She is a visually stark opposite of her former self. Under a half cover of blankets and bed sheets made visible by the golden sunlight peeping through the window, Ife Piankhi looks on, seemingly numb.
After a few minutes, she attempts a dull smile. With a tinge of pain, she attempts to raise her hand to gesture in an exchange of courtesies. Her hands can no longer hold firmly so they are as wobbly as her shaky and somewhat stammering voice.
Her caretaker, and friend, Kaya Sanaa Mwakalobo stays close by, to help her off the bed and into the seat, and then outside. It is visibly a discomforting situation and a phase where she is not fully in control of her limbs.
Piankhi is an artist, one of the most recognisable poets on Uganda’s contemporary scene. There was a time she was full of life, energetic, rich with words and expression. Her energy was always felt by audiences whenever she had a performance. It is not surprising that she became a fixture performer at all thematic events, especially those that were skewed towards storytelling.
Today, she can only be nostalgic about her hey agile days.
By Christmas Day, in 2018 Piankhi had been on the road, traversing different African countries for more than a month.
She was part of the road travel Great African Caravan, a brainchild of Art Caravan, an Indo-Swiss organisation of global artists using their talent and skills for peace building and conflict resolution.
They had officially been flagged off at the Unesco New Delhi offices, though the road trip had started from Cape Town, South Africa. They had gone through Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, among others.
However, as the caravan headed to Cairo, Egypt, Piankhi felt uneasy, with headaches and general weakness. Around the same time, her brother, who was living in UK, committed suicide.
Stressed, she opted out of the continental sojourn. She visited Mwakalobo, who recalls seeing an unusually stressed Piankhi.
Mwakalobo, also an artist, recycles waste materials to create art. The two became friends after he heard her song, Kampala Mabaati, appreciating her lyrics and the way she channeled street children.
The two later met at one of the editions of Laba Arts Festival where Piankhi usually performed and was also a coordinator. Since Mwakalobo also plays percussions, she invited him to play during her African Yoga classes.
They became closer friends and comfortable around each other that on the night when she couldn’t return home, she had his place as an alternative. He asked her about what was stressing her and relayed to him how she was feeling, he advised her to rest.
But Piankhi came out for all art events. That night, she was at it again. It was annual Boxing Day Uganda Hip Hop Summit. That night, she did what she does best, recite poetry.
“She returned and slept. But the next morning, she was dizzy, her temperature was irregular; hot and cold. I thought it was malaria. She asked for paracetamol,” Mwakalobo recounts.
It is more serious
After taking the medicine, she wanted to lie down and rest. She started sweating and for Mwakalobo, it was a good sign, the medicine was starting to have its effect on her body.
He was wrong.
Her breathing changed and then she began convulsing; releasing saliva or foam, her body shook profusely, sending Mwakalobo in panic mode. He started prepared her for a proper medical check-up.
“At the medical centre we visited, they checked her and we were told she was just tired and needed to rest. I was not convinced, so I decided to take her to a hospital,” he recalls.
At St Francis Hospital Nsambya, the medics were able to check her and confirm that her blood pressure had shot beyond normal.
“I didn’t know I had high blood pressure,” she says, with a contrite sigh.
There was no neurosurgeon on duty at Nsambya hospital, perhaps because it was the Christmas season. She was referred to Platinum Medical Centre where they were admitted.
“Dr Hussein Ssenyonjo worked on her. Her health situation had worsened, so she was taken to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). We were told that a vein in the brain had expanded and burst. We needed a lot of money to maintain her at the hospital but the doctor was understanding and told us that he needed to first save her life before we could talk about the bills,” Mwakalobo narrates.
At that point, Piankhi was in coma, a state she remained in for the subsequent eight weeks. To her recollection, it was a time of shock. First, on discovering she had high blood pressure and then learning that she had gotten a stroke and would be bedridden for some time.
Mwakalobo recalls an operation to enable her feed through the throat. She used the same space to breath. He was humbled by the gesture of Dr Ssenyonga to put life above money or bills.
Getting to terms with it
After leaving Nsambya, they had tried another top hospital where he says they were told to make money to enable the facility proceed to treat Piankhi. They didn’t have the money so they opted to proceed to Platinum Medical Centre, which was cheaper and more proactive.
“I had never seen anyone in the family suffer from stroke, so it initially didn’t occur to me that it was a stroke. I was traumatised. I couldn’t comprehend how dizziness could lead to such a health complication,” she recalls.
The doctor told Kaya that in addition to her high blood pressure, her sugar levels had dropped significantly. She lay there, almost lifeless, a dreadful sight for the friend who couldn’t believe they could not converse for two months while she was in coma.
The state of prolonged unconsciousness made him wish for a sign of life, even if she blinked. He stood by her, receiving and explaining to visitors who paid courtesy calls to check on the artiste.
After eight months, she was able to blink and then keep her eyes open. But for a few days, her consciousness was not fully normalised so she could not recognise some of her friends and family.
A mother of four, this was most painful period for the children, they stood the months of her being unwell and eventually when she woke up, she had to recollect memories of them.
From the time news of her sickness started making rounds on social media, there were efforts by friends to cover the medical bills through crowd funding at shows and film screenings.
Ayele Egbuson, an accountant and friend, says they met at Kannagara Retreat where Piankhi was the coach: “We all love her and we have been helping her with her basic needs: physiotherapy, paying her maid’s salary, putting up a toilet that could be conducive for her.”
When she regained her consciousness, she was happy to reconnect with friends and family who comforted and gave her hope that things would improve for the better.
And as she regained her memory, her recollection was vivid about having a good time at the Hip Hop Summit. She says she had reconnected with friends and fellow artistes with whom she shared the performance stage.
“I was fine. It all went well. I did poetry and left the concert towards midnight and came to Kaya’s place. It was late and I could not return to my home in Entebbe,” the 46-year-old recalls.
The concert is part of her last memorable moments. “From the morning when I felt sick. I was incapacitated. It is Kaya who took care of me,” she further recalls.
Picking up the pieces
A year later, Piankhi is picking up the pieces, of course at a slower pace, you will not find her at a rave like Nyege Nyege, even when this was her beloved party or even a calm one such as Pearl Rhythm.
“I miss going out for music shows and mingling with people like I used to.”
She is currently undergoing radiotherapy treatment by means of x-rays or of radioactive substances, once a week. She is required to feed well- on a balanced diet so her favourites include millet, sorghum, dodo (Amaranthus) seeds and soya.
Kaya says that he was able to link up with some food scientists at the College of Food Science at Makerere University where he is able to procure a combination of the foods in large portions.
Ife Piankhi was born in Uganda, of a Jamaican mother, who came to the country to offer medical services as a nurse, and father from the Caribbean. She was partly raised in United Kingdom.
She has collaborated with artistes such as Keko, Nneka, Mamoud Guinea, Geoff Wilkinson, Michael Franti, Jonzi D, Wynton Marsalis, Floetry , among others. She has toured internationally for the past 30 years visiting Canada, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zanzibar, Zambia, Romania, Italy, Holland, and USA.
While living in London she was a regular on Colourful Radio, founded by Henry Bonsu. She has been featured in the documentaries 500 Years Later by Owen Shahadahand Nubian Spirit by Louis Buckley which highlight her knowledge of Nile Valley Civilisations. Ife started her career at 18 teaching African pre-history in a supplementary school called Aimhotep School of Knowledge. Since then she has continued to work as a teacher and facilitator. She co-ordinated innovative projects such as Identity and Difference in Sutton and Linking Communities in Merton.
Another creative project was Ancestral Gathering, managed with Aamasade Shepnekhi, which saw her working with communities to create sacred space in the natural environment. She is regularly seen at poetry and music events in Kampala, Uganda.For five years she sat on the board of Laba Street Art Festival, and has assisted in the development of initiatives such as Teen Slam Poetry Challenge,Poetry in Sessionand the Babashai Poetry Award.
She was one of the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s London Leaders for Sustainability, where she was exploring environmentalism and creativity with the African Caribbean community in London.
She attended Findhorn the Foundation EcoVillages programme, exploring sustainable communities and was a participant in the British Council UK Interaction Leadership Programme for community leaders. With the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) she worked with petty women traders in Sierra Leone. She is an active African feminist who enjoys exploring Self-Care and Wellbeing with women and girls.
In 2017 she was an artist-in-residence at 32 Degrees East the Ugandan Arts Trust. Her poetry installation entitled To Be or Not 2B? exploring Migration, Identity and Mourning, with a specific focus on the Maafa or Great Disaster -The forced migration and enslavement of Africans.
However, this personal ancestry also relates to many of the challenges faced by Africans in the 21st century who are forced to migrate due to conflict, economics or as in her case repatriating to Africa as a means of reconnecting with her African origins and Pan African ideology.