Nairobi, 4 August 2014
Yesterday, your family put me on a plane in Johannesburg so that I could fly back to Nairobi.
When we flew over Zimbabwe, the pilot pointed it out while the steward brought me drinks. I took this as an act of kindness on behalf of Kenyan Airways. So, drinks on you, while Zimbabwe, your first homeland, spread out below.
When I stepped out of the plane in Nairobi I saw that the plane was named 'The Zambezi River,' and it made me think about how much you loved the South African band eVoid, about which I once read a review, which went like this:
'...to flow like the untainted waters of a languishing African river in no hurry to find the ocean, where you will only merge with many other rivers and lose your distinct and evocative individuality'.
To other readers, do look up eVoid if you don't know what I'm talking about. The Kwela Walk may be a good start:
You never had any hurry to be the first or best. You never lost your 'distinct and evocative individuality'. When we met in 2000, I had just returned from a sort of a state of emergency in Serbia, and arriving to Copenagen seemed way too little colourful. You changed that completely.
I'm not saying that being with and living with you was easy, because it wasn't, but though we agreed to move to each our end of Africa in 2005, we stayed very, very close friends. I knew I could always count on your supportive and honest feedback no matter where I found myself. Many times I have called you from small corners of Africa asked you for practical and philosophical advice. You were always loyal, always on my side.
Many times I came to see you in South Africa. Once, I came straight from a music festival in Zanzibar where I thought I had discovered some really cool Zimbabwean music, Comrade Fatso, and you just looked at me and went 'Ah, okay, that's fine, but the real stuff is so much better', and you digged out Thomas Mapfumo.
I didn't get it straight away, in fact it took me years to see that difference between self-proclaimers to the selflessness.
Or like the New Year's Eve in Durban where we stayed up till the sun rose, and high on everything drove to the lake at the game park where you and Laurrie threw off your clothes and ran into the lake. White South African middle class families watched the mad scenario unfold in front of their eyes from their camping tents and breakfast tables. I shouted: '
'The sign says 'no swimming', there are crocodiles in the lake!'
In your company, I usually stood out as the rational Scandinavian, the one thinking that guidelines had to be followed. You definitely taught me that there always is another way of doing it. Or the time you, Julia and I drove to Clarens and Lesotho. Without a proper soundtrack for the drive we had to stop at all the gas stations we passed in the Free State which by the way only offered Afrikaans gospel. I remember exactly what I bought when we finally reached a decent CD shop halfways: Jesse Clegg, Crowded House and Billy Idol. I remember you bought Pete Tosh.
When your sister called me Tuesday night telling me that you had collapsed, gone into a coma, that it was serious, I thanked her for calling me and booked a ticket to Johannesburg straight away. I had no doubt. I was told it was unlikely you'd come back. I got my ticket, and then the message came that you had died. I knew then that would you know of the grief it caused me, your family and friends it would devastate you. So, I tried two things: – to be strong, and to send out the strongest signal that I believe you are now in a better place.
I arrived and you dad and brother-in-law received me in the airport, we cried and hugged. We went to your sister's place, and all sat in a circle in the garden. Your sister-in-law handing me Amarula to 'take the edge'. In the days that followed, your family was granted kindness in abundance. Team work of another world. Community set in. People from the church, friends and family took care that your sister's house, where I stayed, got two hot meals a day, enough drinks, and snacks. And – let me mention, these meals were no way ordinary meals, they were made with love. Seriously good food. Friends of the family arriving in a constant flow, offering comfort, to sort practicalities or to listen and comfort.
I was there when your colleagues delivered an envelope with collected money to support your family. Your father cried, and showed me the envelope, and then I started crying again.
Gradually, we had to talk about what to do. What would you have wanted? I remembered you once told me over 10 years ago that you when you'd die, you'd want your ashes to be strewn over the land in Zimbabwe. Preferably accompanied to some loud music.
During the past days I have spent a lot of time with your sister. The last thing I told her before I departed, was that you would have been so proud of her. She is strong, and though she is grieving she has that 'fandenivoldskhed', as you'd say in Danish, which is needed when your fandenivoldsk brother dies. She suddenly said: 'We need purple ballons. We need many', and off we went to organise ballooons. You'd loved the exchange of words going on there at the balloon shop in Benoni. Not many order 120 high helium ballons for a memorial. They definitely realised we were on a special mission. I went to buy a little tree for your parents - from the Danes. We planted it in a pot in their front garden for your mum to nurse. Rather a pot, than the soil, I thought, we are dealing with flexible people here.
Your brother stood up at your memorial and talked in your honour. He told the story of what it was like when you got ideas and needed to implement them. Like, as in now now. We laughed loudly, we all knew the exact scenario of travelling with you: minimum preparation, minimum luggage, and as much long-distance driving as possible. I told your brother that you loved him to pieces. I told everyone else. Because it is true. I thought of the first time you brought me to Africa, in 2003. On a cargo plane, of course. The first night out in Johannesburg you told me that it wasn't gonna be anything like Copenhagen. That I couldn't just change my mind in the middle of it. That I couldn't decide to go back if I didn't like it. That if I got tired I'd have to ask for a bed and wake up and follow track if the party moved. It was either or. Go big or go home.
You always told me to concentrate. Not to do things halfways. I can hear you say: 'Come on, P'lett!' - clearly. Maybe you now have the time to set up the 'Guitars for Guns' project? Remember, when we drove up to Zimbabwe in 2003, and you took out your guitar every second time we made a stop (and we made many, as you had to greet the war veterans, drink Lion Beer and hug baobabs), and started playing. You said we should do a project where we collected guns from youth and gave each a guitar in return. You were never a big fan of the conventional ways NGOs complicated development work in pursuit for a better Africa. To you, it was all very simple. It was about having decent time for other people and to keep your promises.
Friends in Serbia called me. To tell me and your family that Serbia are thinking of you. Your former colleagues in Denmark have been sending their condolences. The Chilean community in Denmark. Baltasar asked for Mandoza to be played.
My parents. My sister texted me last night to tell that 'we have to live this life now'. She signed her message Arniman, Birgitteman, Baltasarman and Aprilman - as a personal greeting to your consequent style of providing us all with nicknames or adding the South African bro or -man to our names. All touched my heart deeply.
You did live your life. I am so proud to have been part of it. In general, you loved people unconditionally. I once went with you to a concert in Copenhagen where we were going to see Lucky Dube perform. Unfortunately he had become sick, and the concert was cancelled. People complained. You asked the doorman: 'But how is Lucky, is HE OK?!'
It there struck me straight, how differently you concluded from the rest of us. When you had to deal with a public institution in Denmark, you called them up and spoke to them in Danish. You always translated the South African, the necessary greeting into plain Danish: 'Hvordan går det med dig?'. I tell you my heart broke every time the Danish civil servant in the other end didn't welcome the African forwardness. But it worked on many others. The Pakistani kiosk in Elmegade, which you frequented in kikoi and flipflops, and where you did most of your shopping. I remember once walking down Nørrebrogade next to you, a black African man coming towards us. You greeted simultaneously. I asked:
'I know this is the African waybut he is black, and you are white. How did he tell that YOU are African!'
You just looked at me and laughed, explaining that being African is not a matter of colour. And that this is just plain decent behaviour. Ubuntu.
On December 1 in 2000 my Icelandic brother-in-law took us to the annual Icelandic independence celebration in Copenhagen. They poured snaps on us at the entrance, and inside the Icelandics bounced off the walls, dancing. You laughed, danced with everyone, and exclaimed that these were the first - white - people you've ever met dancing as freely as Africans.
You loved madness. You loved when people stuck out from the ordinary. I always remind myself. Where I tend to look confused you would celebrate the differences. You had empathy in abundance. You approached people fearlessly, genuinely believing everybody had good intentions. This is also how you lost mobile phones, lending them to strangers.
And this is the lesson we are all left with. As you once explained 'ubuntu' to me I think you may be secretly proud of what happened this past week. Without the community, the individual is nothing. Support structures is what keep us up and going. You were a master of being there for other people. We did our best to honour your very personal style, and I think we all realised how difficult it is to do so. Of letting other people shine. But - ubuntu is also about letting go of control, of letting things flow, of having faith. Saturday we sent you off with purple ballons to the tones of Prince's Purple Rain. We sang along: 'I never meant to cause you any sorrow I never meant to cause you any pain I only wanted to one time to see you laughing I only wanted to see you Laughing in the purple rain':
The crisp, blue sky gradually turned purple while we let our final wishes go with the ballons. Someone ordered a tray of tequila shots. Your sister had asked the bar to stock up Black Label. I reconnected with your oldest friends. The HIllcrest crew. Paul played the guitar. I was so happy he'd come, too. And more wood was added to the bonfire. I cried. I hugged friends and family. Your dad told me - many times: 'Love you lots! You know that, we love you lots?!' I know. It stood out so clearly that you didn't come out of nowhere but from the inclusive Slack clan who, though, they had a hard time this week truly honoured you. We did let you go. I let you go completely, because I know you are in a much better place. I believe in karma, and I believe that the sum of our good deeds, our acts of kindness, add up and pave the way forward to the next life. Be it heaven or where ever. We know that you right now are in peace.
We know that you may also be stirring up a congregation of former African freedom fighters, putting together a band comprised of excentric, multinational characters, you are likely to be wearing kikoi and flipflops, setting off fireworks from balconies, taking taxies to beaches to jump into the water naked, lending your mobile phones to people in the street (and never see it again), having beers with Nigerians in stonewashed denim suits, cutting out pieces of fine meat for biltong, searching for that particular spice, composing curries, composing music, shouting your usual 'howzit bro?!', and making new best friends. And if you get round driving a bicycle, let's just pray that the bicycle lanes aren't as narrow as in Copenhagen.
You were never one to folllow a straight line. And you're definitely not ironing, doing dishes, taking empty bottles to the shop, or being concerned about your bank statements. I've learnt one thing from this. I need to keep on doing what I'm best at. I must sort the everyday small petty issues from the bigger ones. I think I am on my way there, and therefore I am also in a good place to say my goodbyes to you. I know in my heart that you do know that you meant so much to me.
My favourite song by evoid:
PS. Please, note, I'm may be continously adding to this piece as it was originally written in air and in Nairobi coffee places - and because in my memory keeps producing times and places I think should be part of this.