MANY years ago, I interviewed Ray Chipaka Phiri after the release of one of his albums. One of the songs was dedicated to this father. He explained that his father, who was a mineworker of Malawian descent, always had a smile on his face. He had asked his father why, when he was so oppressed, he always managed to smile. His father explained that smiling and laughing was the only way to deal with his oppression.
“If I think about my oppression all the time, I would go through life depressed. I prefer to be happy,” Phiri quoted his father as saying.
When I heard this week that Phiri had passed away at the age of 70 after succumbing to lung cancer, I thought about this discussion we had in Bantry Bay, overlooking the sea, and how humble and approachable this talented genius had been. At that time, he had already achieved so much, having travelled the world with Paul Simon’s Graceland tour and having had huge success with Stimela, one of South Africa’s best bands ever.
But I also found myself thinking about the many friends and comrades who had passed away in the past few years and the things that I will always remember of all of them.
Death has a way of catching up on all of us but, when it happens, those of us who are left behind, are still surprised.
Last Saturday, we were sitting in St Georges Cathedral at the funeral service for Ronald Bernickow, popularly known as Berni, a former colleague and comrade who had passed away about two weeks earlier.
We all knew that Berni had contracted cancer years ago and we followed his progress with interest. It would not be unusual to hear that he was in and out of hospital or had suffered another setback. But every time he seemed to recover and continue his public service, which he did until the end.
I thought nothing about it when I bumped into Berni’s wife, Lorna, in our local supermarket a month or so ago and she told me that he was going through a tough time health-wise. When I had last seen him a few weeks before then, he had looked reasonably healthy.
Because he knew his time on earth was limited, Berni planned certain parts of his send-off, leaving notes for some people and even ordering his friends to celebrate his life and not mourn his passing by drinking all his leftover alcohol.
He had been given a few months to live 10 years ago, but never stopped living and giving until he could not continue anymore. One of the lessons, I suppose, I will take from Berni’s life is to live life to the full and to never stop giving.
Listening to people giving tribute to Ray Phiri over the past few days, I suppose one could say the same about him. He never wanted to stop being active and helping where he could. And, of course, performing.
At Berni’s funeral service, which went on for a long time because of the number of people who wanted to pay tribute, I found myself thinking about what I would want people to say about me when I have passed on. I realised that, while I have no intention of dying anytime soon, I suppose it is something that I would have no control over.
I have this dream of dying and watching people pay tribute to me while they are not able to see me. In my dream, I find myself asking whether I am at the right funeral because I cannot believe some of the things that people are saying about me.
I understand the notion of paying tribute to people once they have passed away. In many ways, it is also a way of finding closure for the people who are left behind. “We have given you a good send-off. Now we can get on with our lives.” Unfortunately, when everybody has left, the family is often left alone to deal with their grief.
But sometimes it is important to pay tribute to people while they are alive. It is not good enough to tell someone how much you loved them when their coffin is lying in front of you. They should have heard it often while they were alive.
One of the things that I have requested from my family and friends is that the people who speak at my funeral or memorial service should be people who know me and they should be able to speak about my values, my hopes and my dreams. I do not want politicians to speak, unless they are people who knew me genuinely.
We only die once so it is important to make sure that our final send-off is done properly. Unlike Ray Phiri’s father, I struggle to go through life smiling, because I get angered my injustice and inequality very easily. And unlike Berni, I will properly not leave notes for all my family and friends. But I hope that, like them, I will be able to leave a legacy that makes my family proud. For now, let me go on living.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 July 2017)