On Monday morning, as abruptly and to the point as this journal entry will now begin, I awoke to a text message from Vincent saying, “My son, Joshua Tim, has died in the night.”
In my sleepy shock and fuzzy tears I rang immediately only to hear the whispers of our dear friend, Vincent, beyond weak and broken, a man yet shaking to realize the reality of the sudden passing of his wee 5 month old baby. “The burial will be tomorrow.”
I asked of his wife, Toppy. “She will find the courage”, he replied softly. “How can I help you? Should I come now? I will come now.” I asked, I said. “We will be most grateful.” he gently replied.
Another call came quickly, from Bonny Mark, our other LITA rep here in Uganda. I asked and learned a little about local traditions when someone passes. What could we do? How could LITA support Vincent and his family in this moment? Bonny suggested we could help arrange food, there would be many attending the burial the next day who would need to be fed, and the family would need a casket for the baby. Yes, of course, how do we proceed? Bonny said he would make the calls, I should continue to Vincent’s, he would arrange for the making of the coffin in Mbale right away, and bring it for us to the village in the afternoon. Thank you.
As I walked along the path to Vincent’s home, I noticed how the sacredness of the moment was powerfully filling all of the air. Everywhere around was quiet, a void kind of quiet, so distinctly abnormal from the usual chatter, laughter, and sounds of children playing coming from every direction in the village, and even all of nature seemed subdued, silenced. No one called out the typical greeting of “Mzungu, how are you?” to me. All was still, and remarkably hushed. Becoming mindful of this in the moment, I immediately felt a gentle breeze catch me, and on it I could sense the deep reverence and powerful Love that was wrapping around the extreme sorrow of the day.
Walking silently, hand in hand, with two of the ACIO children who had met me when I got out of the public taxi in the trading center, we rounded the final corner and I saw Toppy, others gathered nearby her. She was sitting on the top half of one of the girl’s bunk beds that had been moved outside and placed under a makeshift gathering area that had already been set up that morning, with an iron sheet roof over top. Beside her, the little body of her son, Joshua Tim, covered in a beautiful soft pink silky shawl. I knelt to Toppy and together we wept. We held long. And then to Vincent, sitting across from Toppy, his head hung in sorrow, he folded into a quiet embrace and we sat huddled together in silence. Tears flowing, I looked up to see all of the children, the couple’s biological children along with all their ACIO children, a few friends, some neighbors.. quiet, watching, praying, huge big eyes, tears, confusion, pain and sorrow.
Hours passed, news was spreading farther and farther through the village, more and more people were coming by. Occasionally, a woman’s wailing could be heard from long down the path and eventually the friend, relative, mother, grandmother would round the final bend, weeping loudly, calling out the same words in local language, over and over, as she approached Toppy, Vincent and the baby. Utterances like “Now your son has gone. Now your son has gone. Why, Why, Why. No, No, No. Have Mercy, Have Mercy, Have Mercy.”
Each time Toppy would hang her head, weeping silently into her shawl, the woman, after several minutes of deep lamenting, would exhaust herself of her open sorrow and come together with Toppy in a long embrace. Everyone who came by lifted the little pink shawl and viewed Joshua Tim’s body, so very tiny and still, his sweet face so beautiful, as if in peaceful sleep.
Several hours later, again around the same corner came Bonny and Siliver, one of the oldest boys at the center who had gone to meet Bonny from the taxi in the trading center. High above Siliver’s head was the tiny casket, a small wooden frame box covered in black fabric, studded in several places with copper tacks in the shape of a cross. It was placed close to Joshua Tim’s body on the bed.
Night was coming fast now, and Bonny and I had to find our transport back to Mbale. When I finally reached home, my neighbor Sam was sitting outside and greeted me. I told him of Joshua Tim’s passing and he said, “Ahh, sorry, sorry. That first year. We in Africa know, especially in the village.. if the baby makes 1 year, there will be a chance.”
The next morning, the day of the burial, I awoke to a beautiful sunny day in Mbale and a message from Bonny that he would not be able to attend with me, he had been called to his sister’s school some distance away and needed to travel there to see that she was ok. He helped me to understand what food to purchase and where.. 30 kg of maize meal, in Mutufu.. ask some of the older ACIO boys to assist me.. and off I set to Mbale center to find my way to Mutufu on the public taxi.
When I arrived at the Mutufu taxi staging area, the front seats and several back seats of the next taxi to depart were already taken, and I stood feeling a bit confused for some time on the roadway, trying simply to know where to sit. I find it most uncomfortable to sit in the middle of a row of crammed people in the taxis, I seem to need a window to manage at all. I could see the very back corner seat was still available so I crawled my way in to it. It actually felt ok to be so squished back there next to the open air on this day, somehow it felt like I was being held.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, coming from someone reaching in the back of the vehicle. I turned to see Tony, one of the taxi drivers. Just the evening before, after such a long and sad day, he had tried to joke with me in the trading center. He wanted to charge me some huge fee to drive me as a special hire back to Mbale because Bonny and I were leaving so late from Vincent’s and the taxis were finished for the evening. I had not felt like joking, or being charged a ridiculously inflated price because of the color of my skin, and had dismissed him abruptly as Bonny and I had hopped motorcycle taxis instead.
I looked in his eyes as he viewed me with the compassion that said he now knew of Vincent’s son’s passing, and that of course, I was now headed to the burial. Reaching in to shake my hand he said softly, kindly, “Good Morning Mzungu”. “Good Morning Tony, is this your taxi I am in?” “Yes, let me take you.” “Thank you, Tony.”
The sun shone strong and bright. Siliver, who met me from the taxi and helped to purchase and carry the maize meal and some rice, said it was meant to rain today but, “It will not rain.. and it needs to rain when there is a burial.” “I wore my gumboots because it will rain,” I said, “It will rain today.” The sky showed no signs that this could be true, but I remembered how earlier as I dressed, I had felt guided to overrun my idea to wear my sandals this day.
We could hear the drumming from far, and nearer, the children’s voices, as we approached Vincent’s home. Rounding the corner, still the bunk bed was there, still little Joshua Tim’s body draped in pink, the casket near, still Toppy sitting beside him.. and gathered all around them, children, so many children, a sea of children holding vigil, drumming and singing together so very beautifully.
More and more people arrived, many women were busy cooking over several open fires. Rain sprinkled. The ceremony began around 2pm when the ‘program’ was put forth by a man of esteem from the community. Prayers were said, songs were sung. Rain fell harder. The casket was draped with a white cloth, and at one point early on, the body of little Joshua Tim was picked up, placed tenderly inside, and wrapped.
It all became rather long and blurry to me, the ceremony. I’m not sure really the time, but it was filled with preaching from several different men, most of whom I might call zealous, or fantastically fanatical in their delivery of “the message” and for me with the energy feeling quite forceful, I grew weary of being “yelled” at and developed a headache in reaction. At one point, I just finally needed to stand, the crowd was all hovering so close, the rain now pounding down inches from us all. Toppy was quick to stand with me and together we walked to their sitting room. She carried on from there to be around the women cooking, and soon food began to be dished out to everyone.
The children brought for me some beans and rice. I just couldn’t eat one bite. I still felt as though everyone and everything was so close, and I needed air. The rain had stopped. I left the others who had joined me in the sitting room and were now already eating. I found Siliver among the crowd still listening to the preaching, and motioned him to meet me round side. I told him I wanted to leave now and asked him to walk me to the trading center. Within moments down the path with him, arm in arm, the freshness came to my step, I could breathe again, and I felt all heaviness that had come to me through the ceremony, leave now. Best to leave witness of the actual burial out back on Vincent’s land, which was yet to come, to all the others present.
Siliver and I waited in Mutufu for some long while. We took tea. It seemed no taxis were arriving. I wondered about the road.. had the rain been heavy everywhere, were they even passable? I telephoned to Tony and inquired as to where he was. Would he be back to Mutufu soon? He said “No, I am in Mbale, I am not coming back. The roads are bad. Try to get a boda to the corner”. Ok. I set off with a young driver and his motorcycle asking him “Please, slowly, slowly..” as we skidded our way through the deep, thick mud along the treacherous road. It was a bit ridiculous, and I knew only a 4 wheel drive could really help me now.
After all my red flags, bell and whistles blew inside, reminding me that I had, in fact, worn those gumboots for a reason, I told the driver to stop please, I thanked him, paid him, and began the several k walk to the corner.
I wrote later to a friend in Canada after I returned all the way home..”.. as I was walking along the rain drenched road that had now become impassable by public taxi or even a motorcycle taxi, trying to make my way back from the village to Mbale before dark, I wondered how was it that I could be feeling so strong, how could I be trudging my way along through the deep, slippery mud and potholes so well, not fearing that the sun was soon to set and I still had far to go, after such a long and extremely moving few days.. how was I so well? And I knew it was all the Love coming this way.. And soon, I found the rides I needed and here I am, safe and home, and full of gratitude..”
The whole experience of Joshua Tim’s passing has been so very powerful. Many layers upon layers, and yet so amazingly simple, too. The tenacity of life balanced perfectly by it’s fragility, the power of a moment, the passing of a day, a night, with no moments but now, the walk on hallowed ground, Heaven on Earth. The power of Love, Ubuntu in action, not even a hint of separation between anything or anyone. Young, old, mentally strong and weak, emotionally contained or completely distraught, everyone gathered, everyone sharing, total surrender, total openness, no concept, need, or desire of privacy, no one sheltered or protected or isolated from any aspect of life, and this death, or from anyone’s reaction to the experience.. everyone welcomed, everyone embraced, everyone holding space for everyone else, every one together, as one.
Terrifically uplifting, thoroughly exhausting, and ultimately, completely freeing..
Blessings in Love to all who have joined, and who now join in Love to honor and share these past few days.. the prayers and Love you send this way help ease the tremendous pain of this sudden loss.. we are all together.
Rest in Peace, Sweet Joshua Tim, thank you for the beautiful gift of your precious presence. You gracefully and tenderly touched the lives of us all and have brought many together as one, even joined us around the world, in Love. Be Blessed, dear child of Vincent and Toppy, brother of Rebecca, Mary, Peter, Deborah, Carolyn, Ester and Gracie.. and all the ACIO orphaned children.
With Love, Catherine
On Monday, the day of Joshua’s passing, Vincent and I had an appointment with Sab, the engineer who has helped us with a quote and plan for the dorms we are wanting to help ACIO to build for the 32 children in their care. Of course, I cancelled with Sab that day, saying that Vincent would let us know when he wanted to arrange our next meeting.
In true Ugandan fashion, exhibiting that deep African strength that seems to always ensure continuance, Vincent has sent a message to me just now, Wednesday morning, that reads “Good Morning Mummy, the day is bright. How are you? I have made appointment with Sab for tomorrow 11am at Coffee Tree Hotel.”
And so it is, we shall continue. There are orphaned children to be cared for.
With Love, Catherine