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It didn’t feel right that the phone was ringing. I reached blindly for my cell phone, knocking over the glass of water I’d left on the nightstand before bed. Crap! I straightened up on my elbows, a bit more awake now. 3:05 am. That meant it was most likely a call from home and if so, there were only two possibilities. Some inconsiderate relative had gotten a hold of my number and was calling to ask me to send money or something else for them. Or, something was wrong. I answered the phone and heard my father’s voice from across the oceans in Freetown, Sierra Leone:
“Hi Samuel. I know I’m waking you up.”
“Oh, Morning Papa.” I was holding my breathe. “Is everything ok? Is Mama fine?”
“Yes, Mama is fine. It’s your Aunty Amie who passed away this morning here. We are arranging for the funeral. I need you to send a couple of hundred dollars for funeral expenses.”
“Ok. I will send $500?” I offered.
“Yes, that should do.”
“Ok Papa. I will send it today and text you details”
“Borbor (Young man), just call. I’ve told you I don’t see the text messages on this phone.”
“Ok.” I countered, trying not to sound irritated at his refusal to use any messaging. There was a pause. “Papa?”
“Sorry about Aunty Amie.” I said.
“It’s ok son. It’s her time and God’s will. Go back to sleep. I know you have work in the morning.” There was a click as he hung up and the phone went dead.
I stared at the phone for a couple of seconds, noticing I felt strangely dispassionate about the news. There was only a blank nothingness. I mopped up the water on the nightstand with a tee-shirt that was on the floor by my bedside. I checked to make sure my alarm was still set for 5:30am before I set the phone back on the nightstand and fell right back to sleep.
This story in Identities: A short story collection is about negotiating life and identity as a global or diasporan African. Most Africans in the diaspora have had the phone calls referred to in the opening of The day Aunty Amie died – the call that a family member has died or the call that money is needed to meet a specific need or the request for some other form of support. This story highlights the ways in which these requests are fulfilled in the course of an otherwise ordinary day and the tensions, memories and sentiments that come with them. It shows the ways in which diasporan African must be flexible and resourceful in light of these transnational responsibilities while highlighting the ways in which families at home remain connected to loved ones abroad.
My hope is that this story sparks more insight into worldviews surrounding the phenomenon of remittances. Remittances are far more than financial transactions sent to those ‘in need’ at home. As in this story, the family in question is far from impoverished. Remittances in many ways represent the continuum of family responsibilities and expectations in many African contexts that adult children will contribute to support the household and family, whether they are at home or abroad. Oftentimes, it is those same family members that sacrificed to fund said adults to go abroad to study, work or chase dreams in the first place. Yes, there are challenges and many-a-story of extortion when there are no boundaries and no limits to these kinds of requests and these must be addressed by the people entangled in those dynamics. Remittances however, are serving two fundamental roles that cannot be ignored. They are binding global families together, and as statistics have been showing in the past few years, they are a significant part of the investment structures that are growing the African economy, having now surpassed foreign aid into the continent. It is time to consider how to strategically turn these investments even further into a driver of economic progress for the continent.
Beyond that, The day Aunty Amie died is about our complex relationships with family members on and off the continent and more importantly about the identity questions our decisions about those complex relationships evoke. It reminds us that negotiating those relationships are as much about the other person(s) as it is about ourselves. It begs questions such as:
What forgiveness are you withholding?
How do we remain bound by past hurts?
What price do we pay by standing our ground on events that occurred and decisions we made 10,15 or 20 years ago?
Where to now?
The day Aunty Amie died hints at these questions while bringing the protagonist full circle and face to face with an unexpected opportunity for a new beginning…