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Desperate measures. Louis Sematimba (not real name) sat his dead brother on a boda boda and rode overnight from Busega, a Kampala suburb, to Mityana District, writes Emmanuel Mulondo.
Death makes no appointment and will in most cases strike at a time when least expected. But under all circumstances, morality and honour for both the deceased and the bereaved demand that the dead be given a descent handling and send off.
However, today’s economic pressures dictate otherwise and one should not blame the bereaved when this is not done the appropriate way.
As such one of the challenges that the bereaved face is transporting their dead to the final resting place. In modern times, a special vehicle known as a hearse is meant for the purpose.
Today, these are commonplace in Kampala and are always available to the well-to-do at a cost. The vehicles are of several classes, depending on the personality of the deceased. Those who run the hearses, especially funeral service providers, will base on this to make their tariff.
However, the hearse is not a luxury for the poor and resort will always be made to what is affordable. Some will resort to hire of a truck, while others will go for a pick-up truck and so on.
But there is that class of Ugandans where the majority of us fall. Those who may neither afford the luxury of a hearse nor the descent alternative.
One man’s Ordeal
To these, resort will always be made to the last alternatives, one of which is boda boda motorcycle. This was the story of Louis Sematimba (not real name). For some time, his brother had been sick and he kept taking him to hospital until February 22, 2012, when he breathed his last from their home in Busega, Nabisasiro zone in Kampala.
“I had no money to transport the body to Kakindu in Mityana District, our ancestral burial grounds. I made a distress call to one of the priests at the Catholic parish where I served as a catechist. The priest was of no much help as he turned down my request for the parish vehicle.
Other requests also did not yield any help. I decided I would use my motorcycle and take my brother to our burial ground.
“The body was still warm. So it was flaccid and required some kind of wood to be able to stretch it across the motorcycle. Carrying the body this way would inconvenience me as it would constitute a ‘wide load’ and give me problems bypassing other vehicles on the road. I would also have to answer so many questions from the police about why I was transporting the body at night,” Sematimba narrated.
“I decided I was going to transport the body as a ‘living person’. We dressed the body in a khanzu and sat it on my motorcycle. My son held it and we tied the legs on the cycle near the foot rests. I placed a cap on the deceased’s head and with my son behind holding the body in place and clutching my jacket, we set off,” Sematimba narrated. “If you ever saw us, you could not easily tell the person (read body) in the middle was dead.”
A frightening experience, I challenged him. “Initially, I feared. But when I made all attempts to get transport and failed, I gathered carriage. Not because I am a courageous person, but I had no alternative,” Mr Sematimba added.
There are two routes to Kakindu from Kampala: Through Masaka and Mityana roads. “On Mityana road, there are many police roadblocks and I would have to stop at each of these if I used that route. Added to this, the Masaka road route is shorter compared to the Mityana road route. So I chose Masaka road. Here the only police roadblock is at Nsangi.”
“We rode through Kyengera, Nsangi and Maya and went off the main road at Mpambire. I was firm. The only time I kind of slowed down was at Maya when we met the police. I thought they were going to stop us and find out our secret,” Mr Sematimba explained.
“However, we were lucky a huge truck carrying matooke was coming from the other direction and the police were taken up by that and stopped it. So we were able to move on without being stopped.”
And he had reason to slow down as he had forgotten the Local Council letter explaining the death of the deceased.
“As we reached Kakindu at around 10am, my courage gave way as I heard the wails of our relatives. I almost lost control of the motorcycle as we entered the compound. We had to be assisted and the body was removed by other people we found there,” Sematimba recalled. The rest is history.
Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman Ibin Ssenkumbi says, “Transporting bodies on motorcycles as living persons may not be convenient to other road users. Some body finding out that people are carrying a dead body may faint or run away while scared.”
“I personally have not seen a body carried as a living person, and I may not comment much, but I think it can be scary,” Mr Ssenkumbi said, adding that depending on the cause of death, it may not be healthy to carry dead bodies on a motorcycle used by other people.
“There are communicable diseases like cholera. If a person died of cholera and then you sit the body on a motorcycle, isn’t there a possibility that germs could remain on the motorcycle and infect other people?” Ssenkumbi said.
Mr Winstone Katushabe, the secretary Transport Licensing Board, said he needed to look at the law to give a concrete position about using a motorcycle as a hearse.
“It is only hearses or ambulances authorised to carry bodies. Carrying them on motorcycles is irregular. Even where there are difficulties, we need to remind our people of what is right,” Mr Katushabe said.
“Our traditional way of doing it was properly tying the body in back-cloth and then put on some kind of stretcher, but you can no longer do this at the expense of the public. Some people simply can’t stand the sight of dead bodies.”
But overall, Mr Katushabe said sitting bodies as living persons to transport them on motorcycles is illegal. “A motorcycle is licensed to carry two people, but if you are three, if I may include the body as a person, that is illegal. It constitutes dangerous loading,” he explained.
Accounts of boda boda operators at Mulago mortuary stage
Sematimba’s story is one of a “motorcycle hearse” but not a commercial one. The rider was not at choice to operate it. However, there are moving experiences of boda boda operators at Mulago “mortuary stage”.
“We always do it. People always lose their people and come when they have no transport to take the body. To us, it is an opportunity because once you get such a deal, it can make you money you may not make in three days,” Gerald Kalyango (not real names) explained.
“When you get such a deal (to transport a body), we call it a ‘sure win’. That is money assured,” Sowedi, a former stage chairman adds.
He narrated that at one time he got a deal to transport a body to Kanungu District. “Some Bafumbira men who had lost their relative came and requested if I could take the body to Kanungu at a cost of Shs200,000. I told them I could if they offered that in addition to fuelling the cycle,” Sowedi said.
“They agreed and went in (the mortuary) with my motorcycle. We sat the body like a living person and one of them sat behind. They offered me a full tank of fuel and also gave me Shs70,000 for refuelling. The rest of the money was to be paid once I delivered the body to Kanungu,” Sowedi narrated
“So we set off, but as we reached Nateete, their colleagues called us after learning that a relative with a vehicle was coming to Kampala.
So I relinquished the body, but retained my full tank and my Shs70,000.”
As we carried on with this interview, Sowedi’s colleagues were getting interested and occasionally chipping in. “For us we don’t fear the police as long as the bereaved have documents talking about the dead person. Police are interested in knowing how the deceased died and will always give you the nod once you present proof,” one of Sowedi’s colleagues explained.