Felicitas - a year on
I was one of those friends.
We’d known each other for close on 3 years but had never met. Ours was an email friendship that had developed from an email I’d sent her asking for advice on how to get a copy of my Mozambiquan birth certificate. A formal email correspondence quickly developed into a close friendship where we discussed every facet of our lives. We were of a similar age, we both smoked and liked whiskey, and although I’d grown up in Mozambique where she’d moved to 16 years previously, that’s where the similarity ended. She was a childless, German divorcée living on the outskirts of Maputo, the 'third-world' capital of Mozambique; I was a South African gay father living in Nottingham, an English provincial city. She taught languages and did translations for a living; I was an IT consultant in a large corporate environment. For all our differences, we got on famously.
For many months, my flag counter was a constant reminder of Felicitas’s death as the number of my readers from Ghana stayed constant after her suicide. Although she was based in Mozambique, her ISP always registered her as being in Ghana. Slowly, the Ghanaian flag started dropping down my sidebar as the flags of other countries overtook it. It was this blog’s way of lowering a flag in her remembrance.
With the huge spike in readership I got after having my insults post picked up by dooce and kottke, Ghanaian readers increased but Ghana’s flag slipped dramatically as more and more readers from elsewhere found my blog. Felicitas wasn’t forgotten but the daily reminder of her death was no longer there. The recent discovery of a photograph of her that I’d thought lost after reformatting my hard drive in May last year was the most forceful recent reminder I’ve had of her. That was about six weeks ago.
Then I started getting further reminders.
Caroline is always going on about synchronicities, a concept that appeals to me but in which I've no belief. To me, synchronicities are coincidences, nothing more, nothing less. But having said that, my mind always picks up on coincidences, no matter how tenuous they are. Sometimes you’d think that I try to create links where there really aren’t any.
In a recent blog entry of hers, Caroline posted a picture of the shrine at the bottom of her garden. It prompted me to comment about visiting my mother’s grave for the first time in 1996. She’s buried in a beautiful, tranquil spot under coconut trees about 200 metres from the sea. Wild and overgrown, it's a wonder that the weeds, wild-flowers and grasses grow in the sandy soil. The blue of the sky rivals that of the sea that can be seen through the trees. Seagulls and crows swirl in the sky, competing with each other in trying to drown out the gentle sound of the waves. In turn, they are drowned out by the sounds of children playing at the nearby school. You’d never realise it was a cemetery if it were not for the faded white crosses battling to emerge from the undergrowth. The cemetery is attached to the Anglican Mission just outside Maxixe, Mozambique. My mother was buried there in January 1970.
Like Felicitas, she was a horsewoman and a foreigner in Mozambique. Again I was reminded of Felicitas.
A few days before, I’d picked up ‘Under the Frangipani’ by celebrated Mozambiquan author, Mia Couto, to read on the tram. Set in a decaying, colonial fort that’s being used as a refuge for old people, it’s about an African world in which people pass through the door separating reality from the spirit world. At first I couldn’t get into it and put it down - I suspect that I may have over-dosed on ‘magic-realism’ in the days when I couldn’t get enough of Gabriel García Márquez. I gave it another go a few days later. The book and I suddenly clicked. Days before, the characters had seemed wooden and lifeless. Now they were brimming with vitality - I felt myself accompanying them in and out of the spirit world, I felt their despair, their hope and their resignation with their lot in life. I could even smell the strong, cloying scent of the frangipani blossoms as I sat in a crowded tram full of people bundled up in their winter woollens.
One of the fort’s occupants, talking to the sole white man in the refuge, says, ‘You, Sidimingo, belong to Mozambique, this country is yours. Without a shadow of a doubt. But doesn’t it make you shiver to think of being buried here?' The old white man shrugs. ‘It’s that your spirits don’t belong to this place. If you’re buried here, you won’t have a peaceful death.’ He isn’t suggesting that the old white man has no place in Africa but that his spirits, without the company of their ancestral spirits, will not feel at home.
Although I’m an atheist, I began to wonder about my mother’s spirits in that tropical graveyard. Felicitas was cremated but I began to wonder about her spirits too.
As I write this, I can feel the scorn that Felicitas is pouring on me, pouring herself yet another Jameson’s. ‘These are the only spirits you’ll find in me,’ she’s probably saying.
Up until then, I’d forgotten that Mia Couto also connects me to Felicitas. Tenuously, but there’s a connection, nevertheless. In the month before I started blogging, a time when we were still in almost daily contact, Felicitas asked me to proof-read a translation she was busy with. Her command of English was excellent (she once corrected a grammatical error on this blog) but she’d sometimes ask me for advice on how to word something in a more idiomatic way. She felt that her formal written English was not always right for the work she was translating. She hoped that my advice would give it a looser feel. The piece she was translating was the transcript of a speech (*) that Mia Couto had given to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation the month (June 2005) before.
Unlike most other trees in Mozambique, the frangipani loses its leaves in winter. The character Domingo Mourão remarks on this fact when he says, 'When I came to Africa I didn't experience autumn anymore. It was as if time no longer moved forward, as if it were always in the same season. Only the frangipani restored that sense of time passing to me.' It’s not an indigenous tree, but no one is aware of this. It has come to belong in Mozambique. Does it shiver thinking about dying in Mozambique? I don’t think so. I’d like to think that the spirits of my mother and Felicitas belong where they are. I know they do.
And I know that while their deaths may not have been peaceful, they are at peace now.
(*) English translation (not by Felicitas)