Shortly before running out the door to work one morning earlier this month Alvin stopped time. He told me that one of my closest friends in Zambia had died. For the next 24 hours I thought of little else but Alinafe. I spent a couple of days reeling with disbelief, anger, shock. ..disappointment that Ivy would never get to meet Ali- someone I’m sure she would’ve been fast friends with (they are both quick to laugh & joke. Ali was one of the few adults I’ve known who was able to laugh at himself & his mistakes; it’s a trait I adore in Ivy & hope she won’t grow out of). I am convinced within minutes of meeting they would have been laughing & chatting as if they’d always known each other. But it was not meant to be.
After one or two days of being an emotional grump & becoming withdrawn I decided to focus on being grateful to have known Alinafe. I began thinking about what is was that allowed us to become such good friends & stay good friends though I hadn’t seen him for many years. We were quite the unlikely duo – I was studying for my Masters degree, living abroad, & working in International development. Ali had a grade 12 education, lived in what we call a shanty compound, & never held down a regular job in all the years I knew him.
We coached together. Probably 4 days a week plus game day Saturdays. Ali made all things possible that I couldn’t do as a foreigner- he met with the parents of kids to convince them of the merits of sport & play and to assure them of their children’s safety. When the team had to travel to a tournament but had no money for transport inevitably one of Alinafe’s friends would show up with a rickety old mini bus & we’d all pile in to make the games.
His kindest gestures:
– every night we trained late Ali would walk me to my home to ensure I was safe before he would backtrack to his home
– passion fruit is one of my favourite fruits. Funny enough I’d rarely find them for sale in grocery stores (when mangos were in season there would be trucks parked on the side of the road selling mangoes by the bag full- not so for my passion fruits). Ali would send the young kids to pick passions for me wherever they were growing. ..ooooh so delicious.
– if there was a death in the family of one of our players we would all troop to the home to pay our respects. Ali would ensure a “chitenge” (like a sarong ) would arrive so I could respectfully cover my legs & participate
– the time- with no questions asked- he had a bunch of kids sifting through sand on either side of the wall fence searching for a stone that had fallen out of my engagement ring when I’d caught it climbing over the wall fence (yes, it was common for me to climb over this particular fence when we were locked in). I hadn’t told Ali I was engaged, but he gave me a knowing smile & said he’d have the boys search for it if it was so important to me.
A couple irresistible stories:
– Ali came from eastern province where they speak a “deep” version of Nyanja (which is the street language of Lusaka). He could be hard to understand when he got carried away. One day at the courts he spoke to me in “chewa” & I responded without thinking. One of my dear friends looked at me & said “you surprise me. ..you understood Ali”. I laughed & very honestly replied that I had no idea what words came out of Ali’s mouth but I knew exactly what he said. We were good friends.
– before I got to know Ali well I have a distinct memory of him at basketball practice. He was wearing these fuchsia track pants & no shirt. He was shameless. What’s wrong with a man wearing track pants that were surely intended for a woman in the late ‘ 80 s / early ’90 s? His confidence was unparalleled.
Alinafe was no saint & I began to analyze what it was that I admired so much in him; what it was that drew him into such diverse communities. I had Alvin in stitches explaining my perception of how Ali lived. He didn’t give a rip about what anyone else thought – I mean truly. In a pure way. If he wanted to do something he did it never mind any repercussions or judgment by others. He never did things to be in your face or to prove a point; he stayed true to himself & his beliefs- no matter how maddening it may have been at the time. Now I am not one for setting New Year’s resolutions but I’ve made a commitment to myself- I will put more & more effort into not caring what others think. The parenting advice, mother shaming, the long looks I get from strangers while practicing yoga or working out at the gym when this pregnant- I’m not going to let it get to me. Thanks Papa for the lasting reminder that being loved for exactly who you are is what living is all about. RIP mwana (friend). You are missed.