‘Ireland won’t lose its sense of community, we will bounce back’

A Galway-Nigerian’s story of loss, grief, faith, and hope during the Covid-19 pandemic

Chris Okeke, photographed by Mike Shaughnessy in 2018.

Chris Okeke, photographed by Mike Shaughnessy in 2018.

The biggest loss people are finding during the lockdown is the loss of social, face to face, contact - meeting a friend for coffee, giving someone a hug, going to a gig or to the cinema - but to endure all this, when you are also suffering bereavement, is by any stretch, a double blow and a heavy burden.

This is exactly what Chris Okeke, originally from Nigeria, and who has been living in Galway since 2001, is experiencing, but through his grief, he has also managed to find a sense of hope, drawing strength from his Christian faith and his faith in the Irish people.

On St Valentine’s Day this year, Chris buried his beloved wife Esther in her native Nigeria. She had been battling illness for more than a year. When he came back to Galway, the coronavirus had not yet reached Ireland and there was little talk of restrictions or lockdowns. Understandably, in the midst of grief, little of this was to the front of Chris’s mind.

“When I came back I wanted to thank all the different groups and communities who had helped me repatriate her body to Nigeria, so I had a lot to do,” Chis tells me over the phone on a Thursday morning. “I was so busy that the restrictions sort of took me unawares, but I realised I had to do as much catch-up as I could with those groups before the movements were limited.”

Absence

Chris is a firm supporter of the measures which have been taken to halt the spread of Covid-19, but as a relatively young widower, staying at home and social distancing only emphasises Esther’s absence.

“This is a time for staying indoors,” he says. “It has been very well handled in Ireland, the country has taken a lead in the restriction of movement. I approve of the actions of the Government and am very glad it is happening, but, for me there are two sides to this.

'I have great hope that after Easter we will start to see a light at the end of the tunnel'

“In my bereavement, it’s hard. I haven’t been able to rest over the last 14 months, since Esther’s diagnosis, and then her time in the hospital, and I can’t go out yet and clear my head. I can’t go back to work until the restrictions are lifted. Being able to work would be great, at least I could get out of the house for a while.

“Being here all the time I’m very aware of her unavailability. I’m tidying up various bits and pieces, looking through my archives, my collections of papers, and rearranging some of the rooms, but this is the house I shared with her everyday. This is the life we were building together. It’s a sharp reminder that she’s not here with me. I feel her absence.”

‘A light at the end of the tunnel’

Chris is one of Galway’s leading Nigerian expats, and a noted community development advocate who has contributed to many projects in the city. He co-founded both an association of taxi drivers, and the Afro-Renaissance group for African residents, he has been involved in the St Patrick’s Day parade, the Galway International Arts Festival, and events at Galway City Museum.

He is also a devout Christian and a published author - his book, The World Through God’s Eyes, was launched in Galway in 2018. Both these strands have come together to help him make sense of all he has endured.

“It’s a time of reflection for me,” he says. “I am trying to draw strength, and by the grace of God, these experiences will lead me to another chapter of the book I am working on about my wife and especially what we encountered during her illness. In doing that, I will keep safe and busy.”

'I know Irish people, I know their spirit. They will bounce back. It’s like the song for the rugby team, we will hear Ireland’s call and stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’

Right now, faith in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the spirit of the Irish people, are giving Chris strength and hope. When I interview him, it is just ahead of Easter Sunday, and he draws lessons from the overlaps between the Christian calendar and the timeline of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a time of pain and suffering, but this is also Holy Week, when we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he says. “The restrictions, and then the lockdown, came during Lent, a time when we give up and surrender things, but I am confident that as Christ resurrected, that after Holy Week we will begin to see a change, a coming of solutions to this crisis, maybe even the development of a vaccine. I have great hope that after Easter we will start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The spirit of the Irish

As well reflecting on how social distancing is impacting him personally, Chris also ponders on its wider effect on and implications for Irish society.

“Social distancing will affect community life,” he says, “but I’m confident we won’t lose that sense of community as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, because I know Irish people, I know their spirit. They will bounce back and come together again. It’s like the song for the rugby team, we will hear Ireland’s call and stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’.”

 

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