For those closest to her, remembering Sekinat Olamitundun Lawani ’14 in the year following her death has been as much about memorializing her memory within the campus community as it has been about personally negotiating her absence.
Known to the Knox community as Tundun, Lawani served as president of Harambee Club and was a member of the Umoja Gospel Choir and Delta Delta Delta before being struck by a drunk driver early on Oct. 28, 2012. Though initial charges against Galesburg resident Lakeesha Smith and changes regarding the South Street crosswalk where Lawani was hit have come and gone, the members of the organizations she was a part of still find themselves tasked with the responsibility of keeping her memory alive.
For Harambee Club, that meant moving forward with African Week, an event Lawani initiated and organized, a week after her death.
“That forced us to move on fast in a way,” junior and President of Harambee Club Azumah Cofie said. “When she passed, there were some parts of the club who felt like moving African Week to winter term but almost everyone thought that we should keep going as a form of her legacy. Planning the event served as a way to get our minds off what happened. It actually helped.”
Working together to execute an event so close to Lawani also led Harambee to grow closer to one another.
“Even with people I wasn’t that close to…the whole event just made us stronger. I learned to appreciate the people I have around me,” senior and Harambee member Ema Bassey said. “I feel like I see particular characteristics she had in other people. I know that she’s very much alive and she’s very much present.”
Laura Pochodylo, senior and President of Delta Delta Delta, also found intragroup bonding to be helpful.
“We definitely have a sense in chapter of not taking our sisterhood for granted anymore, and not taking individuals for granted,” Pochodylo said. “I feel like that’s a big tribute to Tundun’s spirit because we all say we miss her, but the way we act on [that] has been cherishing each other more, which has been really special to see.”
Jessie Dixon, Director of the Umoja Gospel Choir, believes that, if nothing else, Lawani would have wanted people to appreciate one another and the time they spent together. This sense of community was particularly important in the months following Lawani’s death when those closest to her began experiencing stages of grief unfamiliar to them.
“One of the things [Deltas] struggled with…throughout all of last year, but especially in the winter when we were getting more distance from it and didn’t know how to deal with that, was that we didn’t want to use it as an excuse,” Pochodylo said. “None of us wanted to take ownership of it in a way that said, ‘We claim this problem as just our own.’”
As presidents of their respective organizations, both Cofie and Pochodylo found themselves responsible for making sure the well-being of the others in their groups were being tended to.
“As a leader, [the biggest challenge has been] taking the temperature of our members to figure out what level of help we need in order to deal with this, because we can’t pretend it’s not still a problem,” Pochodylo said.
Though sometimes uncomfortable, time has also proved an asset to recovery for many in the groups, which has allowed them to concentrate on keeping Lawani’s memory alive for others. This includes initiatives like African Week and the immediate and anniversary memorials.
“We try to keep her memory alive through what she started,” Cofie said.
“It’s been a tough year, but we got through it. If you told me [then] that I would be as okay as I am now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Bassey said. “It was difficult — and it still is difficult — but I’m better, I’m hopeful and I know we will all be okay. We really miss her and there’s no way we could ever replace her because she was that different, she was that special to us.”
Though several Umoja Gospel Choir members found themselves breaking down while performing at the initial memorial service, Dixon said that the year since has provided them with enough distance when they sing at Harambee’s upcoming one-year memorial.
One way all three groups have been remembering Lawani has been through talking about her with others.
“We’ve been making sure…we talk about her, saying, ‘Remember when Tundun did this?’ the same way we’ll say, ‘Remember when [another sister] did this?’” Pochodylo said. “We’re not adding any sort of somberness to it anymore because we all know how hard it was. We all know how sad it was. We all know it’s absolutely heartbreaking, but we want to keep her living in a way that keeps her with us and reminds us of how happy she made us.”
“Everybody still talks about her,” Bassey said. “We still laugh at the things she used to do, the things she used to say. It comes up very frequently. Like, ‘Oh, Tundun would’ve said this,’ or ‘Tundun would’ve done that.’ Those things still happen, and they will continue to happen, because she’s not someone that would be easy to forget.”
Issues of memory are especially prevalent for the seniors of the group who had planned to graduate with Lawani.
“A woman from Delta came to talk to us…right after it happened,” Pochodylo said. “She said something I’ll never forget. She said, ‘This is the day that you realize your college experience will never be the same.’ I think that’s the feeling I’m going to be reflecting on a lot as we go into Commencement season and as we realize that we’re leaving but we don’t want her memory to just stay here. At the same time, as much as we want to take it with us, we do want it to stay here a little bit. So [a] permanent memorial [would work] towards that goal, as would spreading her story before we leave.”
A permanent memorial has also been high on Harambee’s priorities. Both groups hope that a memorial would help keep Lawani’s memory alive even as the student body evolves and the students who knew her personally graduate and leave campus.
“I find it so weird that there are new classes of people who’ve arrived who have no idea who she is. And that’s going to keep happening,” Pochodylo said. “I know that the reflection in the future is going to be, ‘There was some girl who got hit by a car.’ I want the accident to be secondary to her person, but it’s hard to expect anyone to remember someone that they didn’t know, so we’re just trying to make sure she’s known somehow.”
As for what memorial will be chosen, neither group has decided on what to propose.
“Our challenge [with deciding on a memorial] is kind of a funny one,” Pochodylo said. “When we’ve been meeting to talk about it, we’ve been like, ‘It’s just tough because we’d get her one of those engraved benches they have around campus, but then you know Tundun would be like, ‘A bench? You got me a bench?’ So we’re trying to find something that’s fitting.”
Regardless of the permanent steps that will be taken to celebrate her, many were already satisfied with the current student body’s response to the tragedy.
“I think she lived a really good life,” sophomore and Harambee Club member Maame Ackah said. “I’m not saying that to be cliche. She was sincerely a good person at heart and in everything she did and it’s been really heartwarming to see how the Knox community has appreciated her. I’m happy about that.”