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A tribute to Yasmin El-Rufai
I am grief-stricken: I lost a close friend over the weekend. Inestimably more than that, her family lost a daughter. Her name was Yasmin El- Rufai and her spirit was one of the most beautiful, intelligent and noble I have ever encountered.
I can only imagine the pain that her family must be going through, her father, her mother and her siblings and the many cousins and friends she constantly spoke of with love and affection. But the biggest tragedy of her passing is that our country Nigeria has lost forever the contributions she would have made.
Yasmin was a delight to know. She was proud of being Hausa and Muslim and Nigerian but had a clear spirit free of bias or dogma or prejudice and eyes that saw and acknowledged the many faults and fault lines in our society. She was one of the most honest people I know and was quick to acknowledge her faults and those of people she knew and the communities that make up the country to which she belonged.
However, she was more. Any human life is more, means incalculably more than a few hastily assembled words can convey, and I am incredulous that Yasmin’s life is to be described thus. But I ask her forgiveness and your forbearance as I seek to write Yasmin in words.
The tributes already coming in describe and define and her as the daughter of Mallam El Rufai, and she was indeed, very proudly so. However she was more, inestimably more. She had a fierce love for our country and for all its citizens and an overwhelming desire to see them do well. She and I had many discussions, mostly about our country and the changes needed. She was particularly vehement about corruption, and the moral, fundamental and existential necessity to confront and extirpate it.
She burned with passion and intensity for the betterment of the condition of all human beings and viewed service to our country as the highest and only acceptable calling for her life.
She believed in politics for the sake of its purpose, not for its spoils or trappings. As once said the great filmmaker Ousmene Sembene, “Politics. Not the politician’s politics, getting elected deputy, minister, or whatever. But to be able to speak in the name of my people”.
I relished listening to her talk, think and laugh. In our last conversation late Friday (25 November 2011) she talked about how she looked forward to returning to Nigeria in a few days, to attend family engagements but also to travel the country to familiarize and prepare herself for that life of service that is now not to be. I discussed a platform of public lectures I was looking to initiate and asked if she would be involved. Her quick answer came in two words: “I’m in”.
All of this is now not to be. I simply cannot believe that I am now attempting to write Yasmin’s life, this young and all too brief life that taught me so much. For all her seeming frailty and fragility she had an incredible and uncommon strength of character and conviction, a strength that even she was only beginning to grasp. She was shy, true, but not with the shyness of those timid or who lack confidence, but of those simply awaiting some huge thing, person or idea deserving of them. For her, I was convinced it was a life devoted to the service of her country and its people. For all the status and privilege accorded her family in Nigerian society this self-effacing and unassuming young woman talked and cared about mostly the poor and the deprived across Nigeria. And now she is gone.
She believed rights for women were a fulfillment of Islamic Law, and never an abrogation of it
She had a ranging, loping intellect, a fierce intellect that absorbed and devoured serious and silly (as she put it) books and movies in equal measure. She discussed Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice (one of her favorite books) with the same passion and delight as she would Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’. She had a restless intelligence and highly perceptive mind that treated text- books as though full of strait- jacketing doctrine and dogma and hewed instead towards principles and ideas such as freedom, and justice and service. An intellect that knew very well that it existed but that others do also, and the emotional intelligence to care, and want to do something about it.
And now she is gone.
Yasmin was unapologetically her own person. She was the only person I know under 30 who had a Blackberry phone device but was not on its Instant Message service. Neither was she on Facebook or on Twitter. Yet she was a very modern and engaged woman and simply valued thought and human interaction above those mechanisms used to convey them. In her characteristic way she would often poke fun at the strictures of religion, culture and tradition, but never abandoned or repudiated these precepts. She believed rights for women were a fulfillment of Islamic Law, and never an abrogation of it. She took her faith very seriously and was staunchly defensive of the rights of human beings, women especially. She was desirous to build for herself, and for all, a future that represented no less than they deserved, whatever anyone else thought.
We once discussed Christopher Okigbo’s “Elegy for Alto’, He ends it this way: An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching; The new star appears, foreshadows its going Before a going and coming that goes on forever… Somewhere in all of that I see the future of our country and its people. I see a paradigm shift to come and that both the new paradigm and the new future will be different and better than the past… I see that the change will come, and yet, that it never will. That the work of changing Nigeria will fail more than it will succeed, that any success will lie only in whether that margin of failure will be huge or merely considerable…
Certain that the right efforts in the right direction would yield the right outcomes, Yasmin disagreed, reminding me ‘whether you think that you can or that you can’t, you’re usually right’. I pray she is right.
But Yasmin is gone. I feel an incredible and overwhelming sadness (and our country would, also, if only it knew) that this incredibly special woman will not see or participate in the making and reordering of a new Nigeria, one that deserves the appellation of a country and delivers on the promise of God- given life for all those that call it home.
She should have but it is now not to be. Yasmin El Rufai is gone. But never from my mind, or those of the friends and family members who knew and loved her. Never. How does one forget a person such as she was?
But I cannot help paraphrasing the last line of Socrates’ speech as represented by Plato’s ‘Apology’: ‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we have gone our ways – Yasmin, you to God, while the rest of us remain alive. Which is better God only knows”.
I know that you spent the last two months of your life in daily visits to a friend in hospital. I heard from a friend today whom you studied with in London, that she lived in your house in Abuja while she was working in Nigeria, after you ‘kindly offered’. And countless other accounts of your generosity of spirit and kindness. I’m sure it’s a law in heaven that you cannot be an angel until someone on earth says you were. Right now they should be outfitting you with wings. Wear them with pride, for you earned them.
Yasmin, I remember how you would often talk about your deep reverence for God. That you are now with Him is as fitting as it is tragic, I cannot help but think. This is as God willed it. All we can do, we who you have left behind, is to bow our heads in acceptance and appreciation for the time He allowed us with you.
I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to have counted you as a friend, Yasmin El Rufai; may your soul rest in peace.