My journey to bid a final farewell to John Bwomezi at the foot of a beautiful hill in Kamushoko village, Bubaare sub-county, Kashari county, Mbarara district, Uganda; started thousands of miles away near the ‘Horn of Africa.’ I numbed the pain of 29 August 2013, with half a bottle of whisky in my studio room in Mogadishu. The whisky was thoughtfully provided by the only friend in whom I had confided the news of my husband’s death. I saw no reason for telling people that never knew him that John had died. I did not want their attention or their pity. So I kept to myself watching the minute hand of my watch move slowly to the next day. I reflected on the meaning of life and how fleeting it was. It occurred to me again that I had never bothered to divorce John even though the thought had crossed my mind several times. He never asked for a divorce and I never needed one and after so many years we had become friends again perhaps because we had two precious daughters who loved us both. So now I had skipped the status of divorcee and dived directly into being a widow. I did not feel like a widow. How does it feel like to be a widow I wondered? As a child I had a stereotype profile of a widow – the one referred to in the Bible; needy, to be pitied, someone who was in some way incomplete. I shook my head now and smiled realizing again how stereotypes could be so wrong.
During my election campaigns in Mbarara District (Dec 2010– Feb 2011,) John had volunteered to pin up my campaign posters in our home constituency that is traditionally hostile to the opposition. He had retired from the army and even though he still voted for the ruling party he was still going to find votes for his ‘wayward’ opposition wife. And Lord help you if John found you pulling down one of my posters. I smiled as I remembered his stories of getting into serious quarrels and fist fights with government brutes trying to pull down my posters on his turf.
Somewhere before dawn sleep overcame my senses and I was waken by the alarm that I had set the evening before. I was up in time to prepare for the dreaded journey to Karwera and on to Kamushoko. Some of my in-laws who did not see why they should wait for a widow who was never there as a wife had decided to bring the burial forward to 31 August, the very next day and so I had to find my way to Kamushoko from Mogadishu in 24 hours.
The pain of losing John had crept in slowly and upstaged my initial anger at the news of his passing. The whisky was supposed to fight that pain so that it would not take firm hold when there were so many decisions to be made. Well, this was the morning after and not only was the grief still tugging relentlessly at my heart, I now also had the worst possible headache and hangover. I had moved fast to protect my daughters from learning of their father’s death through an insensitive message on social media because I did not think they could handle it the way I had. I called my friend who was helping me with the girls as they adjusted to life in Nairobi. Joannah was still frail and recovering from brain surgery and its long-term side effects, so she needed someone we trusted and that she could relate to. I called her and told her the shocking news and then told her to find the girls’ passports, pack their bags and make sure they stayed as far away from the computer and their iPads as possible. I still do not know how she pulled it off but they actually went to sleep and woke up the next day without knowing their father had died.
I stepped out of my room in Mogadishu ready to leave then realized I had to let my office know that I may stay longer that anticipated so I approached the Chief of Staff and told her my husband had died but asked her not to let anyone know till I had left the compound and was well on my way to Nairobi. I just did not need to deal with any more drama than what was waiting at the end of my journey. At Wilson Airport, I rushed through immigration procedures and headed to Karen to pick Hannah from her school. Meantime my friend Phiona headed to ISK to pick Joannah and our story was that I had arranged a surprise weekend in Uganda so they were headed directly to the airport. Mombasa Road was a nightmare as always and we missed our flight and decided to go for a meal at Cafe Port while we waited for the late night flight to Entebbe. I had been speaking to my parents and my mother told me not to get on the plane without telling the girls the truth about this journey.
So there I sat with my babies at a Café and they were talking animatedly about their plans for their surprise break in Uganda while my heart bled. I went to the restroom to brace myself for what I had to do and while I was away Phiona asked the girls if they had wondered about the way I was dressed. When I returned Hannah asked, ‘Mom, why are you wearing black? Has someone died?’ All my strength left me in that moment and the full meaning of John’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. I could barely hold myself together and my first reaction was to lash out at poor Phiona but this only threw everyone into a panic. I was shaking and I was suddenly cold but I reached out and held my daughters’ hands and managed to say: “You need to be strong, Daddy has died!” They just stared at me not knowing what to say as I related the scanty pieces of information that I had pieced together from talking to many people about his final hours. Then Joannah sat up and said; “Wait, you mean my Daddy?” Poor baby had thought I was referring to my Daddy, her grandfather. It probably made more sense to her that the older of the men would be the one who had died. When they finally grasped what I was saying, they burst out crying and finally I too found my first tears of grief.
At 50 I know that there is a bond between a father and his daughters that is weaved in a space where even the mother is unaware. Sadly, I learnt of the strength of my daughters’ bond with their father in the depth of their grief.