The vultures seemed to know it is a funeral. I watch the huge turkey sized birds drop out of the sky and land under the big shady tree to watch the mourners. One of the Green Warriors has died of a mystery illness. He was definitely one of the best we’ve trained here in Abim. First he felt stomach pains, then his nose began to bleed, finally he vomited blood and died. I can see his grave behind his mothers hut as we sit under a tattered tarpaulin waiting for the other mourners to arrive. The custom here is to bury the loved one 2 days before the funeral. Good idea in the tropics.
We wait quietly for 2 hours. Finally the God-botherers arrive, three of them, and sit in front of the four staff that brought me here. The priests take it in turns to sing hymns, say prayers and, without missing a beat, slip in a sermon or two. I make a mental note to have these guys banned from my funeral if I get one. Stand up, sit down, sing this hymn, stand up, sit down, …if we speed this up it could be good exercise.
We stand for another hymn and the villager’s voices sound beautiful on this fine afternoon. I watch the mother and the 2 wives. The old mother begins to cry but she continues to sing. I feel a lump growing in my throat. What a shame. These are good people who have lost a valuable member of their family.
The father tells the mourners how he took his son to hospital and the doctor wouldn’t see him (probably holding out for a bribe) and without diagnosis, prescribed his son quinine. Quinine’s a strong malaria drug and everybody knows you don’t vomit blood from malaria. Those slack medical bastards!
They drag me up to say a few words about my former Green Warrior. I tell them he was a special guy and I’m so sorry for them losing him. I tell them on the next training, please send me another of their family and Ill give him or her a position. We have our obligatory warm coke and shake hands with the father and the mourners. They wave as we drive off. What a shit day… I hate funerals, they are sad occasions.
Next day...The pick-up’s full of hand tools and woven plastic bags. We’re speeding through the savannah leaving a jet trail of red dust behind. Along the way we come across the many people on Indian-made bicycles, usually with someone sitting on the rack. Most of them peel off the road and crash into the long grass. I ask the driver why they always crash like that. He laughs and says it’s rare for them to have working brakes so it’s easier to crash. The crash victims always smile and wave as we pass. Lucky there’s no hills here.
This village has a passionfruit project and a vegetable garden. They have one bore pump and the dry season is upon us. Our plan is to dig a sump and line it with earth bags and then cement-render the bags. This sump catches all the wastewater from the hand pump instead of it creating a mosquito breeding swamp at the end of the cement gutter. The villagers under the guidance of Titus, another Green Warrior, have dug a 3-meter deep cone shaped hole and it is ready for the bagging. I get the villagers to start filling the bags and Alfred and I jump in and start laying the heavy sacks like bricks. The men hang back and its mainly kids at first filling the bags. As we get the wall up, more villagers appear and slowly begin helping. I grab a few guys and make them take over from me so I can photograph what we are doing. This earth bag technology is great stuff. So simple and effective. We are inventing new earth bag structures every day.
Once we finished rendering the bags, the villagers are impressed. I tell them they are moving ahead now with their resettlement village. This is sustainable development , step by step. This formerly wasted water will now service their garden and passionfruit until the rains come again in a few months. I pull Titus aside and stress the sump must be fenced or one of their cows is going to end up floating upside down in it. Nodding he watches the herd of thirsty cattle lurking under the nearby shady tree… He gets it.
We get back and find out several other people have died of the mystery illness the previous night. Alfred says it might be ebola virus. I think he’s joking but he’s not smiling. He tells me he was in a plague of ebola in 2003 in Gulu. It started the same way. First one guy died and he went to the funeral. Shortly after all the women who helped to prepare the body died after vomiting blood. Then the chief died. After that some of the people that attended the funeral began to die. The army came and sealed off the town. Alfred says there was a lot of fear because they were putting people into rubberized body bags and zipping them up even before they were dead…many people that were sick went away to hide because they didn’t want to be buried alive. Bloody hell!
I think of all the handshakes at the Green Warriors funeral.
We are unloading tools and materials on the side of the main road. Once in a while a vehicle speeds past and we all disappear in clouds of hot, red dust. The community wants to build a bakery with one of my Jumbo mud ovens right on the side of the road. They weren’t thinking of dust in the wet season when they sited the oven.
As we work, the gossip is all about the mystery disease. A lady just down the road has been vomiting blood last night but she is still alive. The women here recon it’s got to be ebola. I’m headed home to Australia in a week and I don’t want to be trapped in a plague. As we lay the bricks for the foundation, I ask my driver what’s the escape route to Kampala if I have to hoof it out of here on foot. He laughs and says he’s coming to Kampala with me. He tells me we mustn’t tell anybody where we are from or they will run away.
Day by day the oven takes shape. An old man stops on the road and yells at our group. “Why are you building a termite mound?” I get the translator to yell back that the termites are paying us for building this one and we have built all the termite mounds around here. Our team of mud mixing villagers laughs at my poor joke. Lots of people stop and watch us. The more it takes shape, the more volunteers join our crew, mostly women.
On the final workday we get 30 women mixing mud and laying the final layer of mud and straw mixed together. Slap, slap, slap as the many hands pat down the mud to get any air pockets out of the chocolate coloured mud mix. This oven is 2 meters across at the base and will crank out some bread, cakes and anything else they can find to cook. Amazingly, I’m the only person that looks dirty at the end of the job. Most of the crew has barely a mud spot on their clothes. Only the women’s feet are muddy. How do they do that I wonder. We watch, as a convey of WHO vehicles passes. A military escort packed into pick up trucks is close behind. They have come to identify the illness. The worst outbreak is 25 kilometers south. One of the international NGO’s has already panicked, abandoned their compound and just up and left overnight. Wimps!
Tomorrow I’m out of here at dawn. The disease isn’t ebola ( The WHO and the government announce on the radio stations across Karamoja) It’s still a deadly mystery virus but WHO recon it’s not the dreaded ebola so there’s no roadblocks tomorrow. Whew! I hope it peters out and is gone for ever. Killer plagues give me the creeps! These guys get it tough with war, famine, floods, poverty and now another killer disease that strikes at random.
It's my last morning here. My bags are in the Nissan Patrol. I walk the compound looking at the many vegetable pumping gardens. I say good bye to my ducks swimming in the pool at “Duck-Vegas”. I say goodbye to Wilimena the friendly piglet. I say goodbye to the 4 turkeys and 3 chickens in the poultry pen. I walk through the nursery and mentally note there are 10,000 trees here that will stay here until the wet season begins again. I say my good byes to all the staff in small groups. “Safe journey” they all say. “Wash your hands and stay away from the markets”, I tell them. “Don’t drink that brew out of those communal buckets either!” I don’t want to go to anymore sad funerals…
Australia, here I come!