By Okot Nyormoi, editor, retired cell biologist, author of the novel, Burden of Failure

Poor People's AmbulanceThough the finality of life is the same for everyone, how one dies may depend on one’s status in life. Below is an excerpt from a novel based on life in the 1980s and 1990s, but it is so true in real life even today. The story began with a radio announcement which went like this,

Here are personal announcements read to you by Labalpiny. Mr Joseph Inyangat passed away on Saturday morning”.

That was the announcement of my girlfriend Alice’s father’s death.

When we arrived at Alice’s home the next day, we found a huge crowd of mostly railway workers who came to pay their last respects. The large size of the crowd told us that the man must have been very popular among his co-workers.

When Alice saw me, she came over to welcome us. In a gentle, almost inaudible voice, she said, “Hello, Peter.”

In the gentlest tone I could muster, I replied, “Hello, Alice.”

We embraced warmly, and I told her how very sorry I was about the sudden loss of her father.

“Thank you, Peter. Yes. It was so sudden,” she said.

When we broke the embrace and I looked at Alice, I could see that her spirit was low as tears rolled down her cheeks. I told her to be strong for her mother’s sake. I took out a handkerchief and wiped off her tears. I also found myself feeling teary when I turned to introduce my friend Musoke.

“Alice, meet my friend, John Musoke.”

“I am glad to meet you, John.”

“I am also glad to meet you, Alice. I am so sorry about your loss,” said Musoke.

“Thank you so much for your kind words,” said Alice.

Knowing how busy she was, we told Alice not to worry about us.

“Well, I am busy, but I think I can spare a few minutes more to be with you because my parents’ friends and colleagues are here. They have just been amazingly helpful. Come on, let us sit down over there and talk a little,” said Alice.

“Alice, please! Are you sure you want to do that?” I pleaded with her while looking her straight in the eyes.

“I am sure. I want to talk with you. It will make me feel better. Please do sit down,” pleaded Alice.

“Peter and eh…” she started to say but could not remember my friend’s name.

"Musoke," I said.

“Peter and Musoke, you do not know how much I appreciate your coming. The presence of all these friends and relatives makes us feel so much better to know that many people cared about and loved my father.”

“That’s the least we can do. If there is anything more we can help with, please let us know,” I said.

“Thanks, I cannot think of anything. Let us listen to my mother. She is about to tell the mourners how it all happened. It will be better if you listen to her than have me tell you about what happened.”

So, we moved closer to where Mrs. Inyangat was going to share her account of how her husband died. I was anxious about how she was going to handle herself talking about her husband’s loss because I have known some widows to be quite dramatic, wailing, singing songs of grief, and even somersaulting. The place became dead quiet when the people were called to attention.

“First, let me express my profound gratitude to all of you for coming to be with us at our darkest hour. Naturally, my family is sad, but sadness is not sufficient to describe how we feel after losing my husband. Some of you are expecting me to wail and do all sorts of things to show my grief, but unless I am overcome by emotion, I am going to try my hardest not to do so.

“I know that the deed is done. No matter how much we grieve, we can never bring him back to life. No matter how difficult it is, we have now to try our best to live with the new reality. What I cannot accept is how my husband died.

“I believe that my husband died because of the misdeeds of many people along the way. Discriminatory rules and irresponsible behavior killed my husband.

“On Thursday when Joseph reported to a clinic contracted by the railway to care for its employees, he was concerned about stomach pain. He was seen by a medical assistant because he was a worker. When the pain got worse, he returned to the clinic on Friday morning and was seen again by the medical assistant, who thought he had malaria. He gave my husband some chloroquine for treatment.

“In the afternoon, Joseph returned to the clinic because the pain was getting more intense. He wanted to see a doctor, but he was told that the doctor was scheduled to see management staff only. As it turned out, none of the management staff even turned up. The doctor left early and was seen drinking in a nearby bar that afternoon. The question I asked was whether a worker’s life was less of a life than the life of a member of the management staff.

“As far as I can see, there is no natural difference except for the different attitudes some people have towards workers and management staff. That is what makes me extremely angry. Such intolerable situation must be changed. We must change it.”

She paused and wiped off her face again with the towel that Alice had brought her earlier.

“Yet I am hopeful that we can change things for the better.” Some of the people looked at their neighbours as if asking how or wondering if that was possible.

“Having not been allowed to see a doctor, Joseph suggested that we take him to the hospital, but we could not afford the fees at the nearest, but private hospital, Nsambya. So, we struggled and took him to the government hospital at Mulago.

“The gatekeeper was a mean man who put up quite a show. When we explained that we had an emergency, he still refused to let us in arguing that the hospital was closed till Monday. Finally, he added that if we did something for him, then he would consider making an exception for us.

“I was so exasperated that I told him as loudly as I could that if he wanted bribe money, he should tell us how much money he wanted for bribe. He was so embarrassed because everybody around turned to look at him. So, he grudgingly opened the gate while warning us never to do it again.

“When we reported to the emergency clinic, we found a nurse who was knitting a beautiful pink baby sweater. When we greeted her, she seemed annoyed that we were disturbing her peace. She caustically announced that she did not have a pen or paper to register the patient, moreover, there was no doctor on duty.

“I offered a pen and paper. While she was reluctantly registering my husband, another nurse, who recognized me came in and greeted me warmly. After I told her our situation, she went into an inner room and came out with a young doctor. They took Joseph into the examination room. Shortly thereafter, they came out to say that a definitive diagnosis must await a specialist on Monday.

“When the second nurse left for the evening, the first nurse, whom I came to call Evil Heart, became very angry with us. She said that since we made our friend embarrass her, she would deal with us properly, a veiled threat of being uncooperative and unhelpful.

“First, she told us to take Joseph to the ward. By this time, Joseph was in such great pain that he could not sit up or stand up, much less walk. When we asked her for a wheelchair, wheel table, or stretcher, she curtly told us that there was none. In the ward, we found a bare spring bed without any bedding. When we asked, again she said that we had to bring our own.

“The nurse then left to go collect the medicine that the doctor had prescribed for Joseph. When she returned, she gleefully announced that the pharmacy was closed and besides, the drug was not in stock.

“My mouth turned dry. My stress, frustration, and anger levels went through the roof. My whole body was on the verge of going into a violent convulsion.

“I decided to see the head nurse, only to find that she had already gone home, leaving the Evil Heart in charge. The doctor on duty had left to go to a trans-night disco dance that he did not want to miss. So, there we were, stranded with Joseph’s life hanging in the balance.

“I returned to the ward completely at wit’s end. My husband’s pain grew worse. In desperation, I swallowed my pride and went to Evil Heart to plead with her for help. She just sat there unmoved, except for some aspirins which she shamelessly sold me for fifty shillings. Unfortunately, Joseph lost his battle at 4 am.

“So that was how my best friend, my husband, died simply because of irresponsible acts by the people to whom society entrusts our lives. Some of them are so unprofessional that they should not be allowed to be in the medical profession.

An excerpt from my fiction novel, “Burden of Failure” depicting life in Uganda in the 1980s and 1990s (Editor).