Northern Nigerian Breaking News

Tribute to my dear uncle, Jamil A. Salim-Mustapha Bello

By Mustapha Bello, PhD

The call lasted for about 43 seconds, but it was the most dreadful phone call I ever received. Its content was life-shattering and brought a sudden feeling of hopelessness. Perhaps it was a premonition, but I had difficulties falling asleep that night. I was, thus, awake when the phone call came through around 2 am. A phone call around that time is often a harbinger of some bad news, but I never thought it would be about the passing away of my dear uncle.

It was Jaafar on the phone, and the words he uttered still reverberate in my ears. “Yaya Mustapha, Baba ya tafi, ya tafi ya bar mu” (“Yaya Mustapha, Baba has gone, leaving us behind”). It was a euphemism, but the meaning slowly sank in. I cannot remember how the call ended, but I could not process the message then. Kawu (uncle) Jamilu could not be dead! Jafaar must be wrong!

So, I grabbed my keys and went towards the door. My wife heard me fumbling with the front door and asked me where I was going and I told her that I had left my car headlights on. I am sure she did not believe me, but I could not tell her then. She was very close to Kawu Jamilu since childhood and I knew she could not handle it.

His house is not far from ours, so I walked towards the house, fervently praying that Jaafar had made some mistakes. It was 2 am, but I was not even aware of my surroundings. I just kept walking, which seemed endless.

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We always assume that the sick will die before the healthy ones, and the old will die before the young ones. In the realm of God, however, there is only time for us to exit, whether sick or healthy, old or young. But we are humans, the fallible. How could Kawu Jamilu die now? He was healthy, very active, and was at the peak of his career. I think that I took it for granted that Kawu would live to be an old grandpa, playing with his grandchildren. My dream is cut short. Kawu Jamilu is gone!

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The sequence of activities that night is permanently engraved in my mind. It was the longest and most dreadful night in my life: the ambulance driving in, his body taken into the house, and the seven hours we spent with his body, praying and crying. Kawu Jamilu is really dead. There was I, touching his lifeless body, the reality dawning on me. I could not fathom it.

Innalillahi wa innalillahirrajiun (from Allah we are, and to Him, we return), Kawu is dead! He is gone. We will never see him again, talk to him, confide in him. Jamil, my second child who was named after him, will never grow to fully know his grandpa! He is about 3 years old now. Muhammad, the elder one, asked his mother where is Baba, and she told him that he has gone to Jannah (paradise). He then asked “When will I go there to meet Baba” and she told him “When you grow white hair and become a grandpa like him” It was touching.

Whilst I try to control my emotions, my wife is in greater shock as she was closer to Kawu Jamilu. She was very close to Kawu since childhood, and when he got married, Sweetie (as he called her) went to ive with him and his wife. She was then in primary school. She grew up as the first child in the house, taking care of the younger ones. They grew up together as one happy family; Maryam, Fatima (Ummi), Maryama, Yusra, Zahra, Jaafar, Muhammad, Rabi’atu (Adabiyya), Khadija (Nana), Mukhtar (Waleed), Hasiya (Nadiya), Hafsat (Hajiya), and Aliyu (Haidar). She lived with them until we got married. Kawu Jamilu was a constant figure in my life, shaping it significantly.

Although I could not remember much of my interaction with him prior to 1995, his presence in my life became prominent during my transition from secondary school to university. He was then working as an administrative staff at Bayero University, Kano (BUK), but I was not sure about his rank. When I refused to take up the course offered to me, and instead chose to go for the preliminary/remedial program offered by the University, Kawu was very supportive. He asked the reasons for my decision, and when I explained to him, he appeared convinced and told me to go ahead.

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Kawu Jamilu was a pillar upon which I rested and drew the strength that enabled me to complete my studies. I would go to his office, almost every other day. He was very caring and would ask me about my studies and whether I was facing any problems. I would always come out with something from his office: fatherly advice or some cash, mostly both. On Fridays, I would go to his office around 12:30 pm and we would go to Jumu’at prayer together at the Old Campus of the University. After the prayers, we would go to his house to have lunch and then return to the New Campus where his office and my Faculty are located. This was the routine for the six years I spent as an undergraduate student at the Faculty of Engineering of BUK.

I always looked forward to meeting Kawu Jamilu. He had this way of making me feel comfortable when you are discussing with him. He would always tease me by calling me “Injin miya” (instead of Engineer). Later, after my graduation and registration with the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), he began to call me Engineer. But he would often tease me with the term “Injin miya”

At home, there was equally a routine. His house was a second home to me. I would frequently go to the house and spent time with the family. Yaya’s (his mother’s) house is another constant meeting point in the evening. We would meet, spent time there, and often went to home together. We lived in the same neighborhood. Kawu was simply part of my life. His absence creates a huge gap in my life. I am not sure how I would fare without him in my remaining days.

His death, though shocking, revealed so many good things about him hitherto unknown to us. His funeral drew a crowd larger than the Eidil Fitr we just had. Thousands of people thronged to the New Campus Jumu’at Mosque to attend the funeral. A security man told me that he had never seen a gathering as large as the funeral in all his years in BUK. I have not seen too. And then, we began to hear testimonies about the good deeds of Kawu. From those he assisted in getting admission into the University, to those he helped during their studies, and those he assisted in getting employed in the University and beyond. Others were touched by his benevolence and mentorship in their careers. I saw men crying during the funeral. On Friday, two days after his death, the Imam of the University’s Jumu’at Mosque dedicated a good part of his sermon extolling his good deeds.

He praised his patience and humility, commitment to work, and how he treated everyone very well.

He prayed for Allah to have mercy on him and admit him to Jannah (paradise). The sermon was comforting.

That was how Kawu Jamilu spent his life: helping others. You just need to knock on his door, explain your problems and he will be there to help. If it is something he could not do, he would tell you nice and comforting words. You would definitely leave his office (or home) happier. Many people have attested to this even before his death. But his death brought out many of these stories.

For example, whilst receiving condolences at the residence, someone approached me, introduced himself, and asked whether I remembered him. I said no. He then took me down memory lane. We became friends circa 2005 due to his frequent visit to Kawu’s office.

He was then facing challenges in seeking readmission into another program. He was advised to see Kawu and as expected, he helped him resolve his problems. We used to meet as he was frequenting the office for follow-ups.

But to him, it was not the readmission that mattered, but the comforting words and fatherly advice he received from Kawu. When he learned about Kawu’s death, he drove from Abuja to condole us. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. We heard many similar stories.

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Kawu Jamilu was indeed a good person.

Personally, I know Kawu Jamilu to be a patient and down-to-earth person who was kind to a fault.

He remained humble even as he rose through the ranks to become the Registrar of Bayero University. His colleagues attested to this. He maintained his aura of friendliness and simplicity even as the Registrar of Bayero University. His approach to life had always impressed me. He was contented and I never heard him complaining of either wealth or health. He accepted things the way they were and he did not pursue worldly materials. At work, his colleagues described him as a frank and incorruptible person who detested injustice. He was a devoted Muslim who leaned towards the spiritual than the temporal world.

His devotion to his mother was unique. Unless he is out of town, he would visit his mother every day and spend most part of the evening with her. That was the routine as far as I can remember. It does not matter whether he left the office at 5 pm or 9 pm. He would go to see Yaya. He was with her that night, about 3 hours before his death. He held her hand and bade her goodnight. It was the routine, but unknown to them, that was to be their last meeting.

On that fateful Tuesday, everything appeared normal. It was a routine day. I drove past his house and noticed his driver waiting for him to go to the office. He later went to the office, performed his duties, and returned home after closing hours. Everything was fine in the office and at home.

He then went for his routine visit to his mother. Around 9:30 pm, he bade his mother goodnight and returned home. At home, he did everything as usual. He interacted with the family and had his dinner. Everything seemed normal up to around 12 am. But the death was already lurking, and it came knocking. He died before 2 am.

As if he knew he was going to die, Kawu increased the number of good deeds in the weeks before his death. During the last Ramadan period, he multiplied the number of people he gave food to and the quantity of the food. He gave out a lot of food items to the needy. He would fill the trunk of his car with food items and drive out. He used to give two sets of new clothes to Muhammad and Jamil every Eid but gave them four sets in that last Eidil Fitr. He did not miss a single Tarawih prayer during Ramadan. I knew that because I prayed behind him every day. He was always ahead of me.

In retrospect, our interaction with Kawu was deeper and stronger in the few days leading to his death. I could not clearly express them in words. A few days before his death, he came to our house and spent nearly two hours with Fatima and the children (Muhammad and Jamil). Unfortunately, I was not around and did not enjoy that opportunity. A day before his death, Fatima and his grandchildren visited him. She told me that he spent a long time playing with them. They were jumping all over him and he was relaxed. When she tried to stop them, he asked her to let them be. The children had become closer to him in the last month or so. Now I will have difficulty explaining to them where Baba (as they called him) has gone. Muhammad may understand, though not fully, but I am sure that Jamil will keep asking about Baba.

The last seven days have been very difficult. We have been trying to control the emotions that kept flooding. I have refused to fully process what his death means to our lives. However, one thing is clear to us: a great wall has fallen. Our lives will never be the same. The kids cannot understand death, but will surely miss walking down to see Baba, play with him, and come back with goodies.

They would understand these aspects. Fatima will surely miss Kawu Jamilu, who has been part of her life since her birth. He was a pillar. He was simply her dad.

Kawu’s departure has left a huge gap in our lives. From Yaya (his mother), his wife and children,his brothers and sister, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, friends, and colleagues at work……to the multitude of people whose lives were touched by him. We are all terribly shaken by his death.

Innalillahi wa innalillahirrajiun (from Allah we are and to Him, we return).

The enormity of the loss hit me hard as I sat with his corpse in the ambulance towards the graveyard, and again, as we lowered him into his grave. I cried. Kawu Jamilu is indeed gone!

Kawu was simplicity personified. He lived a simple life and exited the World in a simple manner.

We love Kawu Jamilu, but Allah, His Creator, loves him more. May He have mercy on him and admit him to Jannatul Firdaus.

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