Life is Precious: A birthday and a funeral

A couple of weeks ago was my host brother Fahad’s 9th birthday.  The weeks leading up to it were tough for my host mum, Madina, who supports so many children both at home and back in her village that she was struggling to pay for her own children’s school fees, let alone birthday presents or a party for Fahad. I’m always amazed at the acceptance and understanding of African children when they are told they can’t have or do something, and Fahad was no exception when he heard the news from Madina, he just nodded his little head solemnly and looked down at the floor, trying not to show his disappointment.

The morning of Fahad’s birthday was completely unremarkable and just like the start of any other school day, with the usual rush to get all the children dressed and out of the house by 7am. I gave him a big hug and his younger brother Ark joined me in singing Happy Birthday before they were ushered out of the gate by Mama Fina, the housekeeper.

That afternoon Madina and I put our funds together and bought a cake, candles and a present for Fahad, a new school bag which I filled with sweets for him and all the children. When evening came, all the children put on their best ‘party clothes’ and sat in a circle to sing Happy Birthday, which I discovered has many more verses in Uganda, including ‘How old are you now?’ and ‘You look like an angel’ sung to the same tune!

The knife was brought for Fahad to cut the cake, and all the children joined in holding and cutting it with him, even the toddlers!  Once the first piece was cut he went straight to Madina who fed him a little piece of it before taking some herself, then Fahad took the plate around the room giving a tiny piece to each person.  Once everyone had eaten some, Madina cut the rest of the cake into normal pieces to share between us, and gave Fahad a bottle of Sprite she had brought home for him which he drank in tiny sips, making it last for at least an hour!

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Then it was time for the present (hidden in one of Madina’s scarves!), which Fahad unwrapped slowly and carefully, his face lighting up when he realised what it was (his old school bag was so full of holes that even the safety pins weren’t holding it together anymore!) After posing for a couple of photographs, he handed out the sweets to the other children, who went crazy with excitement and ran around cheering until Madina shouted at them to ‘Genda webake!’ – go to bed!

Just two days later I witnessed my first Ugandan funeral, for the son of one of my colleagues at Environmental Alert.  Tragically the boy was just 15 years old, and died falling from a mango tree on a Sunday morning before church.

In Uganda, funerals are a community event, and it’s almost considered rude if you don’t attend, so on Monday morning when the news was delivered to the office, the other staff and I piled into the 4×4 and drove straight to the village where the funeral was taking place, nearly two hours away from Kampala. We didn’t know where exactly to go when we got there but it didn’t matter, as soon as we arrived at the village we saw a steady stream of people, taxis and boda bodas turning off the main road, with everyone dressed in their smartest clothes.

We followed behind and soon reached the house, where a white tent had been erected and lots of plastic chairs laid out in a semi circle around the coffin, which was sitting under a small tree. When we arrived the funeral was already underway, with family members taking it in turns to speak into a microphone, expressing their sadness and condolences in Luganda. Nearly all of the chairs were already occupied, so we joined the crowds standing behind as still more people kept arriving. There must have been easily 200 people there, if not more!

We stood for at least an hour as the sun became hotter and hotter, babies started crying, phones began ringing, but the family members kept coming with their messages – more than I could keep track of. When they finished, it was time to read out the financial contributions from schools, churches and institutions both from the village and Kampala, where they boy went to school. I was amazed by the generosity of the donors and the sheer number of them too – the list took at least another hour to read!

It came to the burial and the coffin was carried slowly to a patch of freshly dug earth behind the house, followed by everyone else that was able to walk. A small group of women led the crowd in singing hymns, then some prayers were said before the coffin was covered. The crowd dispersed remarkably quickly, as people went back to their homes or work – there would be a small wake for family and close friends only.

On the drive back, I sat contemplating while my colleagues chatted in Luganda around me. There are moments when you’re reminded just how precious life is, and although these moments seem to happen a lot here in Africa, it doesn’t make the pain is any less for the loved ones left behind.

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