KAMPALA, UGANDA – “He’s gone. Dead. Godfrey is dead.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m his daughter.”
She explained it to me over my mobile. Saturday, Godfrey had stomach pain. He got medicine at the hospital and went home. The pain went to his legs.
“He was weeping,” she said. Monday he died.
My wife took the first call. Thought it might be a joke. “I think she said Godfrey’s gone,” Jean said.
“She can’t mean dead. Call back.”
Godfrey was a Ugandan who painted our house and office building here in Africa. His daughter spoke calmly. Too calmly. She explained everything to me. Everything is nothing. Africans here are standing, talking, laughing one minute; dead the next.
Godfrey was built like an Olympic wrestler.
Painted for Uganda’s prime minister. Was a real professional. Always went the extra mile for me. I’ll never know what killed him. Nobody will.
“How old was he?” I asked his daughter.
“We think he was late 30s. Or 42.”
It’s the following morning. I chew on it with my breakfast. I’m bothered. Really bothered. It’s crazy. God, it’s so crazy. Jean just called to tell me, “Moses is dead.”
Last week Moses was strong, enjoying his students, full of life. Ask anyone how he was loved, this strapping Ugandan theology lecturer. Ran a parish. Loved the Church. Loved his family. A few days ago, he had a stroke. Then the coma. Woke up Saturday debilitated, but smiling, alive, before sliding back. He died in hospital Monday, around the time Godfrey’s daughter called me.
Moses had visitors, Ugandan friends, on the weekend. An American colleague asked them, so how is he? Oh, you know. Well, what did the doctors say? Oh, we didn’t talk to any doctors.
That’s what bothers me. I’m not talking about civil war or AIDS or you-fill-in-thepredictable-African-blank. This is just run-of-the-mill dying around here for no apparent reason, no apparent cause.
I eat my eggs and toast. I feel a little like crying, or screaming at it, the quiet acceptance, the fatalism, the dopiness of it all, as if Ugandans are being drugged by death. I’ll never forget that accident, that dead bicyclist laying all twisted under that truck wheel. Traffic crawled. Hundreds of rubberneckers passed. Time ticked. Plenty. Was it 15 minutes before I reached him?
Nobody bothered to cover anything.
Life here is so bloody cheap.
That’s what bothers me.
I open my laptop and write. A Ugandan working beside me asks where I’m from. Canada.
“A stable country,” he says.
I tell him I write for newspapers back home.
“Hopefully good news,” he says.
“People in Uganda are alive, in front of you one minute, then dead, in the ground the next,” I say.
“Life here is for the rich,” he says. He talks about poor healthcare wages and corruption, the challenge of finding good hospital care without big money. “The way we are living, we are living in God’s mercy.”
Yes, God’s mercy. How many more messages will there be?
“Jacob is dead.” That’s the text Jean got some time ago. Jacob built our home here at Uganda Christian University. We loved him, even if he and I once fought hard over our toilet seat. I wanted a wooden seat. He wanted to save costs and keep the cheap thing that broke before we even moved in.
“That can’t be our Jacob,” Jean said, showing me the message. It was. Jacob swerved off a road to avoid a little girl running in front of him. She ran back, right into his path. Both died. At Jacob’s funeral, they didn’t get his age right either.
I’m about to get up and move through my day. What choice do any of us have? I guess that’s what bothers me more than anything. I too may be dead before nightfall.
And I want to live. I daydream about it, the future, watching my little girls marry, my son become a young man, everyone home for Thanksgiving with their own families, me growing old, gracefully I hope, with my wife. But I’m like an everyday Ugandan, and you. I have an appointed time. That’s the mystery.
So we sit. We stand. And we walk. Somehow, by faith, we walk.