So, I was planning on having the final pre-Christmas blog be a fun little thing (granted, my blogs probably cannot be called “little”) about people asking for my hand in marriage, or telling me that I should be finding someone to marry (after all, I’m going to be here for two years, which is, like, an eternity), or asking me to find them a person to marry (one guy asked for a young, 18 or 19 year old American girl, one girl asked for an older American man with lots of money, so she can buy Porsches and stuff). But then, something happened late last week.
The mother of my counterpart, Max, has been ill for some time now, battling what sounded like some form of cancer – possibly ovarian cancer, but I’m not sure. She had been in the hospital for a while, and, a month or so ago, Max moved her to his home so she could be with family. I only met her once, several weeks ago, and, at that point, her stomach and feet were quite swollen, and she was unable to stand. Not too long ago, Max told me that she was not even able to sit up anymore, and he was periodically shuttling a doctor back and forth from the hospital to his house to extract fluid that was building up inside his mother’s stomach. It has definitely been weighing very heavily on his mind for a long time, and he felt bad whenever he needed to leave Kalisizo for a site visit…but he also felt bad because, in his own words, his work has been “bumpy” (meaning inconsistent and unsteady, since he has needed to spend a significant amount of time taking care of his mom). Obviously, I told him that I completely understood and that he was still doing good work.
Last Thursday, he told me that he had talked to a doctor who was suggesting palliative care and giving his mother a prescription for morphine. At this point, I figured that her passing couldn’t be far off, since the doctor obviously wanted simply to make her as comfortable as possible. That night, a little after 8:00 pm, I got a call from Max. For a few weeks, I had been a bit scared whenever I would receive a call from him at night or early in the morning, but, up until Thursday, the calls were always about something else. On Thursday night, though, I knew it as soon as I heard Max’s first word. He said, “John, my mother, she has died.” My initial response was simply, “Oh, Max, I’m so sorry,” which was actually all I was able to say at that point, because he said thank you and quickly hung up. I had been in the middle of making dinner, but I just stood there, motionless, probably for about a minute, with the phone still held against my ear. I really had no idea what to do at that point. It was too late for me to go to his house, which is probably about 5 kilometers away, so I decided to send an email to the rest of the Positive Planet people, letting them know what happened. This turned out to be a good choice, since Max called again a little after 11:00 pm, asking me to do exactly what I had just done.
On Friday, I tried to do any work I could in the morning, and then, after eating an energy-packed lunch consisting of a guacamole sandwich and a banana, I decided to try to make it to Max’s house by bike. Five kilometers is not a long bike ride…on paved roads. The roads to Max’s house are not paved roads. As I was jostled about by massive bumps, as I dismounted to push the bike up the really steep hills, and as I careened down the other side of the really steep hills, I tried my best not to completely wipe out. Last year, I had grown accustomed to going for speed on the wide, flat, completely paved roads of Tampa. Going for speed was not exactly the best strategy in this situation. In many cases, there was probably one very specific path to take that was sort of safe, and, in many cases, I think I missed that very specific path. Miraculously, I did not completely wipe out, but, after I had been clutching the brakes in a death grip while speeding down a very steep, very bumpy hill (with a herd of cattle taking up the good half of the road), my back tire blew out, and I had to get off and push my injured bike the rest of the way. Luckily, there was only one more hill to climb before reaching Max’s house, and so I made it, safe and sound.
Quite a few members of the extended family, neighbors, and friends were there. A bunch of guys were outside, attaching big tarps on trees using, I think, dried banana leaves (they’re very versatile resources), Max and some other older men were sitting on some benches outside, and the women were inside the house. Spotting Max, I went over and sat with him…We talked a bit about what work I had accomplished Thursday afternoon and Friday morning (I think I had actually been fairly productive), and a bit about the current project our masons were finishing up out in the western part of the country. Then, I met some of Max’s brothers and some other relatives, greeted the head teacher and the assistant head teacher from the primary school across the street (I had met them a few weeks ago), and saw Max’s wife, Teddy. I spent the whole afternoon there, sitting outside with the guys (it seems that, for the most part, the men stayed outside and women stayed inside), and learning a little bit about traditional practices when someone dies, as I attempted to explain what often happens in the USA. Having relatives who own a funeral home helped a bit, in this respect.
So, here’s what I found out. The tarps were being put up because many family members would be sleeping outside that night, just because (I think) there isn’t enough room in the house. To help keep the people warm, some of the guys had started a fire with some huge logs…these would take a long time to burn and would probably last through the night. People do bring gifts to the family of the deceased, and these gifts are often very practical. Some people will bring needed supplies for the ceremony…for example, Max showed me the burial cloth that his mother’s body would be wrapped in, and said that sometimes this will be brought as a gift. (Some people in Uganda do use caskets, but Max said that the traditional way is to wrap the body in a burial cloth.) Others bring firewood, and others bring food (the family cooks for all of the people who are staying at the house…which is quite a lot…we saw one person drive up with a 50 kilogram (about 110 pound) bag of rice on the back of his motorcycle. And some people will give money to the family. Max was keeping a record of the money he was receiving in a little composition book (like the ones we used in elementary school). Whenever someone new would arrive, he or she would first formally greet all of the men outside (greetings are important), and then, if the new arrival was a woman, she would go into the house, where the women would cry loudly…I think the term for this is “wailing”. Actually, the women did something very similar when I saw a funeral in Suriname (the culture of the rural villages there is still quite similar to the cultures in some parts of Africa…I won’t go into a big Suriname history lesson right now, but basically, African slaves were taken to the former Dutch colony, they escaped very quickly, fighting ensued, and the Africans escaped into the rainforest, where they established villages with cultures very similar to those in Africa).
The men didn’t really take part in the crying. They just made small talk and did “guy stuff” – for example, they spent a significant amount of time trying to fix up my bike with some super glue…which, eventually, actually worked, I think. Around 3:30 pm, “lunch” was served, which turned into kind of an ordeal. I was brought posho (the clumps made from maize flour and water) and beans, but Max wanted me to have a bit more variety, so he told them to take it back and put matooke on there, as well. It turned out that there wasn’t any matooke (which is weird…everybody always eats matooke), but there were sweet potatoes. So, Max asked them to add sweet potatoes instead. Well, that was misunderstood, and I was brought a bowl of beans and a plate filled with about eight sweet potatoes…no posho. So, Max told them to also bring a plate of posho, at which point I said, “You know, I would be fine eating anything.” But Max remained intent on getting me a variety of food. So, I ended up with a full bowl of beans, a plate filled with sweet potatoes, and a plate filled with posho…and, remember, I had already eaten lunch. Almost immediately, I said, “So, uh, Max, do you want some sweet potatoes?” He took about half of one, and left me the other seven and a half. So, I went to work, and (this probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise) I finished everything.
Around 5:00 pm, some of the guys broke out some hard liquor. They had something called Waragi (which I think is gin), and something else made from cane sugar (it could have been a light rum). And we witnessed yet another of the many uses for banana leaves…a cup for drinking alcoholic beverages (just fold one a couple of times, and it seems to work pretty well).
Eventually, around 6:00 pm, I told Max that I should be heading back, to make sure I got home before dark. I gave him a small monetary gift, grabbed my newly repaired bike, and headed for home. Once again, I was able to avert complete disaster, although I had to get off a few times to reset the chain after traversing an especially intense bump. If nothing else, I now have tremendous respect for the Ugandan people who travel on these roads every day of their lives using bikes and motorcycles.
The burial service was on Saturday afternoon. I spent the morning in Kyotera (the next fairly big town to the south), because we needed to send some money to our masons out west, so that they could make it home once they finished the tanks. Max obviously wasn’t able to do it that day, so I went and took care of it in his place. Around 3:00 pm, I started heading up to where the burial was taking place. It was at another house (I’m assuming the house of one of the other sons), not as far away as Max’s, so I was able to walk. I arrived right as they were finishing serving lunch and beginning the mass. The assistant head teacher from the school next to Max’s house spotted me, took me to a seat, and got me some food (again, I had eaten lunch already…obviously I had not learned anything from the day before). There were no utensils, so I finally got to eat in the traditional Ugandan way…with my hands. Rice isn’t the easiest thing in the world to eat with your hands, but it worked fairly well. The really awkward thing was that I was eating through nearly the entire mass (it was a big plate of rice), but I think it was okay. Other people were eating, too, and nobody seemed to find it odd. Maybe, to a certain extent, this shows the importance of eating when you have a chance, in a place where people might not always have enough food.
Anyway, the mass was pretty standard (besides the fact that it was in a different language), and as they were slowly transitioning from the mass to the actual burial, the assistant head teacher showed me the grave that was in the process of being dug. It looked to be about a meter deep and was lined with bricks and a layer of mortar. We spent a few minutes talking about similarities and differences between Uganda and the USA…gravestones, caskets, cremation, etc. Eventually, the body, wrapped in the burial cloth, was brought over to the grave, the priest said a few words, and several men lowered the body down into the ground. People started passing out small leaves and flowers to drop into the grave, and then, after someone would drop those things in, they would go over to a banana tree and break off a leaf. I wasn’t able to find out what this might represent. Eventually, the grave would be filled in, and a concrete pad would be placed over the top. I don’t think they will put up a gravestone, but I could be wrong about that.
After it was over, I got to talk to Max a little bit. He seemed to be doing okay, and he was happy that I was able to come and see the service. Ever since the death had occurred on Thursday, I had been thinking about changing my Christmas plans and spending the holiday with Max and his family, and, as we talked, I made up my mind, and told him that I would really like to be with his family for Christmas (I didn’t just invite myself…a few weeks ago his wife, Teddy, had mentioned that I could come if I wanted). I’m happy to report that this seemed to make him very glad, and he rushed over right away to tell Teddy.
So, I guess I’ll get a chance to experience Christmas from a truly Ugandan perspective, and hopefully I’ll have some good stories to report in the next installment.
On a completely unrelated note, for some reason I’ve started writing a little poetry over here…possibly because I don’t have quite the same opportunity to write music, and I need some sort of outlet like that (though I have started playing around on a Ugandan instrument…more on that in the future). Anyway, it’s not connected to the funeral, or to Christmas, or to anything else in this post, but I thought I’d share the poem I wrote last Sunday night. I put it up on Facebook, so you might have already seen it…
The dreams, they come less seldom now,
Though memories dissolve with morning’s light.
Fleeting landscapes from worlds unseen,
Partial fragments, pieces of night.
Why these wanderings through the mist,
These brief escapes of fantasy?
Are they, perhaps, designed to hide,
To shield from harsh reality?
Yet how can I deny the cry,
The child, alone, left to die.
Not sure how to dry her eyes,
I find, still, that I must try.
For when this life has passed its prime,
When earthly things seem less sublime,
Will I lament that I was lost
Amid a sea of dreams uncrossed?
Or will I look into your eyes,
And say, I did my best to try,
To sail beyond the fantasy,
To face the true reality.
And still, though oceans separate,
I know you help to navigate.
So as the sun completes its flight,
Let me dream of you tonight.