I was biking somewhat fast, though the rain-induced craters in the tiny dirt path were keeping my speed in check. I wasn't really in a hurry, but at the same time I wanted to be there as soon as possible. It was a long bike, through the dry brush, on increasingly tiny dirt paths. In between the nothingness there were a spattering of tiny villages – were I stopped and asked for directions to my destination, assuring that I hadn't missed a turn off. I could tell I was getting closer as I started passing large groups of students who were making their way there by foot. I knew I was approaching the house when I saw tons of bikes and motorcycles parked along the dirt path and hundreds of people, many of them students.
I parked my bike and said hi to my students, then went on to greet the elderly men seated in front of the house. I made my way to the backyard where I found the women – hundreds of them – ancient, middle-aged, and young. I was directed to the mother who was seated among her friends. I knelt down and took her hand and gave her my condolences. She started crying and wailing the way women do when they are grieving. It is a terrible sound, yet I was glad to be among these women to share in our collective grief.
It all started just a few weeks ago. The school administration informed all the students that one of their classmates was sick, and students contributed money to give to the family to help pay for medical bills. I was surprised to hear who the student was – a girl in Terminale, who I had taught the past two years in 11th and 12th grade. She was one of the best students in her class and was even elected “Minister of Health” in our student government. When I prompted my principal for more information he told me that the student had “gone crazy.” Apparently she had started speaking incoherently, lost her memory and would tear her clothes off or have other strange behaviors. The school administration shrugged it off, saying that it was a case of sorcery – someone had put a spell on her. They didn't seem too worried about her. A week or so later some students went out to her village to visit her and said she was doing much better, talking normally and was able to recognize her friends. That was the last thing I heard until two weeks later another student told me there had been a death of a student. I was utterly shocked and in disbelief.
The next day at school, the school administration informed the students of the death and cancelled school so that everyone could attend her funeral. On talking more with some other teachers and students the only other information I could get about her sickness was that she had been having headaches for many months, had lost some weight and wasn't participating in school activities as much as before (due to her extreme headaches). One friend who had visited her said only that she had a fever. Apparently after momentarily being better she got worse again and had stopped eating and talking. Her family brought her to traditional doctors (aka witch doctors) but to no avail. They then brought her to two regional hospitals both of which apparently said they couldn't treat her. It was on her way to Conakry to the best public hospital in Guinea that she died.
As I sat among my female students in the backyard of this student’s house, I heard her friends reminisce fondly of her. I, too shared my experiences. She was one of the best students I have had, and participated not only in class but in extra-curricular activities. Last year we had worked together to plan a huge ceremony for our school, and I had traveled to a neighboring city with her to get materials for the ceremony.
In sitting with the students I also overheard their gossip. No one seemed interested in what sickness she had, but rather who had put the spell on her. As a scientist of course it miffs me that we’ll never know what she actually died of, but as my students reminded me, “this is Africa,” implying that the only cause of death was sorcery.
As we waited, more and more people came – elementary, middle and high school students flooded the yard in their school uniforms. Once the body had arrived from Conakry they brought it to the Mosque next door. The other students and I went over and took our shoes off and briefly entered the mosque to see the body. I've been to many funerals, but I had never done this before. There, lying peacefully and covered from head to toe, almost embalmed, in white cloth, was my student. We said our goodbyes and went into the mosque courtyard to pray.
Then, one of the most powerful and sad things I have ever seen happened. The prayer was finished and the men were ready to move the body to the cemetery for burial. In honor of their friend, their classmate, it was the guys from her class that asked to carry the body. I stood watching as my former students carried the dead body of their classmate to her grave. All of the students started crying and screaming at this site, knowing it would be the last time we would ever see our friend, Binta Sy.
May her soul rest in peace