The “burial-at-sea” took place at 5 pm. About two dozen close friends, acquaintances, Italian compatriots, neighbors, and a few curious souls arrived around 4:45 in a motorcade of small taxi boats. The sun was still high and everyone wore sun-glasses in defense against the striking Equatorial sun. Some wore black, some white, as if in equal parts respect to a man in life as in death.
Nanni died alone last Saturday morning in the single engine plane he was piloting. The newspapers identified him as Gianmocia Piero, but we, his neighbors in this tight sea-side community of Lamu, knew him as “Nanni”.
Claudio Modola is an architect and good family friend, and bears a close resemblance to the actor, Tom Berenger. Claudio had been in charge of organizing the funeral. He hopped onto our small boat and pointed to me by way of asking me to introduce myself.
“We’ve never met, but you and I are Face Book friends”, I said. Then he pointed to a man I was sitting next to and asked if we had arrived together. (Claudio emphasized that he did not mean ‘together’ in the Biblical sense). “Oh, no,” I said, “That’s Herbert; we’re just Face Book ‘friends’, too”.
I had first met Nanni’s wife, Elena, a petite, kind and no-nonsense Italian, on my first and only visit to Rome. A mutual Shela acquaintance had encouraged me to look her up. One afternoon, exhausted and lost, I rang her from a cafe near the French embassy, which turned out to be just a few streets away from her flat. Though she didn’t know me from Adam, she had graciously treated me and her good friend, Livia, to a sea food pasta brunch at the Hotel de Russie.
At last the Moccia family arrived, gliding toward us in an elegant dhow called Taqwa. Elena, and her three sons, all wore white. I sensed that the white they wore represented the celebration of pure family love as well as a new beginning. Lars and Carol Korshen, proprietors of the legendary Peponi hotel, were the last to arrive after which the all boats were joined together by hand forming what must have looked from a distance like a floating market in a Bangkok klong. A Kenyan Christian pastor, though his fevered pitch went on for about five minutes too long, was the perfect segue to break the ice and introduce why were were joined together for the intimate celebration and mourn the passing of a man, who possessed the generosity if willfulness of a great king. After the sermon, a moving silence set in and seemed to lay to rest the small town petty-minded bickering and gossip even if for just one hour.
Claudio eulogized that the controversial Nanni was all too human in his determination ” to get it right”, to make the most of his autumn years. Even if it meant laying under water pipes from Shela to Manda to supply his Majlis hotel. Like it or not, the man managed to succeed in forging a lion’s paw-print in this area almost through sheer force of will.
One of Nanni’s three sons stood and presented a eulogy written by an old friend, who could not make the trip from Italy. The rest of the family sat quietly heads bowed in grief. One of the sons whom I knew but not well looked beautiful in his vulnerability.
Next to Elena sat a precious tiny wood and brass antique Zanzibar box. “Oh, what a cute purse,” I was about to say.
From a distance disco loud-speakers set inside a boat played “The Race of Bulls”. Over-sized kikapus (straw bags) full of pink red bougainvillea that the family had brought were passed around and every one had a chance to toss a fistful of flowers into the sea along with Nanni’s ashes.
Like my own father, Nanni had the good fortune of eluding a protracted death in some anonymous anti-septic hospital. Nanni died “with his boots on”, in the wilds of Africa. Not a bad place to die.
Later at Peponi, I asked Lars to sum up Nanni Moccia. Without hesitation, he said in his British drawl, “He was a serious old lion”.
I didn’t know Nanni well, and I’m not sure what that would even mean. He was always exceedingly polite to me. Perhaps it was because he and I shared a curious common “cause” that only a few, including Elena, knew about.
It is to that end that I won’t soon forget what the good pastor said; that in many ways the dead are closer to us now than they ever were in life.