Today I experienced probably the highest high and the lowest low of my trip so far.
The high? I learnt how to ride a motorbike. Yeah I did! (Clutch and everything).
The low? I watched someone die.
Upon our return from ‘William’s motorbike lesson, ‘James’ tells myself and another volunteer, ‘Polly’, that “the old woman we gave TB drugs to is dying”. He has been contacted from the village by his friend ‘Jackson’. Time to go.
Back in the village, we head for the woman’s house. It is a tiny two-room mud hut at the side of the main road. The roof, a slant of corrugated metal sheeting. Out front stands a small grocery stall where the few families around usually sell fruits and veg to those passing. Now it is night, and quiet.
Inside the hut, the woman’s bedroom contains her single mattress, and a low bench seat along one wall. The room is already crowded with people. As soon as I step inside, I smell death in the cramped space. The old woman is laid out straight, her blanket smoothed around her. She is laid out to die.
A neighbour speaks to James in Luganda, telling him that the woman wants to be left to die. James does not accept this. He will fight for her life until the last breath leaves her body. I am conflicted. I have seen the last moments of life. The last hours and minutes of my Mum’s life. The last breaths. They are precious. I know she will die and I don’t want to take her. But there is no time for discussion about last wishes. It is now or never. And now we are here we will do what we can.
Once it is decided that we are taking her to hospital, everyone springs into action. The car is brought from the road, and the woman carried out. As she is slid onto the back seat, I jump inside to take her head onto my lap. Her daughter follows us into the car, along with James, Jackson and Polly. William is driving.
As we speed along the main road into town, I am convinced this woman will die in my lap before we reach our destination. I can comfortably count to five in between her jagged breaths. Her eyes are closed, and her right arm hangs limp into the foot-well. I touch her sweaty forehead with my hand. It is cold.
Arriving at the hospital we carry her in and place her on a bed in ‘A&E’. The doctor approaches to do checks. He begins with gentle prodding and probing, but suddenly he is pummelling her chest. He pushes down repeatedly. Hard. Surely that isn’t helping her. What’s he doing?
Then, as quickly as it began, it’s all over. The doctor walks away.
The woman is gone.
Her daughter stoops next to the bed, opening a suitcase she has brought and extracting swathes of fabric. We wrap her mother in these scarves. One under her chin to close her mouth. One round her stomach. A single sheet is laid over the top to cover her.
Polly, myself, and the woman’s daughter stand round the bed. Silent. In the bed next door, a man lies unconscious and bleeding. We stand. The daughter begins to cry quietly, shaking. I hold her next to me. The tears pass and we separate. I find William to ask how to express condolence in Luganda. I repeat his words back to him. He is satisfied so I repeat them to the woman who has just lost her mother. I don’t know what it means but she repeats it back to me and shakes her head in sorrow. I silently hope I didn’t just tell her her mother is in heaven.
This is all new territory for me. We are now in possession of a body we have removed from its home. Her daughter is distressed, not knowing how she will get her mother home. I feel responsible and Jackson translates my promise that we will cover any expense to get her mother home again. The doctor wants to know if we will take her today or leave her in the mortuary until tomorrow. Polly and I see no issue. We brought her in the car with us. We can take her back the same way. We can take her today. We can take her now.
But William says no. We cannot put the body in his car. He gives no explanation, but from his rigid stare and blank statement of “I feel like crying”, I figure he doesn’t deal well with death. No more information is given and I don’t ask. We won’t be getting the body home this way.
James says the woman’s family or in-laws must come tomorrow to collect her. The daughter phones them but they do not want to help. In-laws don’t deal with dead bodies.
What can be done? I will not leave her here. There must be another way. Polly and I will pay what is needed from our own money, if only we can get this woman home tonight. But still we need transport.
The solution? A Boda-boda. A motorbike taxi. A normal-sized motorbike with room for 2 adults on the back. This is what will be used to take the woman’s body back to the village. Has James gone mad? Apparently not. Apparently this is normal in the villages. Many bodies are carried on bodas. A boda is here ready and waiting. A boda is convenient. A boda it is.
James negotiates with the boda-man. The journey will cost 70,000 Ugandan shillings and the daughter will go too, holding the coffin on the back of the bike. Polly and I, still wondering how this absurb body on a boda situation might work in practice, reach into our purses for a not-inconsiderable sum of money. This journey will cost 35times more with a dead person than a live person, but the woman is grateful and I am relieved a solution has been found. We say our goodbyes and leave.
It has been a strange evening.