In January 2013 I met a funny lady named Hasanatu in Conakry, Guinea. I quickly realized that she was the batty African grandmother I never knew I’d always wanted. Hasanatu guessed her age was somewhere between 60-65, but she couldn’t be sure. Frankly, she told me, she didn’t see the point in counting. “Years are just years.”
Hasanatu had been found by our Screening Team on a trip through Guinea’s interior. The tumor on her jaw was enormous. At that point of my time with Mercy Ships, it was one of the biggest I’d ever seen. On the day Hasanatu was supposed to be admitted, she no-showed. Like traveling, communicating in West Africa is never easy. Someone from the ship managed to contact her family. “We put her in a taxi to Conakry two weeks ago,” they said. Hmm, we said. Then where is she?
Meanwhile, someone familiar with Mercy Ships spotted Hasanatu in town (she was hard to miss). He pointed her in the right direction. Hasanatu finally showed up on the dock to the collective exhale of our Screening Team.
The night before her surgery I paid her a visit. “Mama Hasanatu, where exactly have you been?” I said. She smiled like she was considering letting me in on some adventurous secret but then dismissively flipped her hands in the air. “It is too long of a story, I would never finish it.”
The next evening after her surgery, I remember writing this:
During her recovery, Hasanatu became our resident matriarch. Somewhere along the way I stopped visiting her for the story I was working on – and I visited her just to listen.
Hasanatu told me about the children she had lost to malaria and about her late husband. She told me about her favorite dishes and she desperately tried to teach me Pular, her native language. This strong, spunky, Guinean woman was a thing to behold. She talked so much that I teased our translator that he was going to lose his voice. The story I would later write actually opens with this lede: “You’d better find a translator quick – because Hasanatu has a lot to say.”
When she had made enough progress, Hasanatu was moved from the hospital to our outpatient treatment center in town. On Valentine’s Day last year I went to see her. When I came in she grabbed my hand, walking me to the far side of the porch to sit down. I distinctly remember being flattered. Everyone’s favorite outspoken grandmother wanted me to sit next to her. She gave me a wreath she’d made for me to wear. I thanked her and roughly explained that in the U.S. it was Valentine’s Day, a day when you celebrate the people in your life that you love. She seemed pleased with her timing and taught me how to say grandmother in Pular.
Since I left Guinea, Hasanatu has crossed my mind regularly. In our morning Comms meeting Tuesday her name came up. Being the legendary little thing that she is, we spent several minutes lost in stories about her. I laughed especially hard telling about the time that Sia, a Guinean translator and a good friend of mine, found Hasanatu walking down the hospital hallway toward the stairs in her gown and bandages – she was carrying all of her belongings. “Mama H, where are you going?” Sia said. Hasanatu responded that she was homesick and tired of being a hospital patient. She wanted to go home to her village, and if we really loved her like we said we did, we would let her leave. Sia explained that it was because we loved her that she had to stay until she was fully healed. Sia escorted a reluctant Hasanatu back to her ward, where I am sure she complained about the air conditioning. (“We are going to freeze,” she used to say.)
While I hate that this sweet woman was homesick, the image of little Mama H in her hospital gown, head wrap, and suitcase still makes me laugh to tears. If not for Sia, I’m fairly sure that Hasanatu could have negotiated her way past the security guards and down the gangway. Her strong-willed attitude was not to be messed with. Hasanatu was 90 pounds of sass and antics that you couldn’t help but love.
Thanks to that spunky little lady, I began my Tuesday with belly laughs. I walked out of the conference room wondering how Mama H was doing and if she ever thinks about me, her ‘white granddaughter.’ I couldn’t have known then how grateful I would be later for our morning of memories and laughter.
It was a few hours before I saw the email. During that time, I got to work and I had a cup of coffee. I enjoyed that nonspecific happiness that comes with having a good day. I was sitting in a meeting with my manager, Leigh, when I glanced at the email on my phone. A shocked, coincidental, emotion washed over me.
I handed the phone to Leigh because I wasn’t sure how to tell her. Mama Hasanatu passed away Thursday, February 20th at home in her village, the email said. A year after a life-changing surgery, she died from an unrelated illness. Leigh and I were both quiet for a bit, then she looked up and said the perfect thing like she usually does:
“Hasanatu was healed first, that is what’s important.”
I knew Leigh was right, but I had to go through a series of other emotions before I settled on gratitude. Hasanatu had barely been healed a year. The surgery, recovery, and pain – for what? In a far-away African village she lived for more than three decades with an unbearable tumor because she had no access to healthcare. Then one day a caravan of medical people in Land Rovers came through and offered to change her life. She came to the ship, she had the massive tumor removed, and she recovered. Shouldn’t she at least get ten good years on this side of such an experience? As the storyteller who put Hasanatu’s journey on paper, I assumed that her story was just beginning. A year later, I figured that she’d be leading conga lines, giving out free advice, and eating cassava with whatever teeth she had left. Sure, she was older than our other patients, but with that much spunk I suspected she could outlive me. It didn’t seem fair.
Gratitude eventually came. I don’t know if I would have found it yet if not for the fact that earlier that morning I’d been overwhelmed with gratitude for Hasanatu’s life. The stories my teammates and I shared just before we learned she had died were part of a beautiful coincidence that I don’t think was a coincidence at all.
It is painful to know Mama H is gone, but I think she would agree that the last year of her life was her biggest adventure yet. All of us here who knew Mama H carry with us many more stories that we will tell again and again. My future is filled with reminiscing about that adorable firecracker in a headscarf who called me her granddaughter.
Hasanatu will always be my favorite funny Valentine – and the stories I tell about her will always leave me laughing in the end.
Photos courtesy Deb Bell and Michelle Murrey, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014