I sat at the kitchen table with my hand planted on a flower print cloth as my aunt, Tanti Sadjo, prepared couscous, my favorite meal, for my birthday party. I watched in awe as she mixed the grains in a large silver bowl, ensuring that each grain was coated with the perfect amount of sauce. Once finished, she placed the couscous on a large pan rimmed with vines and made me a bowl.
With gentle care, she placed the bowl on the wooden floor and I slowly made my way towards it, sitting in a criss-cross applesauce position like I was taught in school. My aunt sat across from me, quietly rubbing her stomach which carried a soon-to-be-born baby.
The silence between us was comforting; we had a thing for sitting in silence and basking in each other’s presence. Suddenly, she asked if the couscous tasted good. I was momentarily confused and, before I could answer, she continued, saying “Even if you don’t like it you have to eat it, Hadja, because you made me prepare it.”
Her friendly, playful tone made me laugh too, content that my birthday wish of having my beloved aunt help me prepare for my party came true. As we sat together, my aunt’s presence radiated comfort and safety, like a soft sunbeam. Her tranquil yet vibrant energy enveloped me, making me feel at ease. Her laughter filled the kitchen, and I couldn’t help but smile at the endearing gap between her teeth.
As the guests were due to arrive soon, I hurriedly folded the newspaper lying on the floor and gathered my dirty dishes to wash them. My aunt kept a watchful eye on me, ensuring that I cleaned the plates thoroughly. Meanwhile, I spotted the birthday guests arriving with their gifts from the kitchen window.
Just a week later, my aunt died. I was playing in my yard in Kamsar, the city where we lived in Guinea, in West Africa. Not knowing that on the other side of the country, in Conakry, the woman I loved the most was breathing in her last breath.
Shrouded by Shadows
As my father’s car entered the compound, the burgundy gates swung open and I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror. His face was twisted in pain, and the wrinkles in his forehead seemed more prominent than usual. It was unsettling to see him like this; he was almost unrecognizable.
He forced a smile when he noticed me, but I could tell that something was wrong. In a sorrowful tone, he instructed my sister and me to gather our belongings. Our aunt Binta helped us pack our pink suitcases, which we loaded into the car.
Once inside, my sister and I remained quiet for a few minutes before we began to ask questions. My father informed us that we were going to visit someone, but his tone and demeanor made it clear that he wasn’t being entirely truthful.
Throughout the ride, I became increasingly agitated and insisted on knowing what was happening, but he monotonously repeated the same story about visiting relatives.
The sun set and darkness fell. I peered out the window, straining to glimpse the world outside our car, but everything was concealed by the night’s shadows, and my father continued to keep his secret.
Aunt Binta’s phone rang, and I heard a voice on the other end offer their condolences. I heard Tanti Sadjo’s name being called out amidst cries and sobs. Then I realized: my beloved aunt had passed away. My heart dropped to my stomach, and tears streamed down my face uncontrollably.
In a quivering voice, I turned to my father and asked, “Did Tanti Sadjo die?” My body felt numb, my heart was heavy with grief. My father tried to console me by insisting that she was still alive and waiting for us, but I knew that wasn’t true. I continued to cry, uncomforted by his words.
As a child of only seven years, I believed that only the elderly experienced death. But when my aunt, who had just turned 30, passed away, the reality of life hit me. I was forced to confront the fact that death does not know the age, a phrase my mom said often, but which only then made sense to me as I realized that my aunt’s presence in this world was now confined to the past and that we would never embrace each other again.
I tried to find solace in the pictures I had of my aunt and me. I perused them alone every night, shedding tears until I drifted asleep. In contrast, my father struggled to articulate his emotions. For an entire year, he avoided any photographs of his late sister and attempted to project an image of strength to my sister and me. However, I could tell his behavior was merely a coping mechanism that prevented him from confronting his grief.
In our family photobook, there are only a few pictures of my Aunt Tanti: our first meeting at a restaurant when I was 5 years old; her tying my shoelaces as I pose for the camera ahead; and her and me dancing together at my 8th birthday party. Staring at these photos, I vowed to keep my memory of her whole.
But as the days after her sudden passing turned into weeks and months, fragments of her began to slip from my memory. It became harder to recall the sound of her voice or the finer details of her features. I could no longer conjure up the image of her gap teeth, her dark-toned lips, or the texture of her soft, dark hair. Eventually, my recollection of her became a faint and distant memory, and I feared that I had broken my vow.
I wished that instead of only photos, I had videos of her. Then I could have heard her friendly laughter again, and seen the careful movements that showcased her consideration for those around her. Instead, I was left with frozen images that could only tell a fraction of our story.
Around this time, I picked up my dad’s digital camera out of curiosity and began using it to document my day-to-day life. It then became my goal in life to document all those I love by filming. I made a pact to not let them die twice, first by physical death, and second by being forgotten.
A Loving Universe
Five years after my aunt passed, when I was 13, I started to teach myself filmmaking through online videos and podcasts. I’ve found that picking up a camera gives me a sense of control. Through filming, I feel empowered to create a universe where my loved ones and I and our stories can live on even when we are gone.
I’m particularly inspired by director Wong Kar Wai’s ability to create atmospheres within his stories that are so vivid they almost make me feel like I’ve entered another world. By studying his films and others, binging film tutorials, and immersing myself in film clubs at my high school, I’m learning filmmaking, all so that one day I can communicate my visions with the world.
My primary goal for my films is to convey the beauty of memories. Every pause, bit of dialogue, and background noise encapsulates a person in a way that the shutter of a camera never could. I see my films as time capsules. Each frame represents the interconnectedness as well as the uniqueness of the human experience.
As an outlet for my grief, filmmaking has also helped me realize that I can use that grief to create something that I feel proud of. I can turn the pain I possess into something beautiful, something that inspires me, and something I can share with others. Although death is inevitable, with the time that I have here on this earth, I can use it to do something that I find valuable.
This year, my efforts culminated in my first film, a documentary titled “Children’s Story,” which delves into the nature of youth gun violence in New York City. The experience of shedding light on this issue in my community has solidified my passion for filmmaking.
Though it has been nine years since my Aunt Tanti died, she continues to inspire me to make films that are intimate stories of love. She was such a loving person that, in my eyes, she was the personification of love. The way she carried herself, her cadence when she spoke, and her passion and dedication for those around her are things I’m glad to have witnessed in my lifetime.
While I can’t recall every detail of our time together perfectly, I continue to feel and be inspired by her love. Even without any videos, I carry Tanti Sadjo within me always.
Hadiatou Barry was born in North Carolina, but raised in Brooklyn, NY, and is a rising senior at Millennium Brooklyn High School. In her free time she likes to read, create collages, and most importantly watch films. She is an aspiring filmmaker who hope to one day have her films shared on the big screen.
- What differs between Hadiatou and her dad’s ways of managing their grief when Aunt Tanti dies?
- How does searching for memories of her aunt impact Hadiatou? What does she realize about her own grief process?
- What kind of support does filmmaking provide Hadiatou? What does she wish filmmaking could represent for others?