Don’t donate yourself, your nearest, your dearest to death

September is the month that my mother slipped through the doors at the other end of this waiting room that we so politely call life.

Her departure was aided by the staff of one of the popular private hospitals in Kampala (namely Kadic) who, using negligence, gave her an almighty shove into the arms of death. I suppose it all began when her doctor, a man who had performed multiple cesareans over a long career, somehow forgot that people who’d just undergone major operations were susceptible to blood clots.

When that nurse with a thin, brown face and stunned expression held my shoulders and said, “You are going to have to grow up now” I was sure my mother’s conscious was still in the hospital, perhaps in its walls, trying to steady itself, to gather gravity so that it would become weighty enough to slip back into her body.

And I called for her to do so in the only ways I knew how: noise, violence, chaos.

The first thing I failed to accept was that we had lost her after doing everything right, at least by movie standards: rushing to the best hospital we knew, delivering her into a pristine waiting room, being  reassured by a young doctor whose accent made you think “clean, sure”.

How could such a logical system fail, I asked? How could they betray my trust in the competence of musawos? What kind of doctor only remembers to administer oxygen to a patient who has been failing to breathe for an hour, after they have taken their last struggling breath? I suppose I had expected things to play out like an episode of House.

The second thing I failed to accept was that we could have saved her life had we had basic knowledge of the plants, spices and herbs around us. They could at least have mitigated the irregularities her body was facing. A small clove of garlic ingested regularly, ginger, cayenne pepper, vanilla leaf, all which thin your blood and lessen the likelihood if you developing atherosclerosis, a condition that causes blood clots to form in our vessels.

Two years later and I still remember so clearly, the helplessness I felt that Wednesday night. It is a strong force behind my desire to become an herbalist, a true daughter, sister and wife to the soil and her extensions.   

On the night of 9th September, Chris Ocamringa was reporting about a mysterious disease that is making the throats of the afflicted in Ntungamo burn and then produce snail like creatures, mbu. I balked at his use of air quotes as he referred to the medicine men and women who were,  according to all accounts, treating this disease successfully. Shya.

We have been poisoned by the idea that medicine is only worth appreciating when approval flows down from overseas. We are both suspicious and dismissive of the wise men and women who have been healing our sick for centuries, who have retained their knowledge in the face of globalization, colonialism and self-racism that came as a direct result; who have protected their knowledge against the stealing and repackaging by foreign elements. As a reporter whose responsibility it is to bring us the news, it was silly of him to flaunt his bias towards the medicine men and women.

Unless we intend to continue to donate our nearest and dearest to death while paying for death spaces in the fancy little hospitals that keep mushrooming all over the hills of Kampala, we had better wake up to the healing elements around us. It doesn’t take much. At the very least, google. Pay attention to what you eat, hydrate and move.

 Ma, Mary Jessica Opwonya, you are loved and sorely missed by we, your seven.



Children, meanness and great, great fun. #4days

For the last two days, Maad Advertising has been alive. Children have brought their squeals, questions, giggles and bad manners into our office and I have loved every minute of it.

I have always liked children, in a kind of way. When I was little, I liked to carry babies and pretend they were my doll kajungu. Kajungu was not what you’d call normal. He was a head; a big, white head full of brown curly hair. Although he was good enough company, he wasn’t as interesting as real babies who had both big heads with curly hair and bodies.

When I grew into a teenager, all of my interest was turned on myself. I examined my face and body, declared them a firm 6 (I described my smile as dusky) and proceeded to decorate my face with piercing upon piercing upon piercing. There was no space for children in my life (except for my siblings).

Yesterday when these kids came in, I was shy of them. I stared at my computer and ignored them, mostly. Then my creative director called me into studio and asked if I could help choreograph a Video jingle that they were to be part of. I agreed of course. Apenyo approves of any song that goes “The beat is too heavy, I’m shaking my belly”.

I went downstairs, stared, stammered some and then chose a tame looking one and asked him to teach me a move. The rest, for sure, was history.

I have danced, played, been called Auntie Mildred, Milly, and even mommy by many adorable children. I’ve had to rush in and break up fights, most notably, one between a loud, attention loving girl and man who all of a sudden shouted, “Don’t mess with me, you stupid girl. Don’t mess!”

If looks could bust balls, that idiot would be a eunuch right now. I told him to please leave if he couldn’t respect children and then soothed the girl. She was troublesome, sure, one of those who refused to listen, jumped on tables, and clung to adults-especially male ones. She is however a child and deserves to be treated with as much tenderness as the best of them.

There was a three-year old who made my ovaries somersault with his cuteness. This one became my dance partner at the end.

After we were done with rehearsals and I was back at my desk, one boy came over. I don’t know how we began to talk about mums, but he asked me if mine is around, in the world.

I said no.

He put on this very sad face and said, “Also me. I’ll never forget the day my mother died.”

That broke my heart. I felt a solidarity with this motherless boy, especially because I have siblings his age who must feel the loss exactly as he does.

I told him to be happy and to look at us and how much we were doing, even if our mothers were in heaven. I was in the middle of assuring him of his complete awesomeness when he burst out laughing and said, “I’m lying! My mother is not dead!”

My mumsy outfit of the day:

A bit short, but she’d be kawa with it.

I was pissed. I told him to leave my table, go back to the boardroom and draw on one of the papers that I’d distributed earlier to keep them occupied.

That feeling, that FUCK YOU, CHILD feeling has stayed with me. A part of me is still feeling sorry for his tiny, “motherless” self.

And now, even as I post status updates about how much I love kids and how teaching nursery school children (TOP CLASS) at some point in my twenties is on my bucket list, It’s clear in my mind how stupidly mean children can be and how when you’re an adult you always HAVE to take the high road.

Bad day, huh?

One of my favorite songs used to be Bad Day by…my God. I don’t remember. I can’t remember half of the artists that I swore I would die loving only a few months ago. It seems that when they slip out of my playlist, they fade from mind.

I can never properly classify a day as bad because of how changeable my emotions are. One minute I’m bubbling over with the joy of living, breathing, blinking!And the next, sticky annoyance is oozing out of my pores. To prevent myself turning into an intolerable grouch,I break my days down into 30 minute moments.

When I get shortchanged by a conductor or left behind by the pioneer bus or hissed at by a street idler, that’s a bad moment. If two or more motorists try to run me over in a given moment, it’s an unlucky one. If four irritating songs from my playlist show up in my ears, in a row, that’s a fake moment, because come on, out of all the hundreds…

This system has rules.

You are not allowed to carry unpleasant feelings from one moment to another but you can feel as nice about a happy occurrence for as long as you wish. You’re not ever allowed to swallow your feelings. Want to tear your leggings and fling them at a dumb workmate? Go ahead! Feel like jeering long and loud and then bursting into bitter tears? Do it.  Similarly, if the urge to scream I LOVE YOU WORLD, I LOVE YOU comes upon you, express it. Put it on a social network for those unlucky people whose eardrums aren’t going to be blessed with your good feelings. Pat a conductor on the back. Smile at your boda man and tip him if he’s been particularly ninjarific in getting you to work three seconds before the morning status meeting.

There are, however ,certain occurrences that can’t be fitted into a 30 minute box. Tragedy for example. I remember wanting to punch the face of some person who, when I complained of depression after my mom’s passing, told me I had only a year to be openly sad about it, after which my friends wouldn’t be so tolerant of my gloom. What? Shya! You’re allowed to mourn as dramatically as you want for as long as you feel is necessary.

We’ve already established that the system allows for joyful feelings to be spread over as long a time as you want. Absurd happenings too can be spread out for puzzled reflection and quiet chuckling.

I was once walking (skipping) down Kampala road after bagging a fairly large writing deal. I was swollen with the promise of money. Dollars and shillings dressed in raffia skirts had started to do the Macarena inside my head when some woman stepped in front of me and said, “You look funny!” and then just stood there waiting for my reaction. Because of the high I was on, I smiled and glided away. She must have been confused by this reaction because as I was entering the computer shop that was my destination, I looked back to find her still staring after me.

What turns a day bad for you? Burned ground nuts at the cafeteria? Unproductivity? And how do you turn things around?

This week, I’m reading Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.  One of the best lines in it is ‘Make something beautiful of your life’.

Do make something fantastic of your life this week.


What you feel right after the overwhelming horror, the hopelessness, the pain, the madness of grief is gratefulness. You’re grateful to the people who have come around, who’ve lent their ears and cheeks and shoulders to you and your barely coherent ranting; who’ve dragged you away from the brink of self destruction and have held you and wept along and let you ruin their smart clothes with drool and snot and pain.

You’re grateful most of all to your enemies, the ones you had closed your life off to. Those people you’d killed off in your mind and heart and soul, who you had cut off completely. When they, after hearing of your pain come around and hold you regardless of the ugliness that passed between the two of you, there’s nothing stronger than the gratefulness that you feel towards them.

My mom died on 21-09-2011. She left. She vacated her body. She broke up with the world. This has left me devastated. This has left my family devastated. What I can’t stop asking is, does this happen to everybody? Is this what everybody goes through? Is this what we’re all destined to experience? TWICE? Life is a beautiful thing. Death is a horrible thing. Don’t let any make-a-quick-buck rock band tell you any different.

R.I.P, my ma

Mummy was a really cool person. Mummy was extremely funny. She had an opinion on everything under the sun (the president, nibiru, the ozone, catfish, even the lengths of my sundresses).

She was really happy. In general. Of course, it was general knowledge at my house that when mummy got angry or even slightly irritated, the person who didn’t make it out of the room fast enough would have to sit through a yearlong lecture that would start, stop, start again; her scoldings had lives and personalities of their own. She always made rabbit-y face right before one of those lectures, so we all had plenty of warning.

Mummy was playful and funny and naughty. She used to play Sankarai with us. She used to tickle and giggle and run. She was always game. For anything.

She was really beautiful. In school, people would ask me, ‘What happened to you?’ and I’d say, “Give me time” or I’d poke them in the eye, depending on my mood. Mom was a beautiful but oh so modest woman.

She loved God so much and always told us to stay close to God, not to forget God, even in our happiest, most contented times because he’s the author of everything. She always urged us to pray. She could pray for hours.

She loved daddy.

She loved flowers. There was this flower that used to grow in the front yard. None of us knew its name, so it became the mummy-flower. This flower would bloom red, but with one white petal. Or pure white with one red petal.

Exactly. This one. What is it called oba?

These flowers used to make mummy so happy.

She loved color. Her wardrobe was full of life and color and beauty.

She loved her garden. Her plants. Her house.

She loved matooke. We were the matooke duo, ma and I. Mummy never ever cooked matooke without thinking of me. I never fried matooke without thinking of her. That was what she cooked for the last meal I had with her, that Wednesday. Matooke and liver and peas and greens.

She loved pretty things but was always willing to make ridiculously big sacrifices for her babies.

Mummy loved fish. We ate fish almost every day for 9 months when she was pregnant with our baby, our precious, our beautiful Daniela.

Mummy lived aggressively. I don’t think she ever once put hand to brow and complained about ‘depression’ or ‘hopelessness’. This is maybe because she was big on prayer, but also because she believed in doing things. In getting up and finding solutions. She loved life and always prayed for long life.

She called herself her children’s’ champion. Our number one defender. Our refuge. Mummy was like a mother chicken when it came to us. Her love. Her love was almost smothering. She did nothing half half. When she loved, laughed, yelled. When she teased. It was always in great measure, running over. There was too much life in ma. Too much.

The only reason I know and love words, the only reason I’m interested in stories, the only reason I’m a writer is mummy. From before I could understand, I remember her voice steadily weaving story after story after story. She even created dances to go with these stories.

She showed her love as often as she professed it.

It’s going to be a hard life in which I cannot call ma up after a bad dream and have her lull me to sleep with a looooong prayer. It’s going to take some getting used to, not having her to talk and talk and talk to after a hard day at work, a heart break, a quarrel. Her stories. It’s going to be empty without her many many stories.

I want, need, hope to be like my mom. I want to be her.

Mummy knew laughter. She knew dedication. She knew extremes. She knew love. She understood it all. May mummy, Mary Jessica Opwonya Rest In Peace.