Wednesday, March 08, 2006

honouring african women - marie fatayi-williams

Au Revoir Anthony - Marie Fatayi-Williams at her son's funeral, 23 July, 2005

"My son Anthony... has dreams and hopes and I his mother must fight to protect them!"

I photographed many outstanding individuals with my camera last year. Of all the pictures, I am most proud of this image of Marie Fatayi-Williams, taken at the funeral mass for her beloved son, Anthony, who died in the terrorist attacks on London - on July 7, 2005.

Over a thousand people of every race and creed attended the funeral mass at the Westminster Cathedral, London, on Saturday 23rd July. When it was over, I rushed out ahead of the deceased’s coffin at the end and was momentarily transfixed. Over 60 press photographers - not counting the ones inside - had formed a crescent outside the cathedral. Minutes later, I was in the thick of a media scrum, jostling with seasoned photographers - some with muscles rippled and toned from carrying heavy, sophisticated camera equipment - to snap Marie and to hear what she had to say. The photograph was the result of my own effort. The world’s press came to that place mainly because of a simple, heartbroken woman who in her grief had somehow managed to speak to the moment. She captured the imagination with her eloquence and became a symbol of light and beauty, a reminder of our humanity in this mad world.

Marie Fatayi-Williams first spoke to the press just days after the bombings, having flown hastily from Lagos on learning that her son had gone missing after the attacks. Dressed as many an African mother would dress and still clinging to the slim hope that Anthony would be found alive, Mrs Fatayi-Williams changed the tenor of those anxious days immediately after the atrocities. She spoke with a great intensity and urgency of feeling about her son that many who heard her on the evening news later confessed to having wept at her words.

"This is my son, Anthony, my only son, the head of my family!" she cried out, and we could not but be moved. And when it was later confirmed that Anthony had indeed died on the number 30 bus, we had a profound appreciation of the enormity of the loss to those who loved him. In an obituary published on August 3, 2005, the BBC website wrote: "No one could be left in any doubt about the passion with which Anthony Fatayi-Williams was loved by his family after hearing the deeply emotional speech delivered by his mother in the wake of the London attacks."

Marie’s face was splashed on the front pages of newspapers all over the world the morning after her speech. In a telephone conversation some weeks after, a friend from the United States told me that when he saw Marie in the American media he felt - yes, sadness - but also something odd, and that thing was pride. Pride, at seeing in spite of the terror, the vision of a remarkable woman who spoke with searing power and beauty. Thousands - Africans and non-Africans alike - were also proud of her and wanted to share in her grief. Marie became the human face of the London terrorist attacks, and this was what brought the world’s press to the door of the Westminster Cathedral on the afternoon of July 23rd. We had found a great communicator and for our own sanity, we clung to her, a great mother to her son - in life and in death.

After the funeral, friends of Mrs Fatayi-Williams confirmed that she had always been an exceptional individual. She is active in the Saint Rita Society in Lagos, a charitable organisation dedicated to feeding the poor. Marie and other members cook, then they take the food out in vans to distribute to homeless and hungry people on the streets. TV personality Julie Coker helped organise Anthony’s funeral; her own son's funeral mass (he died of Sickle Cell Anaemia) took place at this same cathedral the year before. Also in the gathering was Lagos socialite Mrs Taiwo Taiwo who lost her daughter, Aronke Abioye Taiwo, in a motor accident some years ago; she set up a charity (Aart of Life) in Abioye's memory. Another member of the Saint Rita Society, Esther Ogbeni, was on hand to provide support. How would the bereaved mother cope with Anthony's loss? I asked. Ms Ogbeni replied that Marie would find the strength to carry on, informing that, "Our patron saint, Saint Rita, lost two children during her lifetime." Altogether, I came away with a sense of the strength of women in times of grief.

I also love this picture of Mrs Fatayi-Williams because in the background is her husband, Alan. It was at the funeral that many recognised him as the man who stood silently next to her as she made the moving speech that first drew the world’s attention. I believe it is a special kind of man that recognises his wife as a gifted and arresting individual, and so patiently and lovingly stands in her shadow. Furthermore, I am humbled by this woman who with her husband next to her, honoured her son as "the head of my family." At the funeral mass, we finally got to hear Dr Alan Fatayi-Williams. He announced the setting up of a charity - Anthony Fatayi-Williams Foundation for Peace and Conflict Resolution - in memory of their son. Then he handed over to the grieving mum, saying: "This is my wife, Marie."

Studying my photographs of Mrs Fatayi-Williams days after the ceremony, I realised that she had held on to her rosary all through - even in the media scrum. In a time of the testing of faiths, she was holding tight to hers. And really, here was an occasion on which one could not deny the soothing role of religion in people's lives. Watching Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor - the highest Catholic in the land - praying and 'incensing' all around Anthony's coffin; watching the time-honoured rituals commemorating a life come to an abrupt end; it seemed possible to extract some meaning from the violent death of a promising young man in a mindless act of terrorism. There seemed to be a balm over the congregation and we felt elevated, wanting to be strong in spite of the sadness. One of the poems read out was titled: Miss Me, But Let Me Go.

The main breaking news on that Saturday was that the man shot seven times by police the day before on a train in Stockwell Tube Station was in fact a Brazilian. They had killed innocent Jean Charles de Menezes in the mistaken belief that he was 'of Middle-Eastern appearance'. The killing encapsulates the utter confusion, the muddle over right and wrong, and the jumbled up morality of post July 7 London. In this atmosphere, the Fatayi-Williams family were keen to send out a message of love and tolerance across the faiths at the funeral, describing their son as a 'world citizen' whose father, a Moslem, was comfortable sitting in a cathedral next to his devout catholic wife. Anthony also had a white grandmother. His best friend - a young man some British police officers would describe as being ‘of Middle-Eastern appearance’ - gave a moving eulogy in Westminster Cathedral. It was clear that the family (Anthony was the grandson of Nigeria's legal luminary, FRA Williams and the nephew of Tom Ikimi, a former foreign minister) had resolved to articulate a powerful public message, in the face of their loss.

Marie's own strength was not in any sleekness of presentation, but in the fact that everything she did came from the heart. She spoke only briefly in the cathedral. "To God be the glory," she said in a voice resolute with grief. "I thank God for Anthony's life, I thank God for his death. He had promised that when I was old and grey his healthy arms would be there to soothe my pains, but it was not to be." She revealed that in the family home, French was her secret language with her son; and whenever they did not want the others to know what they were saying, French was their medium of choice. And since (in deference to tradition) she would not be able to say goodbye at his graveside, she would bid him farewell here in this cathedral - as they secretly communicated during his life - in French. So Marie sang. Like many, all I understood in the song were the two words: Au revoir - but the emotion was almost unbearable and the congregation dissolved into tears.

Later that afternoon, I found myself next to a young man, undoubtedly a member of the Nigerian elite who thought that privilege conferred special abilities on those lucky enough to belong. Hearing my views about Marie's admirable qualities, he shrugged, saying: "Yes, but she's exposed," by which he meant that Anthony's mother is educated, civilised and well-travelled - and so was bound to impress. But he missed the point. It is one thing to be 'exposed', it is another to be able to communicate feeling in a way that touches the hearts of others. I have met many members of Nigeria's privileged classes, but very few are like Mrs Fatayi-Williams. Anthony was raised in a life of privilege but there was nothing elitist about the manner of his death, and it is how his mother reacted to the terrible loss that makes her - and him - truly special.

Some hours after the funeral mass, I passed with two friends - a journalist and a photographer - outside the Westminster Cathedral and we were taken aback to see a pair of newly-weds coming out after their marriage blessing. How could this same place - the site of so much grief just a few hours before - be marking a new beginning for this happy couple so soon? But then, it occurred to me that Anthony Fatayi-Williams would have liked it like this. As for his mother Marie, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor spoke for many, when he thanked Mrs Fatayi-Williams "for the extraordinary witness... you have given to the world since hearing of Anthony's death. By your words and actions, you have set before us a beacon of light in the response to terrorism."

On this, the International Women’s Day, I celebrate a remarkable woman who in her grief channelled her love in such a profound way, so much so that she became a light in a time of darkness. This is my tribute to Marie Fatayi-Williams - Mother Courage.


Blogger sokari said...

Thank you for posting this. As a mother of a young man, I feel her pain but at the same time it is beyond my comprehension. Her words spoke to all the mothers who have lost their children to the wanton everyday violence borne out of hate and ignorance.

9:00 pm, March 08, 2006  
Anonymous Akin said...

Hello Molara,

A very moving story of love, grief and motherhood.

It is sad that it sometimes takes facing tragedy for the deepest qualities of humanity to capture the moment and imagination of society.

I also heard her speak on that day and indeed I was moved to tears.

Thank you for this laudable piece of recognition.



12:36 am, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Pilgrimage to Self said...

What a moving, moving piece. I am still wiping the tears away.

9:39 am, March 09, 2006  
Blogger UARIDI said...

Thank you for honouring such a great mother. So very moving and such a wonderful woman of faith.

12:38 pm, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Renegade Eye said...

You're a class act. I've always felt lucky to have stumbled on to your blog.

7:42 am, March 10, 2006  
Anonymous onyeka nwelue said...

Anyway, everyone has said how they feel about your piece.

To me, it is just whimsical, scathing and painful, cos for a woman to have lost such a handsome and successful man should be waned away by incongrous idiots.

It is painful, infact.

2:17 pm, March 10, 2006  
Blogger uknaija said...

Great piece...

11:59 am, March 13, 2006  
Blogger tori said...

I wept when I read this. Thank you.

2:51 pm, March 16, 2006  
Blogger Helenism said...

what a wonderful post! To echo your friend in the U.S., I am proud of Marie Fatayi-Williams - her resilience and courage to speak reflects the spirit of so many African women who have senselessly lost their husbands, sons, daughters, friends...

Fatayi-Williams has used her grief to immortalize the memory of her only son and the collective memory of countless other victims of terror and hate around the world

9:51 pm, March 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know aunty Marie personally and I can confirm that she is an outstanding woman and an inspiration to us all.

11:14 am, July 27, 2006  

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