Almost three weeks ago I was at work when I received the devastating information that my brother Ras Kelly had transitioned to be with the ancestors. It was a moment of déjà vu as I slowly sank onto a seat. In seconds, feelings of shock, denial, disbelief even anger raced through my mind. I was reliving the same feelings of many years ago when I received the information about my mother’s transitioning. I was at work on that fateful day also, just about to teach a class. My mother was a fairly young woman when she transitioned and so was my brother. When my mother transitioned her youngest child was seven years old and so was Kelly’s youngest child when he transitioned. There were so many similarities I thought about as I relived the pain of losing another member of my family. We were not expecting that a heart attack would take Kelly from us since he was in his 40’s and healthy. He was a practicing Rastafarian who was very particular about his diet and he exercised regularly. My brother Kelly was the fifth of my parents’ nine children. He was a peaceful, gentle, intelligent and charming child who grew up to be a lavishly handsome man with a beautiful spirit. He made friends easily because people were attracted by his looks, his gentle charming manners and his spirit. He also had a quirky sense of humour that his seven year old daughter has inherited. When he was a teenager my brother loved karate movies and two of his favourite actors were Bruce Lee and Jimmy Wang Yu whose actions he would try to imitate, which was sometimes hilarious and sometimes disastrous because he had no formal martial arts training.
When my brother and his family left Toronto for Rome, Italy in 2003, I did not think that it would be our last farewell. Years after my mother left us I would wake up from dreams where she was still alive and still with us. Even though my brother has transitioned I still feel that he is with me and when I traveled to Rome to attend his funeral I could feel his presence. While I was there I made several visits to the train station where he collapsed. It was particularly difficult for me to do that 15 minute walk, retracing his last footsteps because no one was with him in his last minutes. He was on his way to his child’s school to take her home. He had the day off and they had planned the day. They would sing, he in his off key fashion, some of the Guyanese folk songs we sang as children. People on the train would stare at them since the songs were in the Guyanese Creolese language and unfamiliar to any listeners who are not Guyanese, but it was fun and that was important. My niece has assured her mother and I that she knows the exact spot where her father collapsed because she can sense him there.
We do not know how long he lay there after he collapsed in what is one of the busiest train stations in Rome. People hurrying from one train to catch another train or one of the buses at this central point may not have paid much attention to a young African man in obvious pain and distress. My sister-in-law shared with me that when police eventually noticed my brother had collapsed and phoned for an ambulance it was too late to save his life. My brother was an educated, intelligent man who taught English at a post secondary institution in Rome but when he collapsed that was not what the people hurrying by saw, or someone would have stopped and offered help before it was too late. I am sad about that. My niece is a beautiful child who will grow up without her father. She is trying to make sense of what happened and shared with me that even though we cannot see him her Dad is still with us.
I visited the school my niece attends to share information about Kwanzaa which is not a celebration that is known in Rome. My brother and his family took the celebration of Kwanzaa to Rome and shared with the Rastafarian community and others who were interested. I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Rastafarian community in Rome. The members of that community although they have traveled from different places (Argentina, Burundi, Ethiopia, Guyana, Martinique, San Andres, Senegal, Sudan etc.) have become a community who support each other. I was made to feel as though I was a member of their family as I was welcomed into the home of one of the Rastafarian brethren during my visit to the city. I went there as a guest and left at the end of the week, a family member thanks to their love, support, understanding and generosity. We celebrated Kwanzaa together before I left Rome.
Since his passing, some members of my family gathered to remember Ras Kelly and as we spoke about him I realized that my brother although he was young, had lived a full life. Wherever he lived, he was involved in the community. He traveled throughout North, South and Central America and he contributed to the community in those places. While he lived in Canada he was involved with the African Canadian Cultural Collective, the African Foodbasket and Camp Tiamoyo. The African Foodbasket is a “community based, non-profit, co-operative, community development movement that is committed to meeting the nutrition, health and employment needs of members of the African Canadian community, in particular those who are economically and socially vulnerable.” Camp Tiamoyo is an African centred camp where campers as young as six months old are incorporated into an African village type community to live the African saying ”It takes a village to raise a child.” This two week overnight camp is an intergenerational camp where campers take part in activities which engage the minds of everyone, inculcates pride in their African heritage, helps build self esteem and it should be replicated in our community. It is an experience that every African child needs to help combat and heal the spirit injury of feeling disconnected that many experience in this society.
My niece choose the Kiswahili name “Zawadi” for her father. Zawadi means gift and Ras Kelly was truly a gift that was given to us for a few years. As I looked at my brother’s face for the last time, he seemed to be sleeping peacefully and I made my peace with the manner in which he transitioned because Jah Rastafari sees all and knows all and that is how it was supposed to happen. My brother was such a believer that I have to let go of the anger I was feeling at the manner of his passing and let him go in peace.
Written in December 2007