Artwork: The Celebration of Life by Elsie Russell. (66 k)
During my meditations today, I allow my soul to travel back to Kabale, Uganda. Sensations are already crowding the portals of my mind, pushing and jostling each other to get through the opening...just like people boarding an African bus! Sitting in silence and breathing deeply, I close my eyes slowly, focusing on Kabale...
Early morning and I am standing on the porch of the house in Burimbira, a small village just outside of the town of Kabale. My family and I have lived here for five years. Mist lies like a blanket on the valley floor. The sun is rising, above the hills and across the valley, turning the soft moist air into golden clouds of light.
To the west, the air is no longer burdened by ominous, pounding booms . Rockets and destruction from Rwanda have been part of this life for too long. Now the struggle is different . People jostle for possession of the land: the means to rebuild their lives.
The inversion of the tribes in Rwanda has taken it's toll. The Hutu are now without land or homes, too many crowded into refugee camps in Zaire, while the surviving Tutsi divide the land, soaked with their own blood and filled with the bones of their families and friends. United Nation's troops and the soldiers of the Rwanda Patriotic Front...the Tutsi army, formerly known as the rebels...nervously patrol the land immediately west of us, waiting and prepared for the counter-attack which was promised by the Hutu. The Tutsi are now the government, and the former Hutu government are the rebels. This inversion has been seesawing back and forth for over thirty years. The soldiers know the violence will begin again. In the meantime, they wait.
Not long ago, the people here lived under a cloud of fear created by their own civil war. For now, the Rwandan guns are silent, no longer a constant reminder of how fragile peace can be. The silence allows the people of Kigezi in Uganda to focus on their own well-being. Those who live near the border feel safe enough to return, dreading to see what remains of their homes. Still, they try to plant and rebuild.
They have been staying with other families, who are now grateful there are fewer mouths to feed. Ugandan hospitals were witnesses to the carnage which overflowed onto Ugandan soil. Spill-over from the fighting cost many of the border families their homes. It is hard to be accurate with a weapon as big as a rocket launcher.
The present Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, is sane and wise enough to stabilize the country politically, after almost 20 years of mayhem. He has been strong enough to keep control of the army. People can move again without fear and often express their gratitude with heartfelt sincerity. But today, my mind is upon the land, alight with the glow of the morning sun and alive with the sounds of the living. Eucalyptus trees poke holes through the mist, allowing the sounds of the valley to escape: cows lowing, sheep bleating, cockrels crowing and drums....the morning drums gently waking the people still asleep under the cover of their cone-shaped, thatch-roof huts.
Those with wealth and fortune sleep under the security of iron sheets...some of them new, still shiny and wet with dew. These roofs defy the elements, hurtling reflected light through the clouds and back at the sun. They shine so brightly in their arrogance!
Other metal roofs are red-brown, rusted, old... their arrogance tempered with the process of aging and mortality. They absorb the light and become part of the misty softness. They lay along the valley floor in patches, their rusty forms almost indistinguishable from the red earth which they rise above. Ochre walls support the roofs, helping to complete a crazy patchwork of earthy tones which give texture to the mist. The windows and doors which punctuate these walls are still closed, their occupants slow to respond. The drumbeat continues to throb, calling to them, announcing the beginning of the day's business.
Grey-green trees hug the boundaries of each structure, their topmost branches outlined in sunlight , dancing like St. Elmo's fire. The trees define ownership and divide the land into fields and compounds. Church steeples draw attention to their central influence in the lives of the surrounding villages.
As the mist rises up the hill, engulfing our porch in a golden haze, the vision of the valley below disappears. Only the emerging sounds penetrate this soft but solid wall. Human voices start to join the choir of birdsong and livestock. An Ibis decides to try a solo and drowns out the sweet twittering of other birdsongs and the gentle murmur of voices with its raucous, penetrating call. A cock answers with his own crow, wringing out the last throaty decibel to hurl his defiance and territorial claim to the imagined intruder. Crested-crown cranes have been nesting in the fields above our house; they answer the Ibis with honking of their own.
The smell of woodfires wafts through the mist, acrid and pungent. Noises within my dwelling call me back from dreaming; my family-Don, Mishkin, and Alex-are stirring. I move inside the brick and cement walls which define our shelter... joining my fellow women throughout the village... each of us in our own kitchen, preparing the first tea of the day. I am lucky. I have a gas stove to cook on. I need not go through the ritual of lighting the "jiko", a small clay charcoal stove.
Through my glass door, I can see a figure approaching through the mist. It draws closer. Gladys, my neighbour and friend, is bringing the morning milk. Already she had been about her day's business: milking the cows in the fields below. Perhaps it was her cows doing the most lowing, grateful as her strong, skilled fingers stroked their teats, coaxing the milk to squirt into her plastic bucket, relieving the pressure which had built up in their udders during the night.
I open the door, and she enters my kitchen. She is wearing a kerchief tied around her head, a standard fixture for women in Kigezi. This morning the kerchief is a pattern of red and yellow, punctuated with green dots. Her faded, blue t-shirt is worn and old. It hugs the form of her unbound breasts, sagging with age, use and gravity. There is still strength in them, however, just like the rest of Gladys. Years of climbing up and down the hills, carrying 20 litre jerry cans of water, carrying firewood, carrying baskets of potatoes and beans, carrying buckets of milk, carrying her two daughters (now grown women) through their infancy strapped to her back by a bright ,white, cotton cloth, have left Gladys lithe, slender, and strong.
Her hips and legs are wrapped in a length of faded patterned cloth, its end jauntily tucked into itself at her slim waist. Her feet are clad in rubber boots, "Wellies" as they are called, a left-over from the presence of the British. Gladys' soft, clear skin has never seen nor needed make-up; her strong white teeth flash as her face lights up with a morning greeting, "Agandi!"
I return the smile, and answer as Gladys has taught me, "Nemarungi!"
She smiles her approval and moves across our cement floor, placing the metal container of milk on the small, wooden table which sits in the middle of the room. Solar panels provide electrical current to a 12 volt fluorescent tube. It lights the room, creating a confusing medley between the soft, cool light from the bulb and the misty, warm light filtering through the doorway. Cream coloured walls provide the background for a riot of color from the plates and cups. They line two shelves hanging over the bright blue wooden countertop...my attempt at Better Homes and Gardens in the African village.
The paraffin refrigerator sits silently against another wall, cooling the small bits of food left from the night before along with yesterday's milk. Water, boiled and cooled, sit in bottles on the top shelf...the day's drinking supply.
In the space next to the fridge is the glass door through which Gladys has entered. It reveals the grey curtain of the mist which still lingers The sun can not warm the mist on this side of the house, shadowed as it is by the bulk of our brick and cement walls. Our iron sheets drip moisture from the roof into the eaves; the dew has grown heavy and trickled into our water collection cistern.
"How are you today, Gladys?"
"Good", she replies. "But Topesta's husband died last night. We will bury him tomorrow."
Her face pulls into a frown and her smile disappears. Her body pulls itself into retreat from the awful news she has delivered. Her eyes are downcast, and she breaks eye contact with me, perhaps seeing her own vision of Topesta's future.
After the funeral, the family will come; the brothers will take the land and the livestock. We both know this. Topesta may be allowed to continue living in the house with her children, but she will become a poor relation to the family. Always the outsider, this will become her dominant, defining characteristic. She will have to find money to rent a field and grow enough food to feed her children and pay her school fees.
If her husband's family is kind, they may allow her access to a field in which to grow the food. The house she lives in will be inherited by her son, if it is not taken over by the brothers . She and her children could be evicted. Property is always inherited by the man and his family, never through the woman. The girl-child is born a stranger in her own family. She will marry and leave. The clan would lose any assets she takes with her. Sons don't move, and so they inherit.
A man's wife used to be the responsibility of his family, making her a wife of the clan, affording her the protection upon the death of her husband. One of the brothers would marry his brother's widow, caring for her and their children.
The tradition must now be done in a clandestine way, hidden from the eyes of the priests and clergy. The woman cannot acknowledge marriage to the brother, or the village will be obligated to show wrath and condemnation to demonstrate their piety. Land ownership and permanent settlements brought a different problem. Land ownership and permanent settlements brought a different problem. The clans could no longer afford to support the wives and children of their dead sons. The death of a husband was a terrifying thing.
My own eyes seek the protection of the cement floor as I contemplate these thoughts. Gladys and I stand for a few seconds in absorbed silence.
"Is there something I can do?," My voice is hesitant.
"The family needs money to help pay for the coffin and the priest for the burial." She seems glad I asked. "The radio announcement will go out this morning, and the relatives are expected to arrive today. They will need feeding."
"Can I offer a sack of beans and some rice?"
Gladys looks into my eyes again; a soft smile plays on her lips, "That would be good. The family would be grateful."
"Are you going to the burial tomorrow?"
"Yes, I have to go. She is my close neighbor, and it will be expected. I don't know where I will get money to contribute though. " She muses on this. "Too many burials...it's not right. We can't afford to go to burials like we use to. There are too many. None of us has the time for three days of mourning. You are suppose to spend time, but no work would ever get done. Few of us have the money or food to contribute."
I can see her discomfort. "Why did he die?"
She gives a small, resigned shrug and laughs nervously, "AIDS! It kills so many; none of us know if we will be alive tomorrow. Who will look after Topesta when she is sick? More school fees for the grandmother. She already has four grandchildren from her other son. He and his wife died. The grandmother doesn't have the fields anymore and is getting too old to dig. She can't afford to hire people to dig, and Topesta's children are not yet big enough. She tsks and shakes her head."
She tsks and shakes her head.
"Are you coming to bury?" Seeing my affirmative nod, she adds, "You are welcome. We will go together."
"I will send the rice and beans over this morning, Gladys. Would you take them over for me?"
She smiles again, sadly, and says yes. Turning, she leaves through the door into the mist again.
"Kali, Nyabo," she calls over her shoulder as she breaks into a trot, hurrying towards the day's tasks.
The water boils. I pour it through the coffee filter; it trickles into the thermos. I move the metal can of raw milk onto the flame for boiling, and watch as the mist rises, slowly turning into grey cloud. By mid-morning, the mist will be skiffs of cloud high in the sky, a heavenly lady lifting her skirts to reveal the beauty and bustle of life's dramas and comedies playing out below.
Slowly, the aroma of coffee dripping through the automatic coffee maker overpowers the scent of wood-smoke in my memory. It calls me back to the present. A gurgle emits from the machine as it sucks the last of the water to through it's bowels . The intrusion is completed. My concentration is gone.
I open my eyes. Sunlight is flowing through my window. Green, lush Canadian pines sway gently in the morning breeze. Deer are stretching themselves from among the rocks and moss where they have slept overnight. Gently, tentatively, they step out onto a small patch of dry grass and nibble the stalks. Walking over to the coffee machine, I pour myself a cup, and think of my friend, Gladys, half a world away.
I miss her.
The Celebration of Life by Elsie Russell. (66 k)
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