We live amongst the Babwisi tribe. And one of the most important events in the Babwisi culture, is a funeral. People will stop what they are doing, walk miles and miles to get to the home of the bereaved family.
I often find this perplexing. Like when I get to work and ask why there hasn’t been any nurse on shift in the NICU through the night. The mothers of the patient’s respond that the nurse had to go to a funeral. Everyone understands, she had to go. And funerals last 4 days, so that nurse won’t be back for awhile. Or when teachers just don’t show up to teach their classes of 100+ students. I marvel at the extent to which people will drop everything to be there. It's a rose, with thorns.
The impact of funerals is a huge part of our lives here. Immediately when someone dies, there is the expectation for the community to gather at the compound of the deceased. A fire is built. Family and friends plan to sleep outside for 4 days. They play music through the entire night, often on loud speakers, to chase away evil spirits. In their grief, the family doesn’t shower, or sleep. On the fourth day the dead body is buried in the vicinity of the family members home.
So when my dad died, I thought our national friends would pay their respects to us by stopping by to visit. The thought of having a steady stream of visitors for four days felt overwhelming to me. I decided I wanted to honor my dad, and invite everyone over at once for an evening memorial service.
He died on a Monday. Mid-Tuesday morning I was planning the service. I took a cue from all the events I’ve attended here, and came up with a “program”, which is a paper you hand out that details the timeline of the events.
I titled it: Celebration of Life for Dennis Mutscheller. And this is what I came up with:
3. Opening Prayer
7. Closing Prayer
Then I asked my teammates if they would be in charge of a number. I signed Jennifer up for the opening prayer. Mike for the reading and Alexis for the closing prayer. I thought I would do the reading, but once I wrote out my tribute to my dad I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through, so I asked Mike to read it instead.
I texted our Ugandan friends from Christ School, the hospital, church, and the neighborhood to let them know my dad died, and the memorial was that afternoon at 4 pm, muzungu time. Muzungu time means white people time, not African time. I had to mention it or else people would have come hours afterwards. When everyone texted back and said “We will be there,” I realized we needed food.
Mike drove into town and asked the cook at my favorite roadside stand if he’d pack up his supplies and make Rolex at our event. Rolex is basically a chapati and fried egg rolled up together.
He said yes.
I gathered every picture of my dad I had and put it into an album on my phone for a slideshow later.
Our friend Robinah, who’s in the church choir, said she could sing for us. And Mike promised me a couple songs too with his guitar.
Everything was falling into place.
I had to pull back and remind myself, this is to honor my dad. What would be honoring to my dad?
He loved baseball more than anything.
Of course we needed a game of baseball!
I called Alexis. “Would you guys also be in charge of a baseball game?”
“Yes, we’ve got all the stuff. And Adrienne is asking if she can write out the program for you?”
Adrienne is Alexis’s 11-year old daughter who puts so much thoughtfulness into everything she does. I loved the offer.
#9 was a surprise for the guests.
My dad never had a lot of money. He lived his life on a shoestring. I can count on one hand the number of gifts I’ve received from him, each signifying a different era in our lives together.
There was the kitten he and my mom surprised me with on Christmas morning when I was five. I came down the stairs and ran to the tree. A bag was rustling around. On the front was a picture of Santa, underneath it was written Believe. A tiny calico face looked out at me. I scooped her up and named her Aiylah.
There was the sparkly pink Schwinn bike that we eyed together in the bike shop window. I was probably about 9 years old, a few years after my parents divorced. My dad shared an apartment with a grumpy roommate named Wilhelm, who hated when we came over every weekend. The apartment was a few blocks from the beach, so we spent all our days in the water. My dad didn’t own much; furniture, food, or games. I wasn’t expecting a big present that Christmas, especially because I saw how much that Schwinn bike cost and I knew my dad didn’t have that kind of money. But when I walked up his staircase and turned the corner, there it was, wrapped in a sheet with a bow on top. I couldn’t believe it.
The next gift I got from him I was 15 years old. It was my birthday. I had just gotten my own room at my mom’s house. I loved the way my bed was right underneath two windows that opened up to a large pink bouganvilla plant outside. I spent a lot of time in my room, and really wished I had a stereo. I hadn’t seen my dad in months. He was living in a dilapidated house, full of drunks and drug addicts. The last time I’d been I had to step over at least five unconscious people to get upstairs. But he ended up finding me and surprising me, gifting me a stereo. It was huge. With two massive speakers.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked him.
He gave me a little smirk, “Is it what you wanted?”
It was. Kind of. I just didn’t understand why it didn’t come in a box, and why some of the
wires in the back were frayed or looked like they’d been cut.
My older brother looked at it later and said, “Cause it’s stolen. Can’t you tell?”
“You think dad stole this?”
“No. But he probably bought it from someone who did. He can’t afford this.”
The next gift was less than a year later. On Christmas. Except now he was homeless living in Barrio Logan. We agreed to meet in a park, next to a bay. He handed me a box and inside it was a carefully folded yellow sweater.
That’s four. Four gifts I can remember.
But then he went on to live a second life.
It all started this one day when he had a pocket full of change and was going to buy a 40 oz can of beer. He had the shakes, and was holding on to a fence to keep himself up. He said he heard a voice say to him, Do you want to die like this?
He looked around and no one was there.
Then again, “You WILL die like this.”
He said it was God, giving him his last chance. He grabbed his change and counted it. He could go to a payphone and make a phone call to his brother-in-law, asking for help. Or he could buy that beer.
He chose the phone call.
The phone call led to rehab.
And for the rest of his life, our dad was sober.
My dad was a funny guy, and a really sweet grandpa. He was pretty poor still. But one day he handed me a bag of something just as I was leaving.
“Here, these are for you.”
I looked inside. “What are they?”
“Mulberries, off our tree. Freeze ‘em for smoothies.”
I left perplexed. I’d never seen a mulberry before. And it had been a decade since I’d gotten anything from my dad. The taste of that first sweet mulberry was the taste of something different.
He celebrated 17 years of sobriety, and of good times with his family.
When my family of 5 moved to Bundibugyo, I found it curious that our team leaders had a mulberry bush. Only my second encounter with mulberries. My kids like to rummage around it and emerge with stained fingers and mouths.
“What do you guys think if we take some clippings from the Myhre’s mulberry bush, and plant them today in honor of grandpa? Then we’ll give them to the guests at the memorial tonight?” It was less than 24 hours since he’d passed away and we were all carrying the emotional weight of our loss.
But, they agreed to the idea. Mike and our friend Happy went up to the Myhre’s and took
clippings. Then we planted them in old yogurt containers and the kids colored tags. I wrote, In Memory of Dennis Mutscheller.
I liked writing out his name over and over.
We held the memorial in the kitubi in our front yard. The kitubi is a circular structure, like a big gazebo. There’s a thatched-roof, and a low cement wall lining the entire thing. We put out chairs too. Robinah told me if I wanted it to resemble a Babwisi gathering I needed to sit on the ground the entire time, and we needed a fire.
But I knew this was a hybrid event, a blending of cultures. She built a fire, but I sat on the wall. And I took everything in. My husband who read, sang, and led everything. My kids who bounced between their teacher’s laps. Everyone in our community who came to show us their love and support.
No one knew my dad, so it was meaningful that they cared enough about us to show up.
We ended the night teaching everyone how to play baseball, each person getting up to bat and whacking the ball as if they’d played all their lives. Piper came running up to me and said “I’m having so much fun mom! This doesn’t feel like a funeral at all. It feels like a party!”
It was fun, and my dad never wanted anyone fussing over him. I think he would have wanted just this; some food, some drinks, and a family game of baseball. Also, in a society that values agriculture, everyone left quite pleased to go and plant their new and interesting mulberry clipping. h
It was fun, and my dad never wanted anyone fussing over him. I think he would have wanted just this; some food, some drinks, and a family game of baseball. Also, in a society that values agriculture, everyone left quite pleased to go and plant their new and interesting mulberry clipping.
*This is a post originally written in August 2022