Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Beatrice's Funeral

Beatrice Kyomugisha, the lovely  young woman who took care of us and our Guest House at the university in Mbarara,  greeted us enthusiastically when we arrived 2 weeks ago.   The following day, inexplicably, our roof, which has leaked for more than a year was repaired.  Beatrice had been helping me to try to get it  fixed when I was last here a month ago, to no avail.  I called her on my cell phone to thank her.  She laughed and said she didn’t know why they had decided to come and promised to look into getting a ladder so the light bulb high in the bathroom could be replaced.  
That was the last time I spoke to her.  She probably had a bad headache at that time.  Several days later she was taken to hospital.  By the time I heard , she had been transferred from Mbarara to Kampala by her friend Dr. Tony, the head of Internal Medicine.  We felt assured she would get the best of care.  Following a CAT scan, she or her relatives decided not to have a biopsy and she was taken from the hospital.   Shortly after returning to Mbarara on Tues we learned that she had died.  We were stunned. 
A collection was taken at the office the morning of the funeral.  A sheet was produced with places for people’s names and the amount.  There was no soliciting.  People just heard and passed by to add their name.  This money is given to the family and used for the costs of burial.  
When we arrived at the family compound we were greeted by Evaliste, one of our nurse trainers whose is the In-Charge in Bwezibera, many miles in the opposite direction from Mbarara.  It was  wonderful to see someone I know, although the women I have come with seem to know many of the people.  Africa is like that, lots of connections.  Evaliste tells me that she has married into this village, meaning her husband comes from here, so she is busy cooking with the women. 
The funeral was held in the family compound where we are surrounded by a large matoke/ banana plantation.  Four tent tops had been erected for shade.  As we were seated, stacked white and blue plastic chairs were brought in and wiped off before being put in place by young men  Few of the woman were visible as they were cooking the massive meal that accompanies a funeral here.  
Brothers and Sisters

I came to the funeral with three young women from the office.  Beatrice was the Guest House Manager for the university guest houses.    She looked after all the expatriate staff who come and go for short and long stays.  She kept our flat in good repair, washed and ironed our clothes, cleaned, shopped and cooked for us in the Pediatric Guest House so knew the office staff well.  She always put  fresh flowers out for us, often roses from the two tress by the front door.   She was a good friend who was more like a member of our family.
Flowers Placed on the Coffin
As Dr. Tony, the head of Internal Medicine said at her funeral, she was a ray of sunshine in the staff quarters.  We never saw her in a bad mood.  No problem would get her down.  She was the ultimate problem solver for all of us.  On days when she and I  were both working in the flat, we would chat on and off throughout the day.  She would fill me in on who was around and what had been happening.  The day the Cubans were playing their music loudly, she warned me they had bought a new sound system and would be partying into the early hours.  And she was as usual right.  She took pride in keeping our flat shipshape. When the American obstetrical team removed our coffee cups to the other Guest House, it was Beatrice who found and retrieved them. She was warm and generous, thoughtful, competent and reliable. 
Chickens were running through the yard as we took our seats.  The only other Muzungu (white person) attending the funeral is Dr. Tony.  I think of us representing all the many people from all over the world who have come to know and love Beatrice over the years.  A sound system has been set up and church-like music is played.  Women in short skirts or pants have wrapped sarongs around themselves.  The two gals who came from the office with me in skirts a couple of inches below the knee, have placed a wrap or jacket on their knees, as it is the custom here especially for funerals to wear long skirts. 
Beatrice was a single parent with two young children of whom she was very proud, Terry and Billy.  She has in the past brought them to the Guest House but I haven’t seen them for a couple of years.  They have to be pointed out to me as they move through the crowd. Terry is a tall 8 old in Primary School while Billy is only a head shorter at 5 years and attends Day School.  They have been attending  school in Mbarara and I wonder how they will manage now.  
Several hundred people line up to be fed.   Our group have eaten lunch so sit out the  banquet.  I ask if it is OK not to eat as it is seen as very impolite here as elsewhere not to share a communal meal.  I am assured it is OK but I suspect one of our group has provided excuses.  We could learn something about serving people efficiently from Ugandans as within a half an hour or so most people are back in their seats. 
In introducing Dr. Tony, the family is clearly very appreciative of the help and support he has provided to Beatrice.  He speaks in English saying he is too upset to attempt Lunyankole.  He talks about Beatrice’s generous, sunny spirit.  How she was always pleasant and helpful.  How she was valued by the expatriate staff that come and go, making their stays at MUST run smoothly.  He has heard from people in Canada, Germany, Australia, USA, UK and New Zeeland, all expressing condolences. So many people has she touched!  There is a moment when he says he has wept more in the last 24 hours than he has in the last 24 years.  His translator, stalls, looks baffled and then skips over that part entirely.  There are a few humourous twitterings from those in the audience that speak both Lunyankole and English. I am prompted to ask my colleague what the translator said.  She admits he passed over it and explains it is a hard thing to say in Lunyankole.  Beatrice's mother also stands to make a speach with a friend who speaks for her in English and Lunyankole.  
A Catholic mass is then held with many at the funeral taking part.  Celebrants pull their robes on in preparation moving first to the house for the family and then coming into the yard where the mourners wait.  A communion table is set up and large numbers of people take communion.  The priest speaks at length.  The offering is taken and songs sung.  The coffin draped in a white cloth with a red cross on, it is placed in the center of the compound.  First the family and then various groups place flowers covered in their plastic wraps on the coffin.  
Gathering in the Plantation as Grave is Dug
Pall bears carry the coffin into the plantation in the back where men finish digging the pit and lower the coffin.  Most of the large crowd stays until the coffin has been placed into the ground.  I am standing at the edge of the mourners when one of the MUST ground staff comes over to thank me for coming.  
One of my African friends mentions she has seen funerals in the movies and wonders if it is true that so few people go to our funerals.
 "Yes”, I say, "it is true”.
 “ Also for weddings?”, she asks?  
Compared to weddings in Uganda I have to admit that yes,  sometimes even family members are not invited because numbers are often limited as it is seen as too costly.   Yss even for such as we with so-called 'skins the colour of money'.   
I am still thinking of this the next day.  Of course it is costly also here in Uganda, maybe even disproportionately more.  But cost doesn’t stop them from celebrating important events with their friends and community.  Finally I am forced to admit to myself that we are probably not as connected to our communities and each other, and maybe not even to ourselves as Ugandans are.  
As I am returning from the university the next day, another of the  staff , someone I do not recognize, thanks me for attending the funeral.  He also says he noticed I had a camera and wonders if I would send my pictures to him.  I show him the few I have taken as they are still in my camera.  Although they are poor he gives me his email so I can send them to him.  I begin to think in some strange way I may be more connected here than I am in Canada. 


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