It was when he said the fifth Amen in the same sentence that I began to question my presence in his church. His name was projected on the large screen in block orange letters, the chair I was seated on, the bands on everyone’s wrist and the T-Shirts ushers donned all had an inscription of his name. His holy church. I don’t know what it is about Pentecostal preachers that makes them raise their voice towards the end of each sentence. Like all the girth with which they say the power in “He has given you the POOOWEEEERRRRRR” will reach into your spirit and yank all the weakness out. Like the fire and energy with which he sends that Victoryyyy will reach out and place that coveted car and a driveway to park it besides your dream house. Whatever it is, Agaba agreed with it completely. Her Amens came as promptly as his. She clapped her hands, shouted in praise and raised her hands in so much desperation that it would have been pure comedy to anybody who didn’t know her story.
“I heard the news of my grandfather’s death as I laced the straps of my shoes ahead of my graduation ceremony. My aunt, dramatic as ever, wailed into the phone screaming incoherent words like “mama onziise” and “taata nneda”. She eventually run out of the house and into the compound screaming “He is dead” in all the languages her tongue could allow.
I felt a familiar sadness, only this time, it was more nostalgic than hurtful. At 23 years of age, death wasn’t something that was new to me. The familiar feelings of loss and shame were a constant companion. I slowly put off my shoes and changed into a more comfortable pair of geans and a black T shirt. My prayer was short and straight before I made for the door. “Lord, please give us strength for the next few days”. Those are all the words I could manage, considering the last loss we had in the family almost destroyed the entire bloodline.
I was heartbroken. I didn’t scream as loud as aunt Ngabo, Gnash my teeth and throw myself to the ground. She made all the gestures I saw in Nigerian movies. She placed her hands on her head, and shouted to the skies “God why? Why me?” Losing my grandfather was hurtful, like a flaming dagger to my heart, but I am certain it was unbearable for her. Where she comes from, death only breeds death.
It all happened so fast, they say. One minute they were all singing along to Dolly Parton in the car, and the next they were blood, flesh and metal on the side of the road. I always try to paint that picture whenever I see the Kamengo sign post on Masaka road. Somehow I can never see it. I cannot picture my mother and father singing happily to an old country song as my siblings sing along too. At least one was sleeping, or uninterested, counting cars or watching birds fly. They all couldn’t have been singing along. My brother, who was apparently three years old at that time couldn’t have known the lyrics. But if aunt Ngabo says they were singing country, then it must be true. Too bad I wasn’t singing along with them.
My parents, two brothers and sister died in a car accident on their way to Rukungiri for my grandparents 0 30 year wedding anniversary. I am only still alive because my mother didn’t see it fit to drag a sick one year old all the way to the village just for a two day event. That is how aunt Ngabo became my mother and I became Uncle Patrick’s burden.
“I am not mummy, Agaba. I could never be. Your mother was a beauty queen. She was kind and tall. I am only her sister. And that makes me your aunt” she always said. I never understood how much more beautiful, kind, and taller my mummy had to be. Aunt Ngabo was everything and more. Never once did I lack for a mother. She was always enough for me. Even when Uncle Patrick’s one desire was to send me away because he didn’t get married to raise another man’s child. Uncle Patrick was never cruel but his cool indifference never was kind either. Maybe that is what happens when a couple that has decided not to have children suddenly has a one year old daughter.
Aunt Ngabo fed me, she clothed me, bathed me, sung me to bed and when I could do all that by myself, she loved me unconditionally and taught me all that I know about life. For a very long time, my life began and ended with her. She was my everything until I had lived on earth long enough to make my own heinous mistakes. Even then, she only loved me more. I could never find the words to express my gratitude but I came close as I penned my graduation speech. This one was to be a tear jerker. All hundred guests were bound to leave with soaked handkerchiefs. Now watching her lament and curse in the middle of the road got me thinking about another speech that would have everyone crying still, only these wouldn’t be joyful tears.
My grandfather was the pillar of this family. Everyone bowed to his word. His authority spread over the Kyama clan that not even the fact that he had only had two daughters could undermine his power. At a time when children were a symbol of prestige, my grandmother had only managed two girls before her womb was permanently sealed. No amount of bishaaka could help her conceive. All advice to get a second wife fell on deaf ears as Shweenkuru fathered any child who came his way. Which is why I have so many uncles and cousins but my grandfather has only one daughter who decided not to have any children.
A week after the fatal accident at Kamengo, when the fires in Shweenkuru’s compound had burnt out and the flowers on the graves had wilted, my mother’s brothers sued the owner of the taxi that had knocked the car off the road. All the legal running around ran him broke and he took to soliciting help from the family. Everyone pitched in except for my grandfather, who knew all too well that no amount of money could bring his beloved Nkwanzi back. This escalated into a series of quarrels that created a rift in the family because the one arm that wanted justice for the dead couldn’t understand that the dead need no justice. They need a fierce legacy and enlightened predecessors. One thing led to another and soon the Kyama clan only spoke at weddings and at funerals. Uncle Jim couldn’t stand aunt Specioza because aunt Kirungi had told him that aunt Specioza had convinced their father not to support their lawsuit 22 years back. They would have gotten justice for Nkwanzi if she hadn’t negatively influenced him. I grew up saying little around my relatives, just like aunt Ngabo had said. Smile, say what you must and don’t stay too long.
On a sombre Tuesday morning my grandfather collapsed in the garden and was declared diabetic by the doctor that afternoon. He summoned his 13 children to his home in Bugangari to finally put an end to the madness that had broken the cardinal rule of his house. He expressed his disappointment with his children for letting the death of Nkwanzi go against his one and rule. “You must love your people”. He always said. He commanded them to make peace lest they were not invited to his impending funeral. Aunt Ngabo and I stayed in the village an extra week as she caught up with her estranged foster brothers and sisters. I befriended my cousins and visited them every weekend when we got back to Kampala. This was 6 years ago. Aunt Ngabo made a monthly pilgrimage to Rukungiri to visit her parents and often times, she took me along.
And so this morning, watching her bawl and curse at God, I can’t help but feel sad too. For all the history. The bond that has been broken by death. The familiarity of unconditional love. “Nothing like the love of Shwenkuuru”, she always said. Indeed, nothing like the love of Kyamazima.
His funeral was heart wrenching as it was tedious. I was almost excited to see Uncle Patrick when we got back to Kampala two weeks later because I had had it up to my nose with mourning and mourning courtesies. He had spent one night in the village, funerals were not exactly his scene.
Three months later, aunt Ngabo has not recovered her lustre yet. She doesn’t whistle ancient catholic hymns through the corridors anymore. She doesn’t rush to hug me anymore, she doesn’t move with the exuberant aura of life that we all knew her for. Every day I see her hurt and there is nothing I can do. I haven’t lost all my blood relatives, I possibly can’t understand what she is going through.
So I pray. I ask God to heal her pain. And when Pastor Simon says Jesus conquered death, and he gave me victory, I need to believe that. I shout it loud, that maybe he can give some of this victory to aunt Ngabo, because death is slowly killing her. And I do not know if she has enough power to defeat it”.