Late in February 1999, I shared a memorable dinner with Kadiatou Diallo at her home in Conakry, Guinea on the West African coast. Here in the land of baobab trees and bright red soil where her family had settled years ago, I had spent a fortnight writing about her son, his burial, and her family for the New York Post.
A day earlier, Diallo had just buried her son Amadou in Hollande Bourou, the family's ancestral home high in the Fouta Djallon Mountains. Yet, still wracked with grief, she had taken the time to prepare a meal for me.
Mrs. Diallo's grief was palpable. Her son Amadou had been gunned down weeks earlier by four plainclothes NYPD officers at the doorstep of his Bronx home. Forty-one shots were fired, with nineteen striking him. The case sparked weeks of protests and high profile arrests while the city split along racial lines. Two phrases summed up her dead son: unarmed black man or unarmed street vendor.
Even my dispatches from Conakry describing him as coming from a well-traveled family did little to change that perception. Almost every news account, including mine, repeated those phrases. Diallo vowed then to reclaim her son.
She succeeded with last years publication of My Heart Will Cross This Ocean: My Story, My Son, Amadou with co-author Craig Wolff. It is a funny, poetic, yet emotionally wrenching account of a full but short life. Beautifully written in an unorthodox fashion but in true African style in the form of a history lesson - one is engrossed in the political currents sweeping through West Africa as the backdrop to her odyssey. The reader is taken to Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Nigeria, Thailand, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Europe and the United States. "We had to recreate who Amadou was so that the reader would not only know who he was but would have met him through the package of the book. At the end, we don't have to convince the reader to care. He would feel the loss with us," she said. It worked.
This time we were in an apartment high above New York's concrete jungle. It's a brisk autumn night and Muslims the world over are observing Ramadan, fasting and praying for forty days. Photos of the madiba, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. line the walls of the posh flat that she uses in Manhattan. Other photos are of the family's children. Reminiscent of my visit in Conakry, Mme Diallo, in her quintessentially African manner, set the table with delicacies to be savored once this interview business was over.
"I want Amadou to be remembered for his humanity. Because when he was killed, it's like his story was stolen. With this book, I gave him back his story," Mrs. Diallo said recently.
"I began by the source, the origin of the family because I believe this is what defines who we are as human beings. I talk about my grand parents in the village where my parents came from, then I talk about my parents, then I talk about my childhood growing up in my village, Labe. And then, I write about Amadous existence. Because this is how we define everything in life," she said.
The book is a treasure trove of details. Its incredible that a 44 year-old woman could have such a vivid memory. Indeed, she had help.
"I said the only way Im going to honor my son is to talk about him, write a book and then start a foundation. When I told them I was ready, everybody was supportive, helping me to remember things that were forgotten." One very useful tool was her fathers diary of his decades in the Guinean civil service. He had hoped to write his memoirs; instead, he turned the diaries over to her. "As soon as I arrived with my co-author Craig, he just said use anything in there."
At an authors event in Dallas last summer, acclaimed Washington Post writer Lynne Duke, who had just published Mandela Mobutu & Me, shared a table with Diallo. Duke kept telling people, My book is good but this is a GREAT book, pointing to Diallo's. Duke, who lived and worked in Africa for a decade, insists that there are not many books that clearly and concisely portray African life.
Diallo's page-turner sparked a variety of reactions. I want people to feel Amadou. Sometimes in life, you find humor and you find pain. That's the story of life. The intention is to let people laugh, not just cry.
Some reactions were surprising to her, especially how little is known here about African life. "The stereotypes of Africa are very surprising. After reading my book, people are surprised that we have school plays and by the things that we have in our childhood," she said laughing.
When she relocated to the U.S to pursue the case, publish the book, and work on the Amadou Diallo Foundation (www.amadoudiallo.com), her once bustling business in the precious gem trade ground to a halt.
Proceeds from Diallo's national speaking tour have gone toward setting up the foundation. Former Mayor David N. Dinkins, entrepreneur Peter Norton and noted civil liberties lawyer, Norman Siegel all serve on the board. "I've always been impressed by how strong and articulate she is about bringing people together and improving police and community relations," Siegel said. "She stands tall. People have enormous respect for her and so do I. Whenever she talks, people listen. There are not that many role models for younger people and those not so young anymore. It's been an honor for me to serve," he added. Siegel envisions an annual fundraising dinner in February.
Dinkins was one of the high-profile people arrested for protesting against the NYPD. Photos of the former mayor in cuffs on the front pages of the city's newspapers ignited howls of protests and spurred others, including former Mayor Ed Koch, to blast the then Giuliani administration. In the years since Amadou's death, the officers who took his life were acquitted. They told a predominately white jury upstate that they mistook his wallet for a gun. She and her former husband Saikou sued the city in civil court, and won.
The foundation, Amadou's legacy, will provide scholarships for African students who, like Amadou, dream of an American education. A sister organization in Guinea will aid American students going to Africa for cross-cultural exchanges. She's looking for anyone willing to donate time or money to help make it happen. She does not want her son to be made a martyr, but she's grateful many feel so connected to him.
"I need this to be a living legacy for Amadou. I will operate this place until it takes off and then I will be based in Africa so that both can work together. Amadou wanted to help people. His education goal was the paramount reason for his life to be in New York. If I achieve that, I will say thank God Amadou is no longer in this life but he continues to help people."
Diallo has had to metamorphose herself into yet another immigrant experience. "The immigrants here are hardworking people. Amadou came here and didnt take an easy road," she said. "Everyone has the same goal: To achieve."
Diallo and her three children have not received residency status. Her other children, Laura, Ibrahima and Abdoulsallam are all in school in the Washington D.C. area. It's tough, Diallo said. The most difficult thing for us is the immigration paper. "Thank goodness for Congressman Rangel who helped us by stepping in to get a temporary stay granted." Rep. Charles Rangel, (D-N.Y.) the dean of New York's congressional delegation, introduced a bill last March to grant the family permanent residency but no action has yet been taken.
"I would need to secure a residency document. It would help me to travel to do the work that I need to do. Until that happens, it will be very difficult. That's the only obstacle that we are finding here. Life is a challenge."
Even under stress, Diallo projects a serene tower of strength. This is very painful for me, this heartbreak. Sometimes when it hits me I will just pray. I laugh like everybody but I do cry and the faith is something that I think is important to all humanity. If you have faith you have something to hang on to. Sometimes you want to ask God why things happen.
But her thoughts of Amadou in paradise bring the smile back. "When I share stories with my family, my children especially, I smile. When I reminisce all these years since 1999 and I look back and see all these trials and tribulations and I see myself standing, I thank Allah. Because it's easy to break down and say no way! I'm not going anymore. But I thank Allah that I continue to stand up and do what I want to do."
But has her heart crossed this ocean? She's still in the middle but she will eventually cross. Those who read the book should think about Amadou crossing the ocean to come to New York. He carried the legacy of the family. He carried all the stories. He carried the life of his parents, his heritage, his culture, his hopes and dreams.
Since I've read the book again and again I asked her if she will write again? "I cannot exclude another book in the future because this is a story in the making," she said laughing. "But I would love to write African childrens books," she added.
And that was that. It was time to join her husband and break the fast with a repast of fish, chicken, rice, couscous and more.