As Africans, the concept of death as a private affair, attended by only a few invited guests is strange. In death, the deceased’s home hosts family members and strangers alike, talking, cooking, eating, singing and mourning together.
But fighting Coronavirus and the measures to curb it have not only redefined culture and lifestyle, they are almost rewriting how those who lose loved ones deal with their grief. The process of mourning has been cut short, to meet lockdown measures.
Emily Mwebesa found herself learning to mourn quickly when she ended up in a hospital room alone, with her dead father on April 24.
Everything happened so fast, just an hour earlier, he had showered, all by himself; he had arrived at the hospital with an ambulance from his home in Bushenyi that day.
Less than 24 hours back, the deceased, Patrick Mwebesa had driven himself to the Bushenyi District council meeting, where he was the secretary for finance and administration. Days before, he had even tended to his coffee plantation.
Mwebasa had had diabetes for a long time, but this did not worry Emily and her siblings. Thanks to a personal testing kit that helped keep the disease in control.
But on March 20, as schools closed due to coronavirus, she had an urge to speak to him. That’s when he told her was going to see a doctor and get in touch later.
“I had not seen him sick so, I later called to find out what was wrong,” she says, adding that she learnt he had a boil in the thigh, an infection and was struggling to urinate.
He received medication and was asked to go back for more tests including a scan. That was just the beginning. In the days that followed Emily and her siblings felt he deserved better medical attention and tried convincing him into coming to Kampala in vain.
“He would became agitated the moment you mentioned Kampala,” she says.
One of the reasons he gave for not wanting to come to Kampala was the suspension of public and private transport, as a measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. He also believed that at 72, with an underlying condition like diabetes, coming to Kampala would expose him to contracting the coronavirus.
After several visits to the doctor, including one where he was told the previous medication had not effected the expected change, a recommendation was made to increase his dosage. Days later, after receiving scan results, a doctor at Mbarara teaching hospital recommended a referral to Kampala.
That’s when the scramble for ways to transport Mwebasa started. First the family tried to secure an ambulance from a Health Centre III in Bushenyi district. But the driver said he wasn’t confident enough to drive in the chaos that is now associated with Kampala roads.
The family then opted to send for a cab, but this was problematic because the driver would have to travel a significant distance before getting the Resident District Commissioner’s movement permit that had been given to Mwebasa.
The family finally got an ambulance from Mbarara District that was willing to make the journey, as long as they allowed a little time to make some repairs.
In Kampala, Emily prepared to receive her father. She prepared the food to take to hospital, braced herself for the walk from Kisaasi to Kampala Medical Chambers on Buganda Road and as a precautionary measure, she carried with her a letter from her local council chairman.
Going to hospital
She had a conversation with one of her nephews, a commissioner at Ministry of Education and Sports who had a movement sticker and promised to deliver her to the hospital.
In the end, the commissioner was delayed by a meeting forcing Emily to take the risky alternative of driving herself to hospital.
She had been watching news, thus knew the Kampala traffic hotspots. For instance, she says she knew the Public Service route had many policemen, so, she tried to avoid it.
“I found one roadblock around Wandegeya, so I reached for my letter from our LC 1 chairman and the officer understood,” she says. The traffic officer, however, warned Emily that returning home would be difficult in the evening. On arrival at Kampala Medical Chambers, Emily says her father looked different. His eyes were pale and his speech was not good.
She asked herself, “was this the person in a coffee plantation or driving by himself to a meeting in Bushenyi?”
By then one cousin who had a movement sticker was present, but because of the curfew, they had to leave early.
Emily stayed behind to nurse her father.
“He was weak but wanted independence. He wouldn’t wait for help to go to the washrooms, he would unplug himself and go to the loos, until a doctor cautioned him to accept being helped,” she recalls.
At about 8pm, her father kept asking for his position to be changed and that he was hungry. Due to the situation, she could not get him the best food, since what had been brought from her house in Kisaasi was cold.
So, the two compromised on watermelon and bananas that Emily had carried alongside the food.
He was willing to eat, asked her to hurry and feed him, but he wasn’t swallowing the food because the body wasn’t willing. Even his breathing worsened.
“He said he wanted to go for a short call, then asked for a basin and took a towel and bathed.”
Almost an hour later, the breathing was worse that they even contemplated taking him to the intensive care unit, “I was holding his hand, then he started sweating, yet he said he was feeling cold.”
A few moments later, he was still, so Emily called the doctors who told her he was gone.
“I moved, touched him, called him, took a few steps back and then broke down. Then I remembered I was alone,” she says.
At 11pm, Emily had to quickly start thinking of the next move. She tried calling people but their phones were off.
“But we had a WhatsApp group where we had coordinated the process of bringing him to hospital,” she says. From the information on the WhatsApp group, the cousin who had been in hospital earlier called.
“She believed I was just panicking, so I gave my phone to the doctor,” says Emily.
Most people struggled to believe he was dead, because despite his being weak, Mwebesa and his family had all believed he was in Kampala for treatment and that he would recover soon. After the call, Emily sat with her dead father for some time.
“The doctors hadn’t covered him. I think they wanted me to come to terms with the death,” she recollects.
Her husband and nephew arrived just after the hospital had rolled her father in a bed sheet. The group then started planning to pay the hospital bills and planning the burial.
Part of the things they had to discuss the next day was their movement. Thankfully, Mwebesa had five months earlier been active in organising the burial of a brother to Lt Gen Joseph Musanyafu.
As the Joint Chief of Staff in Uganda People’s Defense Forces Lt Gen Musanyafu, cleared some cars for the burial of Mwebesa. Even with this burden off the family’s shoulders, Emily was still sad that her father’s sendoff would be a small, forgettable affair.
“I couldn’t help but think about how dad was always there for people during hard times. Here we were, going home to dump him like he had shamed us,” she says.
The family had received clearance and the journey home was quick. However, arrival before 4pm, would mean the burial would take place that same day. So they were advised to pass some time in Mbarara. As they were passing time, an impossible task given the circumstances, they were told the district wanted to honour him the next day.
The district then asked that the body be kept at Kampala University Teaching Hospital for the night.
The district paid their last respect on Sunday, and proceeded with taking the body home via the sub county that Mwebesa represented, as the LCV Councillor. Some people were waiting by the roadside, waving, wailing and staring at the car.
“When we reached home, people had gathered, we prayed and the people that were there got the chance to view the body,” Emily says. Those that were at home on Sunday were asked to stay home on the day of the burial to control the numbers.
But the tension was at the burial, as Mwebesa had been a man of the people.
“He was active and a go-to person. For instance, when people fell sick and he would find the needed help to get to hospital, he was also key in fundraising drives for different schools. He even used to bring star students from the area to Kampala, especially, those that performed well.”
Most of the people he had helped wanted to be around for the burial, so they showed up. But police officers had been deployed on the road to his home. Some people who tried going through the banana plantation were chased.Emily says this saddened their mother to the extent of crying.
“Because of the situation they did not allow us to have a tent, professional photography or music. The things my dad ensured people got when they lost their loved ones were impossible at his funeral.”
Family members could not stand next to one another during eulogies.
Joseph Twinomujuni, Bishop of West Ankole Diocese, was hurrying everyone through their speeches in his attempt to start and complete the service early, in a bid to discourage drawing more people.
“During the service, the Bishop read only a verse from the Bible and asked people to practice social distance,” she says.
Emily adds that only Patricia Mwebesa, her children, their partners and the pall bearers were allowed to access the burial ground.
Emily says things happened hastily that by 10.30am, they were done with the burial, “the Bishop did not even stay to eat because he said if he stayed, the people would also stay.”
Being an influential figure in the district, most of the district heads were caught in between humanity and enforcing the law.
Even policemen around could have let people socialise but they were afraid of what could happen if one of their bosses showed up.
“You could think our father was someone bad we wanted to do away with so fast. He did almost anything for people when they lost their loved ones but his was rushed. No hymns. Someday, we shall do something befitting but the lonely picture of the way we buried him can never go away.”
As for her brother who is currently with the African Union Mission in Somalia, he could only be informed of the father’s death by his superiors.