police and worshippers at the mosque, in which protests by members of both sides lead to death, agitating them and leading to further death.
In the week beginning 16th March 2014, the police found out that a car they had impounded and parked outside their station in Mombasa was a massive bomb, attached to a Nokia detonator. Someone could have called that phone at any moment and blown up the police station. The vehicle was only thoroughly checked when foreign counter-terror experts recognized it from an international alert list. Two or more truck bombs are believed to be on the loose in Mombasa, and the police are desperately trying to find them.
I am afraid now, whenever I am in traffic and a truck pulls up next to my vehicle. Is this one of the truck bombs? They are believed to be in Mombasa, yes, but these are trucks – they have wheels. They could be anywhere, including next to my vehicle. What if the truck next to me were to blow up?
Am I ready to die?
What if I feel particularly touched one Sunday and head to church bright and early, only to meet my death at the hand of a couple of gunmen on a revenge mission? Will I die because the police were late to the scene? Will I be turned away from the nearest hospital because I do not have my medical card on me at that moment? Will I be a victim of a revenge attack?
Will I be just another statistic for the government to hide and obscure? Will I be one of the 18 that is forgotten, and reduced to 3?
I am reminded that a Kenyan life is unimportant.
I am an avid TV series watcher. I have bemoaned, on Twitter, the trend of shows killing off their main characters. At first, it was exciting – fresh and new. Now, it is not. It annoys me to no end when a character whose growth I have watched for years and invested in is killed off, never to be seen again, unless in flashbacks. This has happened on Person of Interest, The Good Wife, among others. I feel silly when the death of a fictional character gets me down – when I can’t help to stop the tear that rolls down my cheek when it happens.
Art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. When confronted about the killing off of a major character on The Good Wife, show-runners Robert and Michelle King say that “We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives. It’s terrifying how a perfectly normal and sunny day can suddenly explode with tragedy. Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. Your last time with the loved one will always remain your last time.”
I feel quite the opposite – television has taken up the random death of main characters up with gusto. They are shot dead in unfortunate circumstances, or slain using other means – perhaps imitating life, in that it feels really easy to die nowadays.
You could be walking down a street when a shoot-out between policemen and thieves erupts and you end up being collateral damage. The increase of deaths on TV, to me, is merely a reflection of life at the moment. It is a necessary reminder of how easy it is to die.
My grandfather is 100 years old, and has recently been in and out of hospital a couple of times. He is blessed to have made it this far – many of us can only hope to reach 70.
Whenever I have gone to hospital to visit him, along with other members of my family, I have wondered what to say to him. I often feel like there is nothing to say. In as much as death is an impending end to all our lives, I have not dared to bring this up with anyone in my family, partly out of fear of the outcome (I would be called insensitive), and a sense of it not being right.
But what happens if I have not said my last words to him and death, in its usual inconsiderate manner, decides to take him from us? What will I say to myself then, to salve the wounds my fear to speak will have inflicted on me? Why are we so afraid to confront the most certain fact of human life – that we are going to die?
The act of living is an act of defiance.