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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Across The Odokoko River – Tribute to Abou Whyte

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By Ahmed Koroma

Today, April 14th 2020, we laid to rest a brother, uncle, cousin, husband, grandfather and friend. We buried a national hero. Abou Whtye (may his soul rest in eternal peace),  represented our country; us as a people in many facets of our cultural lives.  He was a mentor and a trailblazer. Most Sierra Leoneans will remember Abou Whyte as a legend. The musical genius whose contribution to Salone music spans five or so decades. The band leader and one of the cultural superstars of his time. The giant who successfully helped to create, establish and sustain what is essentially original Salone music. He will be remembered as a cultural icon, not just in the realm of recorded music and performance, but also for his contribution to creative arts and crafts. But this is not the Abou Whyte I will remember. These are not the memories I will forever cherish. I will remember a brother who inspired us to pursue our dreams with passion.

Every Ramadan, during the Night of Power, our grandmother of blessed memory, would remind us that it was “Abou’s birthday.” That he was born on the night when “the angels and the spirit descend therein by permission of their Lord for every matter.” And that “peace it is until the emergence of dawn.” She told us that Abou was born on Lylatul Qadr.  So the adage that some people are born great is somehow evident. So growing up, I watched a leader evolve over time. I saw someone who helped and developed his friends and family members around him. I saw a man who built a band of brothers and mentored many including his contemporaries. Sineh Koroma, one of his closest friends and brothers,  described the relationship very succinctly in fewer words when he said that “he was like to brother to us.” The rest of the band of brothers – Salu Yankay, Or’bana, Ahmed Flint Turay, Momodu Sallu Turay, Sullay Mansaray, Afa Saad, Abdul Rahman, Lilly Ali, John Balumbe – to name a few, felt the same way. They were more than friends. They were brothers.

Abou took care of us. In every sense of the word ‘care’. My love for creative writing started when I would listen to and sometimes stumble upon his crumpled ruled papers with unfinished lyrics and songs in Lingala that Abou scribbled and recited. He had a fantastic penmanship as well, something I admired and envied. I saw poetry in his lyrics. I would listen to him practice these songs over and over in his tiny room across the pantry. And how I wanted to be like him. Not as a singer- I couldn’t sing even if my life depended on it – but as a songwriter. We organized a kid band at the back of the house between lantern seasons. The late Claudius Unisa Thomas, Siaka Massaquoi , Momodu Salu Bah, all kids growing up at Frederick Street, put together a makeshift band and pretended to be Orchestre Muyei. And Abou was always there to give us that smile of acknowledgement. And oh. One night, as we approached the back house to practice, we were chased by someone we thought was an evil spirit. We sprinted back into the house, screaming and calling for my grandmother. It was later that we learned that the ‘evil spirit’ was indeed Abou. He pulled a prank on us. He had a great sense of humor that we witnessed growing up.

Being a brother of Abou Whyte came with an extra street cred and safety in the neighborhood. We were never afraid to walk the streets of Freetown at the dead of night. The reason was simple. We were younger brothers of Abou Whyte, therefore, urchins and ‘rarray boys’ in the street corners wouldn’t touch us. It was a badge of protection and a free pass into the most dangerous of places in Central Freetown and beyond.

As I listened to the live streaming this afternoon, of the Janaza prayer to bade farewell to this hero of mine, my mind took me back to those days when our grandmother passed away. In ninety seventy-nine. As we proceeded down Mountain Cut after prayers at our mosque, one of the onlookers yelled out, “na Abou Whyte in granny so.” Ha! He was that famous brother. Even as the family mourn a matriarch, he was the popular one among us who got the recognition and callout. As I watched the pictures of his burial, and given the restrictions during this difficult time and our inability to pay our final respect at the cemetery, one picture captured my attention. I used my thumb and index fingers to enlarge it. It was a photograph of Alhaji Shamsu Cole as he walked away from the burial site. This was not a happenstance. This picture tells a story. For it catapulted me back to the early seventies. When Shamsu would stand neck-a-neck in front of the Vimto Lantern float with Abou Whyte, a brother and friend, to celebrate the end of Ramadan. He was part of that band of brothers. 

See, we pride ourselves as children of Bambra Tong. That even though we trace our roots to Foulah Tong and Fourah Bay, Bambra Tong is that little enclave across the Odokoko stream, below Tower Hill that we still call home.  It is a place that we cherish. And Bambra Tong has lost a son.

I am reminded of a poem by Leigh Hunt, an English poet aptly named “Abou Ben Adhem”. The character’s encounter with an angel is described in this exchange below:

“What writest thou?”—

The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

“And is mine one?” said Abou.

“Nay, not so,” Replied the angel.

Abou spoke more low,

But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,

Write me as one that loves his fellow men.

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blest,

And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest. “

May Allah preserve the finest place for those who loved their fellow men. Abou, no doubt, will be among them.

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