maandag 29 maart 2021

Islica 18

Islica in yellow T-shirt
Today my - no his mom's - no completely his own - Islica turns 18. (Still, I'd like to steal him for a day and call him 'my' Islica.) The day after your 18th birthday you are the same person as the day before. Nothing happens. Nothing changes. Everything is the same. And yet, everything changes when you are legally coming of age. Though this date is just 'made up' by lawmakers. When I was young, the legal age of adulthood and having the right to vote was 21. I remember that day awfully well, because I was sick that very day, just that one day. My initiation ritual was a belly flu. So yeah, it was quite a special day, but no festivities. Shortly after that, they changed the legal age to 18. It could as well be 13 (like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, 'son of the law') or 30: "People don't become 'adults' before their 30s" this article says.

And still this day is very special. If not for himself or his family - I don't know how he or others feel - then it still is for me. A day with emotions beyond words. I have always felt deeply connected to Islica, his mother Isata, his brother-nephew Susu and his family. They live in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I visited the family in 2014, but even before that we had started an online friendship. I'll never forget the 10 years old Islica who apped me while I was attending a dull municipal board meeting. "Uncle Ytzen, can you help me with my homework". So, while listening with one ear or less to the palaver of the board members, I helped Islica for more than an hour with his English assignment, asking him questions, correcting his sentences. I thought his mother must have suggested him to contact me. But after an hour his mother apped me and said: "I'm so happy, I'm just coming home and see Islica is doing his English homework now". "Yes, I know", I said. From time to time we had our little 'running gags', like exchanging pictures while shopping for groceries. Even the local store manager in my town cooperated with that, suggested some pictures, and asked after a while how Islica was doing.



At the picture in their living room, nearly 11 years old Islica is sitting between me and his mother Isata, his hand on my knee. We had visited Isata's sister, Susu's mom, in the Murray Town Barracks in an other part of town, and Isata had driven us home in her new car. Islica and his nephew Junior, the other boy in the picture, were sitting behind me at the back of the car, in the luggage area, and all the way Islica's hand rested on my shoulder. His hand never let me go, and he still doesn't.

A month after I went back home the ebola crisis broke out. Slowly and then faster the virus creeped up from Guinea to remote villages of Sierra Leone and then, like the rebels before, to the cities and the capital. From home I followed this news with anxiety. Schools - from primary school to university - were closed for a full year. No complaining about it. A generation - almost - lost. The epidemic was finally under control and the family had come through it wonderfully well, when there was this sudden news that mother Isata had passed away on New Years Day 2016 after a planned surgery.

Coming of age, legally at your 18th birthday, is a moment to celebrate you are a man on your own, 'standing at your own feet', taking your own responsiblities. It is saying goodbye to your parents, though you won't stop loving them en may very well still need them, and they may need you. Islica had to say goodbye to his mom when he was twelve. She'll never be forgotten.

Today I feel the distance. The social distancing for over a year now because of the corona virus, the distance between life and death, not being able to congratulate Isatu with her great son, the distance between our countries, not being able to visit Islica to give him a hug or a high five. When social media or phone are not enough. I talked with him on the phone last Friday. Later this year Islica will do his secundary school exams, as a present I payed his exam fees, and I hope he will pass succesfully. For now it's Happy Birthday. I couldn't help thinking of the beautiful classic words of 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, so I send them to Islica today.

Happy birthday, dear Islica. It's good to know you for so many years now and see you grow into a man. Wishing you all the best, in school, in life, in love.

11 When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways. 12 What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete - as complete as God's knowledge of me. 13 Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.

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