Friday, 13 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure, Part III: The Ten Hour Funeral

Before I arrived in Uganda, my friend Lucy called me to say that a retired Ugandan bishop had died of a snake bite in his own village. Papa Bishop Geresom Ilukor (Bishops are affectionately named ‘Papa’ in Uganda) was a major figure in both the Ugandan church and Ugandan politics. After his retirement (he was bishop of Soroti from 1976-2000) he advised many minor politicians, and was much respected (even by the Ugandan President). I didn’t realise just how important of a figure he was until I arrived in Soroti. - a link to a Ugandan newspaper. They've got a picture about 'Papa' Bishop Gereson, with some information

The beginning of the funeral procession
After my long, long, long journey through potholed roads, I rested for a few days in the Guest House in Soroti, before being invited by Bishop George of Soroti Diocese to attend the funeral. And so, on Friday 6th, I awoke early to drive to Kumi where the funeral was being held. Kumi is a smallish town (a little smaller than Soroti), where the hotel toilet has a sign with an unfortunate typo: ‘Please remember to flash after toilet use’. Nevertheless, for a town so small, the turnout to the burial was astonishing. They tell me there were enough chairs for 12,000 people (we all sat in a large square with the bishop’s coffin in the centre). But so many people turned up that they estimated nearly 20,000 present. Amongst these arrivals were bishops, pastors, ministers of government, leaders of universities, business leaders, the chairman of the ruling National Resistance Party, the Prime Minister, the President’s personal representative, and many, many more. After an initial bit of liturgy and song at the beginning of the funeral (three choirs got up to sing traditional African farewells), all of these figures began to give their eulogies.

I can't even begin to show you the size of the event...
In the Church of England, we usually have one or eulogies, in total lasting ten minutes. In Uganda they have… well, I lost count. One eulogy easily lasted an hour. Considering most of it was in Kuman or Etoso, or in very thick Ugandan-English accent, I couldn’t understand most of it. And so I sat and waited. The service started at 9.00am with the arrival of the body. By 10.30am the liturgy had finished, and the eulogies began. Nearly five hours later, at 3.10pm, the Archbishop of Uganda stood up to preach. In the midst of the sweltering sun (thankfully we had canopies above us), I heard perhaps fifty or more eulogies - almost as many speeches at Justin Welby’s leaving service at Durham Cathedral. They even had a doctor’s report for the cause of death. Other than frequently falling asleep, I spent the time noting that the police were walking around selling huge framed pictures of Bishop Geresom, that phones would frequently ring and people would easily have a subsequent conversation (it happened to one speaker mid-eulogy…), and that suddenly the programme would be changed at a moment’s notice.

After the Archbishop’s sermon (which lasted another hour in his thick Lugandan [Kampala region] accent), we all got up and had a feast. Yes, around 20,000 people were suddenly fed. Huge lines of people crisscrossed the field; in about forty minutes, nearly everyone had been given food (and only about ten fights broke out). An astonishing achievement. (It was good quality food as well, even if I had to eat sloppy wet rice with my hands…)
A few of the queues for food

Afterwards, I experienced one of the most humbling moments of my life. I was invited to the house of the bishop’s widow, to mourn with her. I felt unworthy to be there (after all, who am I but essentially a tourist in this country?). For half an hour, maybe an hour, we sat down in the darkening house as a blush red sunset faded over the horizon, its last rays tenderly casting fine lines of red and yellow across the room. The women around the widow, and the dozens gathered outside the house, hypnotically sang a long, hauntingly beautiful dirge, over and over and over again. Occasionally, in the midst of the tragic melody, I would hear a women breaking down in tears outside. After the dirge was finished, there was an intimate silence. After which point Bishop George prayed; we hugged, people cried, we shared the grace. And then, at 7pm, ten hours later, we left.

They don’t do funerals like this back home.


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