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Africans Mourn Chadwick Boseman: 'A Great Tree Has Fallen'

The death of actor Chadwick Boseman last week at the age of 43 came as a shock to many Africans.

I liken it to the death of a great African King.

In my Igbo culture, when a great king passes on, we say, "Oke osisi adaala n'obodo," which means "a great tree has fallen in the land." It is a rare occurrence for great trees to fall. However, the fall is also not the end of the tree because its deep roots ensures it keeps sending out new sprouts.

Boseman's life is like that. Part of him will continue to live on through his films and inspire us, especially his role as King T'Challa in Black Panther.

The 2018 film was a hit across Africa. The fictional country of Wakanda, which was depicted in the movie as the most technologically advanced society in the world, was the nation that Africans wish they had. The film reminded us of what is possible for African countries – and how our continent could be powerful and respected.

I recall how excited Africans were to watch the film. In Ghana, people were dancing, drumming and wearing traditional clothing at the premiere. The former vice president of Nigeria took his family on a special outing to see the film. Others provided viewing opportunities to those who could not afford it. My friend Angela Ochu Baiye, a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow for the Young African Leaders Initiative, was so moved by Black Panther that she raised funds and took 200 children from poor communities to watch the movie at a cinema in Abuja, Nigeria. "To see yourself represented in fiction, especially through a lead character, is meaningful and profoundly empowering beyond words," she wrote on her social media.

Boseman's unexpected death has left Africans feeling as if we have lost one of ours. Indeed, he was one of us. During a 2018 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Boseman acknowledged his African lineage. His family is from the Yoruba people, one of Nigeria's largest tribes, and the Limba, who come from Sierra Leone. He said his African background was one of his influences for making Black Panther more human. He succeeded in making the character someone we all wish we knew.

Africans have been sharing tributes to Boseman across social media. It's a reflection of how beloved he is on the continent. Nigerian Stephanie Busari, CNN's supervising producer for Africa, tweeted, "Chadwick Boseman will never know how much we loved him. Battling colon cancer, shooting films in between bouts of chemo and surgery. What amazing strength. He once said: 'The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.' Rest on King. Long live T'challa!"

South African activist Bele Nanotshe tweeted: "I would like to send my deepest condolences to Chadwick Boseman family and friends. On behalf of South Africa, I say we are proud of you and your achievements and the genuine manner in which you portrayed Pan Africanism in Black Panther movie. Rest in peace. We will indeed miss u my bro."

African corporations have also found ways to honor Boseman's death. On Aug. 31, the TV network M-Net Movies, in collaboration with Marvel Studios, aired Black Panther on one of its mainstream channels to share the film with a wide African audience.

In Africa and beyond, Boseman's death also has brought global attention to colon cancer. Many are amazed how the actor handled the disease with superpower attributes. Despite his diagnosis at age 39, he continued acting. I am hoping for a Chadwick Boseman effect that would lead to an increase in screenings for colon cancer, similar to the Jane Goody effect. After the British reality TV star died from cervical cancer in 2009, the U.K. saw a surge in cervical cancer screenings.

In mourning Chadwick's death, Dr. Zainab Shinkafi Bagudu, a Nigerian board member of the Union for International Cancer Control, reminds all that "Cancer is constantly in our faces; regardless of age, sex or ethnicity. It seems to beat even those with the best hospitals and access to care. We must not despair. We have to remain vigilant, watch for early signs and live a healthy lifestyle."

Runcie Chidebe, a Nigerian cancer control advocate sent me this statement: "The U.S. and global cancer control must consider reviewing the screening age for colon cancer. Chadwick's diagnoses at 39 is not unique. In Nigeria, we have seen 30-year-olds diagnosed of colon cancer."

Indeed, the greatest tribute that Africa can give to Boseman is to ensure there are no more untimely deaths from colon cancer on the continent. African governments must increase access to preventative and curative services for colon cancer and other cancers. Sadly, the current access to prevention and treatment of cancers is abysmal in sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2019, Nigeria had just 4 cancer treatment centers for an estimated population of 200 million. For this population, Nigeria would require at least 170 cancer treatment centers, according to the World Health Organization.

As Africans, we have to hold our governments accountable to prevent and treat cancers. Moreover, with COVID-19 raging globally and cancers being risk factors for severe illness in those infected, there is no time to waste.

As Africans, we take solace in what King T'Challa said in Black Panther: "In my culture, death is not the end."

We believe he lives on. We are stronger now that such a great king has transited to become one of our ancestors, watching over us. We will be strong. We will live like the Black Panther.

Ifeanyi Nsofor is the director of policy and advocacy at a health group called Nigeria Health Watch and Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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