I will admit that this past week has not been one of my favourite weeks here in Uganda. The severity of the turmoil we expedited during these last days peaked after the clinical review date for nine year old Joseph, the only son in a family of four sisters. One month ago, Joseph was tragically involved in a serious boda (motorcycle taxi) accident causing a severe fracture his left femur bone. After the accident had occurred, he was bought to the Jinja Orthopedic clinic and remained there for over a week, undergoing a serious and expensive surgery to fixate a bone plate in his leg. On March 16, 2016, Joseph and his mother would travel back to the clinic for a medical review, a simple voyage, and a trip that he was unaware would change his life forever.
It was hot. That day when Joseph and his mother, Sarah, came in for their scheduled review at the Jinja Clinic. Actually, it was one of the hottest days I have experienced here since my arrival in Uganda back in October. I walked up to Joseph and greeted him happily, excited to that he was in town again. His face lit up and his eyes sparked, we both couldn’t help but grin from the subtle excitement of our little reunion. I felt bad for him sitting there, drenched in sweat from the dense humidity, trapped inside that little room. I motioned for him to follow me outside. His mother lovingly helped him up and he inched toward me, limping, using his worn, wooden crutch for support. The two of us walked outside. I pointed to the small shop across the road that sells treats and candies. Together, we cautiously crossed the busy street. Boda motorbike drivers (as Joseph obviously knew) usually do not mind to the pedestrians who are crossing the road in front of them….especially when the person is walking as slow as Joseph was, so we were extra careful to make sure the way was completely clear. Inside the little supermarket, Joseph selflessly choose five different flavors of lollipops, one for each child who remained at the clinic. I paid for the treats and we walked back towards the road. We stood waiting behind a large van which was parked close to the curb. I peered my head around the vehicle; seeing no sign of any movement, I grabbed his arm tightly and started walking towards the middle of the road. Joseph, who was standing slightly in in front of me and in better view of the entire street, suddenly shrieked “Musawo Emma, linda!” meaning “Nurse Emma, wait!” Sure enough, I spotted a boda driver speeding towards us from the far end of the street. Joseph, because he was standing closer to the parked car, was able to notice the approaching motor taxi and I had failed to see it. Mind you, I am sure we would have made it safely across, but Joseph had made sure to wait until there was no moving vehicle in sight. I applauded his keen-eye for safety and we waited for quite some time before he felt totally comfortable crossing the street.
When we got back to the clinic, Joseph distributed each of the lollipops to the other four children, graciously allowing the kids to choose which flavor they wanted, leaving only one option left for himself. Then, all three of us—Joseph, myself and his mom, Sarah, sat down in the waiting room, chatting among ourselves. I remember Joseph’s mother making silly comments to her son, saying things in her native tongue such as “make sure to thank Musawo Emma for the sweeties again!” oblivious to the fact that I understood what she was saying.
I remember wishing that our nurse, Olivia, had been with us at the clinic that day, but she was unfortunately absent completing paperwork in town. It was only our other nurse, Toni, and I who had been there to attend to the children at the clinic that day. I was disappointed that she was not there because Olivia had always been the one who would talk with Joseph’s mother while her son had been staying at the clinic. The two of them had used much of the time when Joseph had been recovering from his surgery as counselling sessions. Sarah had been confiding in Olivia for support with her complicated family situation. Olivia would talk with her for hours about potential solutions for her families’ ongoing problems. Of what I understood from Olivia, Joseph’s father had three wives; Sarah was the second. Joseph’s mother had explained that when the third wife had come along, her husband ceased to care for herself and her five children. He began to solely tend to the needs of his new wife. This obviously caused major tension between the three families and constant strife between Joseph’s father and mother. The two of them would constantly be having open arguments, each defending their own side of the story. Sarah was so fed up with the grief that her family was experiencing as a result of her husband’s actions, that she emotionally removed herself from his life completely. The feelings were reciprocal and Joseph’s father then refused to support Sarah and her family in any way. Joseph’s father, still upset an angry at his second wife, would go around to his neighbors and relatives proclaiming: “this women will surely die in an accident.”
After Joseph had finished his lollipop, I took him (and his mother) outside to take the pictures needed in order to update his medical files. By this time, I was sweaty, hungry and tired. Shortly after the little photo session was completed I said a quick goodbye to Joseph and Sarah and headed out the door.
Later that evening, as I removed memory card from my camera bag –so that I could upload the pictures I had taken that afternoon–my cellphone rang…. usually late. Annoyed, I answered the call. It was Toni. “Emma, I have some bad news” he said. My heart sank. “Joseph and his mother were involved in a taxi accident on the way home from the clinic. The taxi spun out of control and rolled head-first down a steep hill. Joseph’s mother didn’t make it.”
I was in shock. I mumbled a response and quickly hung up the phone, tears beginning to escape my squinted eyelids. This seemed IMPOSSIBLE. Just 8 hours before, I had been talking with the two of them, all three of us unaware of the tragedy that was about to take place. It was about half an hour before I was able to build up the courage to look at the pictures I had taken that day. When I finally began to flip through the photos, I paused at the image that I had captured of both Sarah and Joseph….the two of them standing and smiling, all of us encouraged at the progress Joseph’s leg had made during the few weeks prior. Everything was just so natural…so normal…no one was expecting anything bad to happen.
During the days following, we began to gain further details about the taxi-van accident. Joseph and his mother had been sitting in the front seat of the vehicle. Upon reaching a steep hill visible from the left of the vehicle, the taxi spun out of control and had plummeted down the hill. It had flipped violently several times before smashing face down at the bottom of the hill, the front end of the taxi concave, most likely piercing many of Sarah’s vital organs. Immediately after the accident, a crowd of people ran to the scene, pulling the passengers out from the totaled vehicle. Joseph’s mother was screaming as the bystanders made and effort to save her. Panting and crying, breathing her last, she repeatedly forced her last words “Where is my son?! Save my Son!” People then began to search inside the vehicle for Joseph, but strangely, he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Joseph was found lying outside of the van, meters away from where the taxi had ultimately stopped. He had flown outside the taxi as it rolled down the hill. It was literally a miracle that Joseph had fallen out of the window, because if he had been trapped inside the head-on pressure from the sudden frontal-end damage, he would have had similar injuries to his mother. No one knows how he fell out, but we can be thankful that he did, because it left him with only minor damage to his already broken femur bone.
It didn’t take long for the nurses and I to realize that Joseph was probably now under the care of his dysfunctional father. Sure enough, we were correct in our thinking. Joseph’s father had brought him straight to the Jinja Main Hospital, weary to bring him to the Jinja Orthopedic, despite Joseph’s many pleas to be back at the familiar orthopedic clinic. Joseph’s father had been nervous to visit the clinic, because he knew that some of the medical staff was aware of his familial situation. He most likely felt ashamed and embarrassed about the circumstances. He was also aware that many people had been blaming him for causing the accident, saying that he had put a devil’s curse on the taxi because he wanted to get rid of Sarah. He was probably under the impression that people at the Jinja Clinic would be mad at him for what had happened. So, right after the accident, he fled to the main hospital for the time being. The Jinja Main Hospital took an x-ray of Joseph’s bone and found that the plate which our main surgeon had
inserted into Joseph’s leg had been severely bent, but was miraculously still on one piece. Joseph would need another surgery in order to correct the damaged bone plate, and the main hospital could not provide the funds for that type of operation. After two days of receiving little help from the main hospital, Joseph’s father became impatient and visited the Jinja Orthopedic Clinic to gain more information. He reached the clinic by late evening, so the nurses and I were not around to talk with him. Luckily, our main surgeon was there to discuss the situation with the father and informed him about what would come next. Sure enough, Joseph’s father agreed to talk with the surgeon, but concluded by informing him that it wasn’t his fault that he had to leave his wife, because “she had poisoned him out of hatred.” In his shame and fear that we the organization would shun him away for abandoning his family, he tried to convince us that the separation issues between him and Sarah were because Sarah had poisoned him. Then, he thanked the doctors and headed back to the Jinja Main Hospital for the night, preparing Joseph for the upcoming burial service the next day.
The following afternoon, the nurses and headed to Joseph’s village for the burial ceremony. I was unsure of what to expect because I had never been to any kind of funeral ceremony in Uganda before. When we arrived in Joseph’s village, we had to park quite a distance away from the main tent where the service was happening because of the mass throng of people who were attending the burial. I was surprised to see that not only the tent was full, but many people had brought blankets and scarves to sit on surrounding the tent. Olivia and I ended up sitting on a small blanket that we simply spread out on top of a pile of dirt and leaves. We couldn’t even see what was going on under the tent because there were so many people gathered there. As we sat down, a child brought us a jug of water so that we could wash our hands, then she proceeded to give us each a small plastic bag full of rice. Olivia strictly informed me to eat the rice, because it is a custom of respect to eat the food given to you at a burial ceremony. She told me that I if didn’t eat this food…no one would eat the food I would serve at the burial service of one of my close relatives! After removing a small worm from the bottom of the bag, I did my best to eat most of the hot rice, trying not to make much of a mess using only my sweaty fingers.
The service was about two hours long. It involved preaching and the singing of hymns. The words spoken (from what I could understand/what was translated for me) were not unlike a funeral in Canada, although there wasn’t much of an orderly flow to the service. People would walk up the front of the crowed and say a few things; some sharing memories, others explaining the accident in further detail. After the first part of the ceremony was complete, the family proceeded to walk to the other side of the home for the actual burial. As they walked towards the grave, the family wept profusely, wailing and yelling the name of their lost loved one. As we watched the family stubble toward the open field, we noticed that Joseph was not with them. After she had been buried, people spread out and began to wail and morn on their own… and still, no Joseph in sight. We began to become very worried. We knew that there was a possibility that Joseph’s father had left with his son part-way though the ceremony. The three of us began asking relatives and friends, but no one had seen Joseph since the commencement of the service. Finally, after making an announcement instructing everyone to look for Joseph, two teenage girls carried him over to the place where we had been sitting. They held him up by his arms, his wooden crutch lay loose in his right hand. This was the first time I had seen him since before the accident. The light in his eyes I had seen just three days before, was now nothing but dark confusion. His face was damp from sweat and tears, his jaw clenched, eyebrows pointed inward. As he was approaching us, his eldest sister stumbled up to him. Between her wailing, mournful cries, she lifted her finger and forcefully pointed it at Joseph’s face, yelling: “YOU! You have left with your father, but all he does is cause us to suffer, YOU!” It was then that I realized: this accident, for Joseph, was more than just losing a beloved mother, it had torn Joseph into sudden, intense confusion. Was he to listen to the advice his sisters… or obey his father, his only living parent, and stay with him? Already heartbroken from the death of him mother, Joseph was now torn with guilt towards his siblings and feeling of helplessness and confusion towards in own father. Up until that point, I had been simply absorbing the foreign culture of this event, but upon watching Joseph hobble towards me, shocked and confused, I lost it. I sat him down and knelt beside him. The two of us remained sitting there together, crying. By this time, a crowd of spectators had gathered around us and formed a tight circle, leaving a small space for the two of us in the middle. As we sat there crying together, I thought… what is to happen to Joseph? Why would God allow such affliction and responsibility to a nine year old boy?
These types of questions that surround death are completely normal I assume…blaming God for the tragedy or questioning why it had to happen. But the questions surrounding the death of Joseph’ mother aren’t all rhetorical, or ones that are aimed only at God. May of the questions he is probably dealing with some are logical and need to be sorted out among his family members. The biggest question that the nurses and I are still struggling with is …what is going to happen to Joseph now? Is he going to remain with his father? Or will he live with his younger and two older sisters? For now, we are beginning to talk with Joseph’s father about what kinds of surgical procedures his son is going to need during the days ahead. We will help Joseph in every way that we can. Usually, at the end of a blog post I am able to conclude with a positive word about how a child life has been changed following a surgery forever—for the better. March 16, 2016 changed Joseph’s life forever. The repercussions and questions are ones that he is going to have to work though for the rest of his life. This is not a problem that a medical doctor can help to heal, or even an organization can pay for. It is something that will take years and years to mend, and there will never be a full a recovery. Even when Joseph’s leg is completely healed, and his scars from his stitches have faded, the scares that have formed on his nine year old, tender heart will never fully fade. There is not a sum of money in the entire world that can fix that.
To conclude, I am going to share with you a short story. This story ended up to be the ultimate finale to the many hardships of the past week and occurred on my boda-boda ride home from church just this past Sunday. My Sunday had been fantastic. The church-school class I teach had done an excellent job of preforming their Easter skit which we had been practicing for many weeks. That whole day had been so much fun. After the service, the kids and I walked to nearby a farm to relax after the commotion of the performance that day, joyfully eating mangoes and guava fruit fresh off of the tree. I was still smiling as I summoned a boda driver for a ride home and sat down on the motor-bike. I was wearing a long skirt and the respectful thing for women to do is to sit sideways on the seat. For some odd reason, without thinking, I hoped on the back of the bike with my legs straddling the seat cushion. As we set off and my skirt began to fly high above my thighs, I can recall thinking to myself, “Shoot! Why did I sit this way? This was so dumb of me!” En route to my guesthouse, there is a very busy round-about that connects the Nile bridge to Jinja Town. Not unlike every other street in Uganda, this round-about doesn’t follow any sort of organizational guidelines or system for the passing vehicles. As my boda pulled around the bend, a second motorbike driver, approaching from the street adjacent to the one we had just came from, came suddenly speeding towards us. The bike then spun out of control, crashing into our boda from the left side. Their bike violently fell to the ground, both passengers skidding along the uneven pavement. My driver swerved out of control, but thankfully was able to remain upright. I was in such a state of shock that I don’t remember feeling any major pain at that point. It wasn’t until we had turned around at the scene of the accident that I noticed the damage on my leg. I stepped off of the boda to talk to the passenger who had fallen off of the other bike and to grab my handbag which had been ripped from left shoulder during the impact. As my foot hit the ground, pain shot up my leg. It was then that I noticed the large bump which had formed on the outside of my left shin. The other motorbike had hit my left leg, scraped my left hip, tearing the left side of my skirt. After seeing the lump on my leg, I headed to our main clinic. They treated the swelling, wrapped my leg, and gave me many painkillers to take during the next few days. Ever since the day of the accident, there has been one thought recurring in my mind. I should be dead….I should be DEAD! Why? The boda had hit us from the LEFT side, injuring the left side of my body—the parts of the body that stick out furthest from the motorcycle seat. If I had sat down on that boda like I usually do when wearing a skirt (both legs sticking far out on the left side of the bike) the boda would have completely knocked into BOTH of my legs. Without a doubt I am certain this would have fractured my both of legs and pushed me onto the open road in front of other moving vehicles. I am so fortunate to even be alive right now. I am beyond thankful that God had put that little thought to sit strait on the boda instead of sideways that day. It could have literally saved my life. There is no real explanation to why I had quickly sat down the way that I did, but it is because of that spur-of-the-moment decision that I am able to be writing this today. It is truly a miracle. So why I am I alive, and not Sarah? There is no real explanation for that either. It isn’t fair that tragedy affects some people, and seems to miraculously by-pass others. This whole week has given me a new perspective about the gift of life. It can be taken away from someone so suddenly, and without any warning…leaving harsh repercussions for family members like nine year old, Joseph. But, I do know one thing. I know that if I had died that day and taken to live in heavenly glory, one of the first things I would do is find Sarah and tell her what a brave son she has.
Ugandan Advice: Whether you live in Canada, or Uganda…there are good weeks and there are bad weeks.