“If your leg is strong, continue moving.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday at 9am, Adebola starts cooking for around 100 people from a community kitchen in Peckham, not far from her flat. Serving starts at midday. People book via a website and they come and eat together, or they pick up food to take home. She charges £1 for a hot meal. The people she serves are “needy and famished.” Some are homeless, but others are not. She feeds anyone who wants an affordable hot meal.
Adebola wants to talk about dying. She knows a lot about grief from her own experience, and also from the years of community and charity work she has done to support bereaved people – especially widows, like herself. In 1978, Adebola and her husband came to the UK from Nigeria to study. He was studying teaching, and she was studying social work. They returned to Nigeria and had six children together. Then, twenty years ago, her husband was shot and killed. It was a random act, and she doesn’t know the identity of the perpetrator or the reason her husband was killed. Adebola found it difficult to grieve and to pick up the pieces of her life. She returned to the UK for what she thought would be a month-long holiday – a chance to get away from her pain and to do something different. Instead she started to lose her vision, became very ill and was hospitalised.
When she regained her health, Adebola thought differently about her loss and the life she should lead going forward. She wanted to reach out to other widows to share her experience; to help them through their darkest times. She now sees her husband’s death in these terms: “God was preparing me to minister to widows.” Adebola remained in the UK. Since 1999, she has supported (emotionally and financially, through charity work) over 200 widows in the UK and in Africa. All too recently she suffered a terrible loss when, just before Christmas, her daughter died in Nigeria. She had just given birth. Adebola’s grandchild is now four months old.
“It’s not easy to get out of your loss. If you don’t encourage yourself, you will find yourself where you don’t belong. I say to people, why are you doing this to yourself? We need to find inner peace, and it’s only you who can give yourself peace.”
Being there in the dark hours
Supporting people in their ‘dark hour’ is Adebola’s vocation. It’s what has driven her life and given her a powerful sense of purpose through the two decades since her husband’s death. She connects to people through her church and through other community work, making herself available on the phone 24 hours a day. She listens, offers consolation, prayer, food, encouragement and the wisdom she’s derived from her experience. Adebola has a clear stance on grief: crying is good because it’s important to “get the pain out”. But she’s also keen to nudge people beyond the sorrow and confusion, when necessary. She says she knows what the Dark Hour is like: “The hour when someone precious is taken from you, and you ask yourself, why? Why did this happen? Why me? Where is God?” She talks about the depression that can so easily come to you, when you can’t find answers to these questions and get stuck in that place.
“You need to calm down. In every situation in life you need to calm down first.”
“The widows are all different. Some just sleep. Some won’t eat. Some cry, cry, cry, cry. No one has time for them. I’m not working. I have time. I encourage them, tell them what they need to do. You lost your husband? Number one, sleep. If you don’t sleep, you’ll never sleep again. Don’t use tablets to help you sleep. You have to live through your grief. Just yesterday I said to someone, please you need to sleep. You need to relax. Everything will be ok. When your wife died or your daughter died, it is just a situation. Situations come and go.”
Good things come back to you
One of the things Adebola notices about life in the UK is how lonely and isolated people can be. She reaches out to other humans – neighbours and strangers – when she sees pain or struggle or need. This is the way she lives her life. She knows she makes a difference, and that everyone can make a difference. While I am visiting, we deliver food to her elderly and very frail neighbour. He is 90. Adebola has been bringing him food for five years. She notices that when you do good things, good things seem to come back to you.
“Five years I’ve been giving lunch to my neighbour, so everyone knows me. The council knows me, social workers know me. When the daughter came, wow Adebola! … When you are doing good to people, people do good to you. See this house, and furniture? I didn’t buy anything. Everywhere people are blessing me.”
“We are not only cooking for the homeless, we are cooking for the community. People are very busy. They are looking for money, money, money and they don’t take care of themselves. This is what the kitchen is for - if people are working, doesn’t matter. Come, take food. People who are drinking - they don’t eat. People smoking - they don’t eat. They all need a hot meal.”
“There are a lot of people who need help in this country. More than Nigeria. Why? In Nigeria we work with the community - your problem is my problem. I know the United Kingdom, they are very good. They do everything in humanity, ‘A’ for effort. But loneliness! Loneliness is here. In Africa, it’s not like that.”
If your leg is strong, continue moving
While she grieves the recent loss of her daughter, Adebola continues to support other people who are bereaved. Returning to responsibilities, consoling others and her faith in God help her to find her way. She gets up, cooks, does exercise, wears glorious colours and bright, red lipstick, and ministers to other widows. She tells me that everyone who knows her well is looking out for her – paying attention to how and whether she is coping. Some are perplexed at her attitude and behaviour: she is the one encouraging others to stop crying and to find their peace.
“When she passed away, I looked at myself and said, Wow: this is another challenge. I looked at myself and I noticed, you always receive the bereaved family, so let me talk to myself again now. I was encouraging the family in Nigeria that nobody should cry. Everyone should calm down. Everything will be okay and what we need to do is thank God for the baby. This is the baby she left behind. She’s four months old now.”
“When I lost my daughter, people are coming, everyone is coming. They will come. But after the burial, there are only a few people you can see. And this is the time you need people. This is the time you need support, and this is why people get depression. This is the work I am doing. When I minister, I can’t go there wailing. Me? I can’t do that. I have to have the courage. I go there to encourage them. Even if I want to cry, I can’t do that. I pray.”
“My husband was shot and killed with his friend. We don’t know who killed them. I wondered how am I going to survive with six children? My daughter died in December. A double bereavement. But I tell you why I am able to sustain: as my Pastor says, ‘If your leg is still strong, continue moving. Continue moving in life.’”