. Almost all of us love life. Many of us fear death. However, many of us use death to protect our life. Some of us end our life by committing suicide. Some of us kill those we think are threats to our life. We destroy the same life we cherish. We destroy the same life we protect.
I am sure many people from my beloved country, Rwanda, have had moments, or many years, of wondering about life and death. What’s life? What’s death? Does death put an end to life? Why did our compatriots kill our loved ones? Why did God allow the death of our loved ones? What did the killers gain from killing our loved ones?
Despite all these questions many of us have not yet found answers for, I continue to read stories about people who kill others. I continue to hear or read my compatriots saying that they might resort to killing, violence, or wars. Do we think that destroying another person’s life preserves ours? Do we believe that eliminating another person from our sight eliminates him/her from our life?
Nobody can eliminate another person from life because life is a whole and is for eternity. I dwell in you, you dwell in me, for eternity. Therefore, even when I will have left your physical reach, I will continue to dwell in you and all living beings in this thing we call the world.
In this written piece, I want to share with you my thoughts or philosophy, if you like, about life and death. Before I do, let me first clarify one thing: As much as I do not ignore spiritualism or metaphysics, I am writing about life and death here from a scientific point of view.
Below are some of my philosophies about life and death, and which guide some of my values when it comes to preserving the beauty and quality of life:
We all form this thing we call ‘Life.’ You dwell in me and I dwell in You. We are two different beings but parts of one life. When you are hurt, I think it, feel it, and act it. When I am hurt, you think it, feel it, and act it. In other words, what happens to you is felt by my mind, soul, and body. The same applies to what happens to me, whether good or bad.
Beings die or leave the physical world when they lose their capacity to function, either caused by aging or damage. Although aging is about senescence, damage may result from contact with another living or non-living thing in a way that destroys how the being functions.
Death is simply the conversion of a part of life from a functioning being to a passive being absorbed into the fullness of life. Even though we can no longer see the departed being with our bodily eyes, that being continues to be part of life. So, when a person dies, he/she leaves our physical reach but does not leave this life we are all part of.
Let’s look at each of these philosophies separately:
- We all form this thing we call ‘Life.’ You dwell in me, and I dwell in You.
The first time I discussed this with my friends, I warned them that it might make them nauseous. Though some asked me to shut up, many said they were glad to be reminded that we all form one eternal life.
In this life, everything that comes out of me, my sweat, saliva, mucus, poop, blood, etc., doesn’t go anywhere else, but either into the air you breathe or on the soil from which you get your food. So, in other words, whatever comes out of me stays in this life we share, and whatever comes out of you stays in this life we share. So you and I and all living things are part of this life we call biodiversity, if we consider only its biophysical state.
It’s not only my physical lubricants or substances that stay in this life we share. My joy, anger, sadness, words, songs, and everything that I produce reach you as either positive or negative energy and affect how you think, feel, and act. How I live either makes you comfortable or uncomfortable. How I live either annoys you or gratifies you. You feel my pain; I feel yours. You share my joy; I share yours.
Sometimes you convince yourself you don’t care, but you and I know that it costs you a lot to pretend to be blind to my colors and lights or deaf to the sounds I make. Sometimes, when I tell you my story, you tend to shut me up, because it makes you uncomfortable in your skin. When you see me dancing, and you remember you do not want to dance with me, you ask me to get out of your sight, or else you might unconsciously join in the dance. It’s difficult for you to ignore my pain or joy, that’s the reason why you fight so hard not to notice me, but unfortunately, I don’t go away. The sooner you realize how our lives are connected and start ensuring all is well with me, the more comfortable you shall be to live harmoniously with this diversity that forms the life we share. When you surround yourself with people who exhibit nothing but positive energy, your life on earth becomes a unending feast.
To conclude, when I think about the fact that whatever physically comes out of another being ends up in the air I breathe, the water I drink, or the food I eat, I conclude that we are more connected than we might think. We are parts of one life. Hurting another human being is like raising your hand to slap your own cheek. When I think about how the emotional state of people in my surroundings affects my own emotions, I conclude that if I want to be happy, I should make sure those in my surroundings are happy. I should make them smile so that I may smile back. If I want my life to be sweet, then I should spread sweetness all over I pass.
To my fellow Rwandans:
Though you’re in one of the poorest countries on the globe, you may probably be among the richest people in Rwanda who enjoy the modernization and the civilization of the 21st century, similar to that of developed countries where you go for holidays and/or you sent your children to study. You’ve tried to modernize your house and the small space around it. But, I bet, you shall never find complete comfort and happiness when you continue to be surrounded by many unfortunate people, who do not aim for the same luxury you enjoy, but at least food on their plates and clothes on their skin.
When I see you chasing away those street vendors from Kigali, I feel you. When I see you sending those poor street kids away to convince yourself you’ve dealt with their pain, I feel you. When I see you demolishing houses you don’t want to see close to yours, I feel you. However, I want to warn you that the cries of those people will continue to make unpleasant music in your ears, and even when you shall wear shades to pretend you don’t see them, you will not help but notice tears on their cheeks.
As long as people continue to weep around you, their pain shall bother you whether you want it or not. If their pain does not worry you today, it shall trouble you tomorrow. I only pray that you and I learn to put smiles on their grey faces before they turn into angry faces and come back on us as dangerous explosives.
Whether we like it or not, the pain of others affects us consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, immediately or later. Therefore, if we want to be happy, we should ensure those in our surroundings are happy.
I am very proud of what Rwandan society has been able to achieve. I am proud of our resilience. I am proud of our willingness to continue pushing. Please, let’s ensure none of us is left behind. Let’s feed the poor, take care of orphans, widow and widowers, treat well the prisoners, and more importantly ensure nobody is hurt by our words and actions.
- Beings die or leave the physical world when they lose their capacity to function, either because of aging or damage.
As earlier stated, many Rwandans have asked themselves a lot of questions about death. Some got answers from their spiritual and religious beliefs and think that it’s either decided or allowed by the Almighty, and apart from praying, there is nothing else they might do. Some others are still searching for answers or have given up looking for answers. They think that death is there and comes when it wants to steal another person or another living from us, and there is nothing we can do about it.
From my Christian and cultural upbringing, I also used to believe that we had no control over death. I thought that no person could die if God had not decided to take off his life from the earth. But, that belief did not help me a deal. How could somebody convince me that God chose to take off my dad’s life when he was only 50 years old? Who could convince me that God decided to shatter the lives of my brothers, who were starting their young adulthood? No. It was so unbearable to blame the Almighty for the actions of those who killed my father, my brothers and many other members of my family.
I decided to search for answers from science, and below is what I understood:
A human body is a physical structure that includes bones, flesh, and organs. It consists of several biological systems that carry out specific functions for our living. These systems include but are not limited to the respiratory system, circulatory system, digestive system, nervous system, etc. In these biological systems, two or more organs, such as heart, brain, kidneys, lungs, etc. work together to execute a body function, e.g., circulating blood or digesting food. Organs are made of tissues, which also perform different tasks in a given body function. The tiniest units of our body are known as cells, and we have billions of them. Each of the cells plays a particular role, and harmonically, they all work together to perform the function of the organ they belong to.
Our body grows as cells multiply, but with age, fewer and fewer cells multiply. In performing the functions of the body organs they belong to, cells also get damaged and destroyed. Thus, throughout our life, our body cells die.
There are so many scientific theories on aging and death, and I may not go through them. However, the only thing that I would like you to note is that it reaches a point where the damage of body cells leads to the termination of biological functions and systems that sustain our physical being.
A number of things may damage our body cells, and lead to our physical death. For example:
What we take into our bodies; the process the body goes through to digest what we eat and drink; and finally, how the body regulates the demand and supply of the nutrients from what we eat and drink.
Sources of energy that may cause injury and disease. Examples of these include noise, vibration, radiation, and extreme temperatures.
Accidents, homicide, suicide, being attacked by insects or animals, the adverse outcome of surgery, etc.
Aging whether we want it or not, due to the process known as senescence, which refers to as the process of deteriorating with age, when our cells lose the power of division and growth.
From the above, we can conclude that death is not a mysterious thing that comes and takes away our life. It’s not the calling of God that we hear and say, ‘yes, I am coming.’
Death is a process that takes place in our bodies, either because of the damage to our cells and organs caused by what we take in, what we come across, what hits us, or the natural deterioration of our organisms.
The death of my dad, brothers, and many other loved ones, whose lives were shattered in 1994, was caused by the fact that some compatriots, who understood how human bodies functioned, decided to disrupt and destroy the biological systems my people and cause their death. This is a fact, and the sooner we understand it, the quicker we shall make decisions to prevent a recurrence. No Rwandan should ever die because a compatriot has decided to end his or her life.
My mother also died because of a disruption of her biological functions. However, the difference between the death of those who were murdered is that my mother died of diabetes. The American Diabetes Association states that lifestyle factors and genetics cause type 2 diabetes. When we understand that what we take in our bodies and how we take care of our bodies may lead to our physical death, we start making better lifestyle decisions.
To conclude, we die either because of aging or damage to our body systems. Those who pollute the air, cut the trees, poison the food, drive carelessly, intoxicate others in one way or the other, or take guns or other weapons to kill may cause physical death of other human beings, and this should not be attributed to any mystery.
To my fellow Rwandans:
Each year, our nation commemorates the Genocide against the Tutsi, which happened in 1994, when Rwandans were killed by their compatriots, their neighbors, their friends, and even their relatives. The death of our loved ones did not just happen. It’s not because it was their God-decided time. No, our compatriots killed them.
It’s not only the Genocide against the Tutsi that claimed the lives of Rwandans. Our country experienced a civil war for four years, from 1990 to 1994, and many lives of our compatriots perished in that war. Think about the fallen soldiers. Think about the civilians hit by bombs or bullets. After that civil war, many Rwandans left Rwanda for Congo and experienced the two Congo wars. Again, so many lives were shattered.
Each death has a cause, and whenever we can, we should avoid that cause. We can take care of our bodies and minimize the risk of falling sick and/or dying young. Even the aging that cannot be avoided can be delayed by taking good care of our bodies. We should minimize the occurrence of accidents and natural disasters, and more importantly stop causing the death of other human beings.
When a person is shot dead, we should all care and condemn it. When a compatriots commits suicide, we should all wonder why and take measures to make the world sweeter for all of us so that nobody shall ever feel the urge to end his or her days in this visible world. When a person is found dead for unknown reasons, instead of jumping to conclusions, we should investigate the reasons for his or her death and make sure the causes of those deaths are eradicated.
Though, as my brothers used to say, death does not kill anybody, we should never ignore effects of death on our physical and psychological wellbeing. The more we understand death and how to delay or avoid it, the sooner we shall be able to embrace its reality, and accept it when it finally and naturally happens.
- Death is simply the conversion of a part of life from a functioning being to a passive being absorbed into the fullness of life.
Last but not least, I would like to discuss the fact that whether we want it or not, we continue to live with our dead. As much as some of us think dead people are gone, they are not. They continue to live with us and among us. We may pretend to forget them, but the truth is we can’t. We remember the lives we shared with them and recall the days they breathed their last.
Despite my religious beliefs that my father and brothers had gone to live with the Lord or my scientific understanding of what caused their death, I have continued to live with them day and night. Each Rwandan young man reminds me of my brothers. Each father reminds me of my father. Each experience I have lived, I have always wondered how they would have helped me or rejoiced with me. Nobody probably understands how I have suffered because of their death, but till today, I am still grieving their death.
Our dead people do not only stay in the memories of those who loved them, but everybody who knew them or who heard about them even after they were gone. They live in the memories of those who shared good moments with them, and even those who made their lives miserable.
Physically, even though we can no longer touch, talk to, or hug our dead, they are still there; in this life. Where do we put to rest the bodies of our dead people? In Rwanda, we bury them. Very soon, we shall start to cremate them. In other cultures, cremated remains are used for tattoos, trenched, or scattered in the sea. Whether we bury the body in the ground, keep the cremated remains in our living rooms, trench the cremated remains somewhere else, use them for tattoos or scatter them in the sea, our dead people remain in this life we share. Those buried in the ground decompose, and water spreads the particles of their bodies in the soil we get food from and in the water we drink. The cremated ashes evaporate in the air we breathe. So, whatever way we put our loved ones to rest, they continue to live with us physically and in us, although we can no longer see them, touch them, kiss, and hug them.
Psychologically, many of us think that only those who loved the departed are affected by their death. No. Even those who were indifferent to their existence, hated them, or worse caused their death, are very much affected by the absence of the dead people.
Those who killed our loved ones know better than anybody else that God did not call our people. They vividly remember the clothes they were wearing the day of they were shot dead, killed by machetes or burnt alive. They remember their eyes begging them not to kill them. Whenever they see the orphans, widows or widowers they left, they once again see the dead people and wished they could talk to them and ask for forgiveness, or run far away where nothing shall remind them of the dead. They want to run away till when they realize that the dead people actually dwell within their memories, and if they want to be happy, all they have to do is to live in harmony with them; what I avoiding to call; ‘reconcile with the dead.’
I used to think that I needed to get over the death of my father and brothers. But, when I understood they dwell in me, I decided to embrace that reality. Therefore, I will always talk about them because they will always be a part of me. Those who may not want me to talk about them, I know why; maybe it makes them uncomfortable because it either reminds them how they lived or how they died. They are probably troubled by the idea that other human beings with whom they shared Rwanda caused the death of my loved ones. My aim is not to make my compatriots uncomfortable but to enjoy the fact that my people continue to live in me. I aim to enjoy the life of my parents and siblings whose blood runs in my vein. I aim to celebrate the eternity of their life, my life, our life.
To my fellow Rwandans:
If we want Rwanda to be a great place to live happily, we should reconcile with our dead compatriots. We should acknowledge that they did not die because God had decided. They died because some of us killed them, whether during the Genocide against the Tutsi, during the war, or any other times throughout our history when a Rwandan killed another Rwandan. No human being deserves to be killed for one reason or the other.
Even though living with dead people is a good thing to celebrate because it reminds us of the eternity of life, it’s so bad when the memories of these people continue to remind us that some of us caused their death. Today, we continue to hear and read stories about Rwandans who get killed by their relatives, business partners, or by other unknown people for unknown reasons. All we are doing is to increase the number of Rwandans who shall continue to live either searching for justice for their loved ones or troubled with the nightmares of those they caused to die. We are adding to the trauma of our Rwandan society. Rwanda shall not heal if we do not stop killing Rwandans.
Imagine how many Rwandan children today know that other Rwandans killed their grandparents, uncles, or aunties. Imagine their curiosity whenever they watch TV and listen to the radio. Imagine their curiosity whenever they pick a book on Rwanda or land on one of those confusing social media pages. Imagine them walking around the streets of Kigali searching for the villains of the stories their parents did not want to tell them in detail. Rwanda is not healing today or tomorrow, but it may heal the day after tomorrow if we do take the necessary measures to end deaths that leave people traumatized.
We, of this generation, are victims of the mistakes made by past generations, but the responsibility to end the vicious cycle of violence, killings, and wars is in our hands. Maybe our children will not blame us for the history before us, but they will blame us for having not seized the opportunity of the 21st century to do better than our great-grandparents, our grandparents, and our parents.
For those whose loved ones left the invisible world, either because they got sick, were hit by accidents, had aged, or were killed, my message to you is that you’re alive and only those alive have the responsibility to make this world a better place for current and future generations. As you continue to grieve the death of your loved ones, please be reminded that life is eternal and continue to sweeten it. The best gift we can offer to our dead is to honor their life by perpetuating everything beautiful and sweet we knew about them. Let’s continue living because we know they live in us.
I dwell in you, you dwell in, for eternity.
Whatever comes out of me, whether physically or psychologically, ends up in the life you and I share. The same applies to whatever comes out of you. So if you do not want my awful smell and my bitter saliva to pollute your space, please make sure all I get from you is perfume and sweetness. Sweeten my life, and I will sweeten yours. Let’s both of us exhibit nothing else but positive energy. Everything shall turn out positive, beautiful, and sweet.
I know I will die, but I also know that whatever happens, I will continue to dwell in you and all living things for eternity. So the day you will be waving bye to me, keep in mind that I will stay there in your food, water, songs, books, memories, dreams, etc.
You and I have a responsibility to fulfill: To make life better for ourselves and those in our surroundings, to reconcile with our dead, and make sure no other person shall leave this world because another human being has decided to kill them.
My name is Umwagarwa.