Anxious not to arrive halfway through another Ugandan funeral, I decided to check that “4 o’clock” means the same for me as it does for my Ugandan friend Harriet. I’m glad I called: the 4 p.m. service had been brought forward by two hours and is 40 km outside Kampala; there’s the service in town to attend first too.
We’re late of course.
Kampala traffic is its usual snarled-up mess. “Kampala’s a dump” says Harriet’s aunt Sanyu; well it’s certainly a bit of a culture shock in comparison to rural south-east England where she lives.
Halfway through the service and there’s still no sign of the coffin.
After the service we go outside and the hearse opens to reveal a white coffin. I don’t want to cause a scene but … [didn’t I see a brown wooden coffin lying on the grass in front of Jaja’s house … ? Do we have the right coffin?]*
“Would you like to look at it?” Sanyu asks me. (I assume she means Jaja’s body, not just the coffin, but by now I am rather confused). We agree it doesn’t seem right, seeing Jaja for the last time in the open car park, but Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t allow the body inside Kingdom Hall.
Two hours later at Kalassa, 40 km north of Kampala, it’s our turn to be stared at as we pull up and park under a tree. The caterers prepare gigantic pots of food – enough for 3-400 people – over open fires. A man throws his full weight into stirring a gigantic tin pot of thick maize posho.
Groups of older ladies in their best and brightest gomezi sit on woven mats under the cool canopy of the mango tree. Boys sit on the tree’s trunk-like roots. Young men distribute red, blue and the ubiquitous white plastic chairs under the marquees that surround the coffin on three sides. The open casket lies under a smaller marquee in the shade of the tree. The roses wilt and droop in the intense midday heat – so do we.
It’s difficult to stay awake as we await the other mourners.
After an hour and a half, Harriet still hasn’t arrived. We hear police are using water cannon and letting off tear gas and bullets back in town (it’s a few weeks after Presidential elections). We just hope the funeral party isn’t stuck on the wrong side of the protests.
One of Jaja’s greatest legacies was the establishment, 40 years ago, of a primary school for the children of Nsambya police barracks, the largest of its kind in East and Central Africa. The Ugandan police are poorly paid and the barracks are shockingly bad. The police bus, kindly provided to ferry teachers and mourners from Nsambya, has been caught up in the riots and has to be escorted through the trouble as disgruntled young men start throwing missiles at it. Luckily everyone gets through safely.
These events require a lot of patience: the long drive, the language barrier, the religion, the greetings, the hot sun, delayed schedules, the need to wait for everyone to arrive from every part of the country. It’s strange for me to have this enforced time out of the office mid-week but there’s no power anyway after last night’s powerful windstorm. My right hand is ‘paining me,’ I shouldn’t be handwriting these notes but, with no laptop for the foreseeable future, I have to live with it.
I doze in my chair.
I’m relieved the Police Commandant delivers his speech in both Luganda and English. “We would all have been here” he says “but you know what’s going on.” He’s referring to the Opposition’s ‘Walk to Work’ campaign ostensibly in protest at the sharp increase in the cost of living. To help reduce household bills in particular, people are asking the government to reduce the amount of tax levied on petrol. This campaign is being led by the Opposition parties who are still contesting the results of the Presidential elections.
On TV the World Bank reports that the cost of food globally has increased by 34% in one year, predominantly due to increase in oil prices. Poor people spend most of their money on food so they are the hardest hit. Some people here are even talking about ‘going back to the village.’ They won’t earn money there but at least they have land to farm and thus won’t starve. Ultimately every Ugandan has a village to go back to, although stories of people selling their land to move to the city are increasingly common.
Back at the graveside, hundreds of people crowd precariously on the mounds of earth heaped up around the small hole in the ground amid the coffee trees. The traditional Muganda barkcloth is laid over the coffin as it’s lowered into the ground.
Harriet’s brother Martin shows me the family’s burial plot and invites me to cleanse my hands with the sap from the stalk of the banana tree, part of the funeral ritual.
Practicing my rudimentary Luganda to meet and greet Harriet’s family offers some light relief after the day’s formalities. Being given a Muganda name “Nagawa” has given me hours of fun and I am delighted to be the same clan as Jaja. Our totem is the Red Tailed Monkey. Since Jaja has passed on, I (her clanmate) have assumed the role of Jaja. I discover that being Jaja means I am mother-in-law to two men who are the same age as my father! (Sanyu tries to explain how the relations between clans work but I’m not sure I get it). Either way, I am honoured.
Last week I wrote:
Jaja is very sick. It’s very sad. She’s lying in a metal framed hospital bed in the clinic. It’s a typical Ugandan setup: drab and old-fashioned but dust-free from daily mopping. Jaja has been on a drip since yesterday but these visits to the clinic seem to be getting more regular. Harriet’s worried and she hasn’t been sleeping. She is stressing over the house girls who are paid to look after Jaja but who instead just sit around watching TV. It’s a shame I didn’t get to know Jaja before she was ill. She’s 87 now.
Harriet is a devoted granddaughter, trying to feed Jaja, organising people to look after her. It seems the main responsibility keeps falling back to her though, whatever arrangements she tries to make.
Last night Harriet slept in Jaja’s hospital room, in a mat under her bed. She was covered in mosquito bites this morning.
*As for the mystery over the two coffins, it turns out that the family had bought a second, more expensive one: the white one I had seen at Kingdom Hall.
I’m further alarmed the next day when I notice the original brown coffin stored in one of the spare rooms. I know the family need beds for all the relatives staying, but seriously???