A Final Trip to a Distant Home

Immigrant communities join to help repatriate their dead.
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

As Claire Outou Bakayoko lay in a casket in West Philadelphia, a choir of fellow immigrants from the Ivory Coast sang:

Je suis un étranger.
(I am a foreigner.)
Je me suis un passant. Je me dirige vers mon Père.
(I am just a passerby. I am going home to my Father.)

On June 26, the day after that refrain, Bakayoko did go home. Air France flew her body to the West African country where she was born and where, on Saturday, she was buried.

It is a final journey many immigrants replicate. Just as they straddle two countries in life, they frequently do so in death.
Bodies travel from the Philadelphia region to a range of countries, including Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Vietnam, Ghana and the Philippines, according to local mortuaries. One serving the Latino community ships a body at least once a week. The practice is most common among Mexicans, who often crisscross the border to work here but leave wives and children behind.

Mexico’s government has set aside $12 million to assist poor migrants with burial back home. Its consulate in Philadelphia has helped repatriate the bodies of 171 U.S. residents since 2003. They included four soldiers who died in Iraq fighting for their adopted country but wanted to be laid to rest in their native country.

Even for migrants from more far-flung places, culture and divided lives lasso them back to their homelands in death.

Bakayoko struck out alone to the United States a decade ago, at 26. She always meant to return to Boujbo, her village 50 miles from Abidjan, the country’s major city – but with a degree from a U.S. university.

“She used to say they need her more in Africa than here,” her husband said.

Political turmoil at home and the hard scrap of life here as an immigrant got in the way.

To make a living, she started braiding hair at her apartment. She opened Diva, an African hair-braiding salon, in the Logan section of Philadelphia. She had two sons here and brought her eldest, born in the Ivory Coast, to join them. And she married Moustapha Bakayoko, a worker at the Hope Full Gospel Church, in October.

Still, even with a life in Philadelphia, she held onto hopes of a return to the Ivory Coast.

“She didn’t want to stay here, get old here, mmn-mmn,” said Philomen Maye Outou, her sister-in-law. “We work hard. To braid hair is not easy. You do it to have something over there . . . to go back home to.”

Families who can’t bring their dead home may invite shame, because some African traditions say the soul stays with the body, said Robert Djiriga, an Ivoirian pastor in Philadelphia.

“It is about honor,” he said.

That feeling runs so deep that the Cote D’Ivoire Association of the Delaware Valley even has a funeral committee that raises money for expensive burial rites both here and there.

In Africa, “it’s unheard of to have someone buried outside the country and outside the continent,” said Eric Edi, the association’s president. “Your ancestral tie is very important.”

It costs about $5,000 to fly a body to the Ivory Coast.

Once Bakayoko’s casket was carried from the viewing room at the Terry Funeral Home, the mood – and the mission – of the 200 grievers changed.

Bakayoko, who died of lung cancer, had been mourned. Now it was time to collect contributions to send her home.

The hard-charging rhythms of gbegbe, dance music from the
Ivory Coast, issued from two stereos. Two men from the funeral committee took to the mike, a cardboard box between them open for cash, checks and money orders. Women who had been wailing retreated to a church nearby, where a buffet of cassava, plantain and African stews was laid out to sustain them through eight hours of telethon-style fund-raising.

“We’ve cried,” Edi said. “It’s about money now.”

A civil war in the Ivory Coast has divided Ivoirian immigrants here along ethnic and religious lines, but politics did not enter Bakayoko’s hair-braiding salon. And Bamba Ibrahim, head of the funeral committee, was asking the crowd to transcend the conflict, too.

“Claire saw all the world as her brother or sister,” he told them. “Please follow Claire’s footsteps without regard to background.”

The owner of La Calebasse Restaurant stepped forward with $425.

The Christian Church of Love and Good Works – Djiriga’s largely Ivoirian congregation – offered $1,050.

The local affiliate of the FPI, one of the political factions in the Ivory Coast, gave $1,000.

Cisse Ibrahim, the local leader for the rival RDR party and a member of an Ivoirian mosque in the city, contributed $200.
In the last four years, Gregory Burrell, owner of Terry Funeral Home, has watched at least 10 such scenes unfold before sending bodies back to West Africa.
“It’s amazing how they come together for a cause,” he said. “They listen to music. A lot of times, they talk, and they start laughing, and the money just starts rolling in.”

Ivoirians from Atlanta, Washington, New York and New Jersey trekked to Claire Bakayoko’s funeral. In the end, they raised nearly $25,000 to send her home.

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