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A Hippopotamus on My Back

February 16, 2021
Posted in End of Life
February 16, 2021 Sara K Schneider

Am I the last to learn (just yesterday) that hippo mothers bear their babies on their backs?
As the mother scavenges under the water for something to eat, the baby, who has minimal swimming skills and lung capacity, stays aloft, able to breathe.
I learned two other things yesterday about hippopotami. One of them I’ll save for a fun footnote*, and I’ll tell you now about the other.
Yesterday morning, I read a New York Times interview with Harvard religious scholar Jacob Kehinde Olupona about the many ways in which the Yoruba people of West Africa speak of death. I imagined I would learn expressions like those we use in English for the verb of “to die”— expressions like “to pass away,” “to lose,” or “to depart.”
But the Yoruba expressions were much more colorful than that, more idiomatic, including likening death to a hippopotamus. Olupona explained,

“Among the Owo Yoruba people, … death is likened to the hippopotamus … whose heavy weight no person can carry and whose presence one cannot run or escape from.

“This conveys the dilemma of a bereaved child who can neither carry the body of a deceased parent nor is courageous enough to abandon it, highlighting the helplessness of one when confronted by death.”

I thought of all the ways in which Death was personified in the European Middle Ages, and of workshops I have led reconstructing, in art and dance form, the potential for playful interactions or sinister confrontations between us and that figure of death as a “reaper”—whom I might now conceive of as the Death-hippo that rides us (yikes! — and whom we perhaps then nurture and feed).

Sometimes the macabre is the only way to release the laughter on this subject that we so need! Believe it or not, people “die laughing” when we choreograph the Dance of Death together.

Yoruba has many other expressions, including “Death is no respecter of persons” and “Death does not recognize any law,” both more similar to the medieval conceptions I’m more familiar with than is the Death-hippo.

But, as I read through them, the Yoruba expression that struck me most to the heart was the single Yoruba word that translates as “Death has killed the hero.”

This month, we are grieving the loss of someone close to our family, a young hero.

We are all heroes of our own stories—or, as someone joked to me long ago, the stars of our own musicals. When we lose someone, as many of us are doing now, to untimely or seemingly unnecessary causes, Death seems to have interrupted the journey to kill the hero.

Of course, Death always kills the hero.

But one wishes, before it can, for a chance for meaning, for completion, for resolution of the earthly search. That’s the ardent wish of THE HUMAN JOURNEY®—that we all take the opportunity for growth and meaning-making that is handed to us in life’s crises and in life’s ending.

As we grieve, we wish, may heroes get to complete their journeys.

*A Fun Hippopotamus Footnote

So, that was a heavy.

But yesterday I learned I’d also somehow missed along the way what apparently was a famous children’s song called “Noodles on my Back,” sung by a hippo. Here as your latest earworm are an a cappella version and a video version.

Listen at your own risk of singing it the rest of the day!

And please join us to learn to offer the THJ® Experience for others.

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