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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remembering Dr. Jonah Kule 1966-2007

One year ago today, a doctor from the CDC called to tell us that our friend Jonah Kule had died at Mulago hospital. Though we were in the midst of trauma and tragedy here in Bundibugyo, I could not believe the news. I remember sobbing, then making phone calls to other people in Kampala, thinking there must have been some mistake. Since the CDC had more information than anyone else, his relatives remained convinced that Jonah was still alive, and we were not sure who to believe. It was night time, dark, our phones work best outside, so there we stood, talking. Scott Will and Bhiwa joined us, and I remember the overwhelming thought that this does not make sense, not Jonah. Finally we could not avoid any longer the reality, he was really dead, and I called to tell his wife, whom a few days earlier I had personally told of his hospital admission and helped along her way to Kampala to be near him, never thinking then that it would really turn out to be Ebola. We went to bed, not sleeping, wondering how many days until one of us would also succumb. Everything we had worked for seemed to be crumbling in those hours. Our friend had died, alone, in an isolation tent, surrounded by fear. We were not at his side as we would have wished, though Scott made many visits to the only other Bundibugyo doctor, Dr. Sessanga, who was self-quarantined in his home fighting ebola too. Those were among the worst days of our lives, living on a sharp edge of stress and uncertainty and sadness. Jonah's body was brought back to the district by a special transport, while we waited with his family. He was buried along with three other health care workers who died that same week, on the grounds of the hospital. The fear was so great that no one but us and his family and a few health workers attended, no choirs, no pastors, few neighbors and friends. Scott stood by the space-suited MSF burial team with their frightening boots and garb and detoxifying sprays, and read from John 12: unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit, but if it dies it brings forth fruit a hundred fold. Those were words of sheer faith at that moment.

Now, a year later, we had the kind of memorial service we could not have at the peak of the epidemic. I went down to the family home this morning, and one look at baby Jonah sent me into tears. I'm thankful that I was able to have a good cry with Melen at home before we faced the official ceremonies. We proceeded to Bundibugyo in five vehicles, each carrying and assortment of family, team, and friends. There we congregated at All Saints Church of Uganda, for a great service. The Archdeacon read from 2 Timothy 4 and talked about leadership, integrity, sacrifice. He called Jonah "a man among men." Scott also spoke about the Biblical theme of remembrance, remembering Jonah's sacrifice as well as his life. The Resident District Commissioner, the highest ranking government official in the district, came without retinue or pretense, carrying his Bible, saying he wanted to participate in honoring Dr. Jonah. There were a hundred or so others, including a nurse who survived Ebola and Dr. Sessanga who also survived. It was a solemn but worshipful time, and we were included in the bereaved who were specifically prayed for, kneeling on the hard cement of the church floor.

But the most poignant and beautiful aspect of the service: Baby Jonus was baptized, taking the official name Jonus Gift Muhindo. Jonus, for his father Jonah, a living picture and remembrance of a great man. Gift, because he was a beautiful and unexpected gift to us all, especially Melen who had longed for a son after 5 beautiful girls, and had to wait until her husband was dead to receive that gift. And Muhindo, which translates as change, because he is a boy in a family of girls, a smiling and honored family member passed lovingly from hand to hand. I leant them the very outfit that Luke wore for Christmas when he was the same age as Baby Jonus, our first few months in Uganda. The red velvet also appeared on Caleb when he was baptized (because it was the only fancy boy baby outfit we owned) with Jonah and Melen's daughter Biira; we had no family to attend that event but celebrated with Jonah's family afterwards. And Jack wore it too, at his baptism. It was special for me to see Jonah's son baptized, in the same outfit.

As the service drew towards its completion, the weeks of hot dry weather ended with a downpour, as if God Himself wept. In Africa rain symbolizes blessing, so it was a dramatic climatic evidence of God's favor upon this day. We had to sing extra songs as the entire congregation waited for the rain to end. Then we processed to the hospital for a final graveside service, the entire congregation singing as we slowly walked a kilometer through town, past the shops and restaurants, offices and taxis, everyone respectfully silent, watching, aware. At the grave Dr. Sessanga spoke, then more prayers and presentation of flowers, the four tombs lined up as concrete reminders of the way that this disease targeted the very people who most sought to alleve its suffering.

We are grateful for the milestone of remembering Dr. Jonah, his friendship, his service, his courage, his death. And of affirming the continuing life of his family, his daughters, his wife, his tiny smiling son, who will never meet his own father until Heaven, who smiled and played with his aunt's earrings and his own shoe, who slept snoring in my arms, blissfully unaware of the grief and loss of the day. A year brings the first measure of healing, and in spite of shaking sobs in each others' arms this morning, I caught Melen smiling at her baby this evening. Grief and life, tears and thankfulness, all mingle tonight.


Scott J. Will said...

I'm with you today in thought, even if thousands of miles away.

Pamela said...

Yes me too. Thanks so much Jennifer for allowing us who are so far away to be a part of this precious time of remembering.

Anonymous said...

Can't believe it's been a year. Thanks for sharing this.

Steve S. said...

Hello friends,
Thanks so much for sharing this memorial time - and for being there. Just stopped to pray for you all and for Melen, Jonus and his sisters. May you all experience in new and rich ways the glad tidings of comfort and joy this Christmas. The Christ child came to bear the curse so that for Jonah and all who are in Christ, death has lost it's ultimate sting.
With love from Central Asia.
Steve and Beth

Greenbrier Escape said...

Very moving...thanks for sharing so much of your hearts... praying for Melen and the children...

Mary Ann