Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Zoumana Koné nicknamed Chékoroba (Old Man)


Old Man was the one we all worried about. He was stuck in Abobo, the neighborhood Gbagbo’s militias targeted and terrorized. The running water and electricity were often cut off and he couldn’t charge his cellphone. When I did get through, Old Man told me softly that life was difficult in Abobo. So difficult. He had not gone outside for two weeks. There was shooting every night and even during the day. You never knew when it would start. During the shooting, he stayed in his room. But sometimes, when the shooting stopped, there were bodies in the street.

He was sensitive by nature and far from his family, and I could hear the strain in his voice. “I can’t go to school,” he said. He sounded sad, wistful, but also apologetic, probably because we were helping to finance his education. I told him he should stay home; there would be time for school later. “You are witnessing the history of your country as it happens,” I told him. It was the sort of serious idea he liked and he promised to tell me everything in detail the next time I visited.

Chékoroba, which means Old Man in Dyula, was a family nickname because he was named after his grandfather. Old Man was in fact a young man, but a serious, thoughtful one, and he chose his words carefully, which made him sound older than he was. He was exactly the same age as my son, twenty-six. Same cohort, his father liked to say. His father and mother have been our friends for thirty years. But our son had graduated from college by the time Old Man was able to start last year.

Last Thursday when I called, Old Man answered. The fighting had moved to other areas of Abidjan, and Abobo was finally calm. The electricity was back on. He told me that he had been sick but was better. He had talked to his younger brother across town and heard that I had managed to get some money to his father for the two of them. When his father was able to send the money, he said, he was going to buy a bus ticket and go home to Korhogo. He was worn out with living in a war zone and being sick. He just wanted to be home with his family.

In just one more week, I replied, there should be peace. Then we can get the money to you and it will be safe for you to travel. I thought that once he was home where it was calm, and eating well again, he would be fine.

But on Saturday, Old Man suddenly got much worse. He was having trouble breathing. The family he lives with took him to the Red Cross clinic in Abobo. The Red Cross said he needed to go to the hospital across town. But with the battle for Abidjan raging, it was too dangerous. His father called to tell me the worst of all possible news. Saturday night Old Man died.

Everyone is crying here, his father said, as we cried across the scratchy phone line, not only the family, but also all the neighborhood children that he tutored over the years.

His father was not able to go south for his son’s funeral. Even his younger brother could not cross Abidjan to attend. Although the fighting was concentrated in a few places, the rest of the city was in chaos.

The family he had been living with notified the pro-Ouattara soldiers that control Abobo, and four soldiers came with a dump truck, the kind used to transport sand. Since the cemetery of Abobo was closed, they took them to a cemetery in Anyama. Another family also made the journey, to bury a member of their family. Escorted by the armed soldiers, they had no problems going through the barricades.

As they buried Old Man Sunday, they could hear the shooting downtown in Plateau, where soldiers were battling for control of the Presidential Palace. In the north, his family gathered in their beaten earth courtyard in Korhogo to say the Muslim prayers.

The Red Cross is appealing to the population of Abidjan and the fighters on both sides to let it continue its work so that it can save the lives of hundreds of people—those who are seriously wounded, gravely ill, pregnant women, and people who can’t get access to food or water. The official number of people killed in the violence is terribly high, but the actual number is much higher. One of those uncounted is a young man I have known his entire life, a young man who was bright, hard-working, and full of sweetness and promise.

The last time I saw Chékoroba was on a Sunday in late October. He was wearing his school uniform—black pants a little too short, white shirt, bright red tie. He and his brother met me for Sunday lunch, and while we worked our way through a platter of roasted chicken at an outdoor restaurant, he told me proudly how much he was learning in his computer science classes. He had to leave the house every morning at five-thirty to cross the sprawling city by bus and he rarely returned before six or seven in the evening. There were only a few computers at the school, but now that he was starting his second year, he would get a chance to work on them. I worried that he was working so hard to learn what children in wealthier countries learn in elementary school, but he was delighted with his program and hopeful that when he graduated, he would find work and be able to help his family.

Ala den balo, his mother and I say to each other each time we part. May God keep your children alive. Amina, we both reply. Now across the mysterious cellphone network that connects our voices, I had to offer the blessing you never want to say about your friends’ child: Ala ka hinara. May he go to heaven. His father, the person who thirty years ago taught me to say this, replied in a broken voice, Amina.

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