N'Gawa whose name means "Mother Hawa" in the Susu language is, Alseny Yansane, our Co-founder and Artistic Director's Mom. After 3-4 years of hyper-tension and a series of strokes which left her physically depleted and in tenuous health, she passed away on Wednesday, June 17th at 1 pm Conakry time. This is a really challenging time for our family, but especially for Alseny who is deeply connected to her and is heartbroken that he could not be by her side in her last days on this earth. Fortunately, Alseny was able to travel to Guinea at the beginning of this year and spend some time with his Mom and family, which was truly a blessing!
In reflecting upon their life together Alseny has so many fond memories of his Mom who along with his Grandmother was the matriarch of their family. N’Gawa survived 3 husbands, raised 7 children, and was a source of love and support for 18 grandchildren. For over 35 years she lived in the same compound in downtown Conakry with family and neighbors of whom she became completely inter-dependent. Despite our many attempts to move her to a nicer, more spacious place, she always preferred to live in her little room that she shared with her unmarried daughters and handful of grandkids. Of all of Alseny’s memories, the one that is most evocative in his mind is from his visit in the spring of 2018 when he went home for Ramadan, the Muslin month of fasting and prayer. It had been 4 years and 4 months since Alseny was able to make the trip back to Guinea and N’Gawa was so excited to see him that she just started dancing as family friends gathered around to clap, cheer her on, and welcome Alseny home. This happened after her very first stroke so everyone was very joyful about this sudden burst of movement for multiple reasons.
Papa remembers his Grandma with the help of us filling in some blanks. He was named after N’Gawa’s first husband and Alseny’s Dad, Mamadouba Yansane, but N’Gawa liked to call him Mohamed, the name of Islam's prophet and the nickname for her husband instead. Although she loved all of her grandbabies, N’Gawa had a special place in her heart for Papa and sometimes the other grand kids would be jealous of that! On one visit to our house that had an especially large living room, sparely furnished so that we would have enough room for dance lessons, N’Gawa brought a very hyper 2 year old Papa and her daughter’s son, Aboulaye. We had this plush, American mattress leaning against the wall out of the way so that we could dance and the boys got so excited, jumping on top of it, taking turns sliding down it like they were at the park. They had so much energy and were moving so fast and frantically, laughing and yelling loudly that I started to get a little headache, but N’Gawa just laughed and kept saying “those little rascals!”
I had the great honor of being N’Gawa’s daughter-in-law and she was my main reason and inspiration for learning Susu. During my first trip to Guinea in the year 2000 I lived a few months in Alseny’s family home in downtown Conakry and N’Gawa took such good care of me the whole time! Although she didn’t speak any French and my Susu at that time was very limited, it didn’t stop her from trying to talk to me or engage in beautiful acts of kindness, both big and small.
One of my most vivid memories of her at that time was how insistent she was about making sure I had a bucket of water on the ready so that I could wash up. I literally felt so conflicted about her doing this for me because I didn’t want her to fuss or have to go out of her way to make me feel comfortable, but she just wouldn’t have it any other way and that’s who she was, a genuine sweetheart, caregiver, and strong willed woman. Over time and as I became more proficient in Susu our relationship evolved and she was a big part of my life for the duration of my almost 7 year stay in Guinea. N’Gawa would visit Alseny and I every weekend and I would go downtown often to visit her regardless of whether Alseny was with me or not. She was kind, loving, friendly, strong, generous, well liked, was a stellar cook, and had a great sense of humor! She had this ongoing joke that she used to say while we waited together after a weekend visit for the overcrowded public transportation bus or “magbana” to arrive that her "personal taxi" was on the way. Although she could have taken an actual taxi that would have dropped her off at the closest, big intersection downtown, she preferred the “magbana” because despite the fact that it was a gutted van with 2 wooden benches that passengers squeezed on to fit in, its route went directly to her house.
N’Gawa was laid to rest on Thursday, June 18th and her big celebration of life will be on Sunday, June 28th. We were told that after she was placed in the ground and the final words were spoken, rain began pouring down the minute folks turned their backs away from the grave as they headed down the path out of the cemetery. This is just a stone’s throw away from where Alseny and I lived most of our collective time in Conakry. N'Gawa would visit us at that place in Camayenne frequently and at the end of each visit we'd walk with her to the "bus stop" and chat some more as she waited to catch her “magbana” ride home just across the street from where her body now lies. Alseny's older brother Ousmane, sounded so at peace when he was comforting us during that first phone call bearing the sad news saying, "all is well, our Mother has returned home."