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Monday, December 04, 2017

AIDS, Ebola, and a Wedding: an unlikely weekend ushers in a decade's redemption

December 1-World AIDS Day
December 4- The tenth anniversary of the death of Dr. Jonah Kule, from Ebola Bundibugyo.

And in between, December 1 and 2, the wedding of a young man born in the height of the AIDS epidemic, orphaned, who just finished medical school and internship on a Kule Memorial Leadership scholarship.

Uganda in the 1980's was a country devastated by AIDS even as it began to turn the corner from Idi Amin's brutal and repressive reign of the 1970's.  An entire generation of people our age was decimated, leaving behind many orphaned children, overwhelming the capacity of traditional networks of aunts, uncles, grandparents.  In 1993, we moved to Bundibugyo and Pastor Sam Kasule with his wife Zoe moved to Fort Portal, both of us working with Serge (formerly World Harvest Mission) for a holistic Kingdom vision.  We were deeply involved in screening, preventing, treating AIDS.  The Kasules were raising their own 8 children (their 8th and our first were born a day apart) as well as another 8 or more of their nieces and nephews left behind by dying parents.  So they developed a program called the Good Samaritan Project with the help of churches in Florida, and particularly Dick and Barbara Johnson.  They planted a church and established a primary school, and the Good Samaritan project helped orphans with school fees.  A few years later, a student's caretaker at Hope Primary who was sponsored by the project recommended to a neighbor that she take her son to see if he could get help there.  Katuramu Tadeo was 9, in Primary 3, an eager bright learner whose father had died while he was in the womb, leaving his mother with no support.    As Katuramu progressed through primary school, he also responded to the mentorship, teaching, example of the Kasules as well as elder and teacher Chris Mwesige.  He finished primary school with high marks and solid character, and so the Good Samaritan program decided to send him over the mountains from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo to attend Christ School.  At the time, nobody would actually WANT to do that, because the people in Tooro consider the people in Bundibugyo to be a bit backward, and the area to be known for rebels and danger.  But CSB was a good bargain, we were both working with the same mission, and Katuramu was willing to go anywhere for an education.

That was 2004, and our just-turning 11 Luke was bravely entering Senior One at CSB as the only non-Ugandan.  He and Katuramu were soon friends, top of their classes, and both slightly outsiders.  Katuramu earned the nickname "pastor" as he emerged as a spiritual leader of the class, but humbly also earned his pocket money as a cobbler of shoes.  For four years he and Luke studied and played together, and he was one of the friends drawn into our family orbit for meals, camping trips, hikes, books, soccer.  This young man had next to nothing, but never failed to bring a huge smile, and a servant's heart into any situation.  In November of 2007, they both sat for the O-level national exams.  Katuramu placed first in our district, and Luke placed second.  The Good Samaritan program decided to send him to A-levels at Nyakasura in Fort Portal, and we pondered sending Luke to RVA.

The same month they were completing exams, a mysterious disease was getting our attention.  Numerous people were plagued by high fevers and diarrhea, and we began to hear of deaths in a nearby village.  Dr. Jonah Kule had finished medical school and internship that year, and returned as the first doctor in 30 years from our district to do so.  He was our best friend, and after working with him through the mid-90's as a clinical officer, we had raised money to send him to medical school recognizing his superb clinical and community-organizing skills.  That November, we were finally realizing the dream of being colleagues, working together at the local health center, when he said he wanted to go see what was happening in that village.  I remember pushing a bottle of hand sanitizer on him, and him saying, "If I die, I die, these are my people."  We all thought it was a typhoid epidemic.  He came back puzzled and concerned, and the next week Scott and I also went to the village, and then to the central district hospital to examine patients and see what we thought.  We wore gloves, but no other protection, noting red eyes, some bleeding, lots of gastrointestinal symptoms, family clustering. We got a team from the Uganda Viral Research Institute to take samples, but the initial results were negative for viral hemorrhagic fevers including ebola.  Jonah left for Kampala as we turned the corner towards December, to pick his daughters up at school.

I won't tell the whole story here, but the disease turned out to be a new form of Ebola, named later Ebola Bundibugyo.  While in Kampala, Dr. Jonah became ill himself, and to protect others admitted himself to the national Mulago hospital where he was put out in a tent for treatment to keep him isolated.  At first we got good news that he was improving, but on December 4th, 2007, we got one of the worst phone calls of our lives.  He was dead.  The one other doctor in the district besides us also became ill, and Scott cared for him as we went into emergency mode, sending our kids and team away to safety not knowing if we would live or die either.  Jonah's body was returned to Bundibugyo with the scary space-suited isolation teams for burial at the hospital along with four other health workers.  We had all touched the same patients, but we were spared.  As he was buried, only his family and us came to mourn.  People were terrified.  MSF set up headquarters, the entire month became an marathon of medical care and contact tracing and isolation and fear.  In the aftermath of that crisis, we set up a fund to sponsor other young people from Bundibugyo to become doctors.  At Jonah's lonely graveside, Scott read prophetically from John 20.  The seed that falls into the ground and dies, bears fruit. ( and and other posts from 2007 tell the full story).

Katuramu became one of the young students chosen for a Kule scholarship.  He shone his way through medical school and internship, holding onto faith, ever humble and cheerful.  His mother had died in 2009 while he and Luke were still finishing secondary school, leaving him a full orphan.  He lived with his sister when on breaks, and continued to lean heavily on the spiritual guidance of the Kasules and the support of our family too.  During his internship, he cared for a young woman dying in the ICU.  Over the course of her illness, he met her family, and particularly her youngest sister Carol.  Katuramu and Carol fell in love.  She finished a university degree, and he finished his internship, and declared his desire to marry her.  Only she was the youngest of 34 children, born by 6 wives, to a pretty powerful patriarch from a different tribe all the way on the other side of the country.  She was beautiful, educated, and the last thing an 84-year-old man who had controlled a lot in his life was holding onto.  It wasn't going to be easy.

So after some difficult negotiations, many snags and trials, the whole thing hanging by an uncertain thread, this weekend, Katuramu, the kid who was as poor as they come, orphaned and alone, married Carol.  And what a production it was.  He pulled off having the traditional ceremony and the church wedding back to back on Friday and Saturday.  Friends and family contributed, the Kasules, Chris Mwesige, and we acted as his parents.  He hired a bus from Fort Portal to bring his four sisters and one brother, a handful of Hope Primary friends, and a number of the Kasule adult-children too.  We were about 30 people representing the groom's side.

Friday's "Introduction" was an all-day affair with many phases.  The groom's side and brides's side each have a mukwenda go-between, who act as masters of the ceremony, bantering back and forth.  They tell stories and joke as the bride's friends parade out in groups, each cluster in matching outfits, each bringing up some barrier or reason the marriage cannot take place, "forcing" the groom's side to bring money and gifts to solve those problems.  At last the bride comes out, brought by her paternal aunts, who then go amongst the groom's people symbolically searching for him.  They then dance with him and bring him to the bride.  There is a moment when the groom is symbolically acknowledged to have been born again into the bride's clan, making him acceptable.  Then a smaller delegation of parents goes into the bride's home with her father, and the groom and father drink from the same bottle of water to seal their unity.  The father blesses the bride and groom with a laying on of hands, and then we all shared a meal.  Finally the bride-price is paraded into the bride's compound, probably 20 baskets of food, sacks of rice, suitcases of clothes, even three cows.  The entire day is meant to establish the worth of the girl, the solidity of her family standing behind her, the fact that the groom has to work hard to earn their trust, the peace between the two families being established.  There were traditional dancers, a DJ, a cake, a hundred or so people, banners, tents.  We only began to leave when darkness fell.
Saturday, we were to report to the main Church of Uganda cathedral in town for the actual wedding.  This was a very traditional ceremony with hymns, praise songs, rings, vows, pronouncements, a sermon, a signing of the marriage certificate.  Carol was escorted down the aisle by her father and uncle, and thank God no one objected when the pastor asked, we all held our peace.  Since this is a prime season (school's out, rainy season is ending, Christmas is coming) for weddings, the cathedral is booked every two hours, so as our bride and groom exited the next group entered.  Then it was photos, and off to the reception.  Another full afternoon of people dancing their way in, some speeches, gifts, food, cake feeding, honoring parents, thanking everyone involved.  Again we went until dark.  Full of joy for the obviously ecstatic Carol and Katuramu.  Wiped out by the booming unrelenting over-powered sound system and two full days where everything except the church ceremony was in a mix of Lugwere (hers), Rutoro (his), and Luganda (major language of the country).  There was enough cross-over with the Bantu languages we get better, Lubwisi and Swahili, to help us follow a tiny bit at times, but mostly we were lost.  Amongst all the kids we have sponsored and acted as foster-parents to, this is only the second one to pursue a formal cultural introduction and a church wedding before living as husband and wife, so we aren't experts on the proper etiquette.  We just tried to follow the gracious Sam and Zoe Kasule!

By night, everyone had filtered away except Katuramu and Carol who were honeymooning their first night at the reception venue, and us, who Katuramu had also booked there.  Polite young man that he is, he kept thanking us for coming and helping, but we insisted on saying bye and leaving them alone, departing early the next morning to drive all the way back to Naivasha.  Though we had tried to garner a quorum for honoring the 10th anniversary of Dr. Jonah's death in Bundibugyo today, it just wasn't a good time for his wife and children to gather.  Meanwhile my colleague here in Naivasha went on a 6-week leave, and we discerned it best to come back and work. Today was one of those insane days, 46 babies in the NBU including 4 860-870 gram preems at 28 weeks or less. Two were twins whose mom came in and delivered abruptly, both died in spite of hours of resuscitation effort.  Scott was caught up in a C-section, and both of us ended the day thinking that slogging it out on a Naivasha Monday honored Dr. Jonah's memory as well as any memorial service.

If anyone read all this, thanks.  It's a lot to process.  Today's Advent devotion said "There is a tendency to delude ourselves into thinking that damage will never come to us, those who surely have God's favor. . . then The Advent of God comes upon us suddenly, flashing like a flood . . right now, God is here, and everything is a mess."  Amen.  AIDS and Ebola, loss and death that seemed to us futile and tragic.  But we are called to the work of repair, to a toil and a recognition of God's presence and the possibilities of redemption.  All day as I've thought about Jonah and his family, about all of our grief, about Katuramu's difficult life, about the twin preemies I laid dead into the arms of their mother this afternoon in spite of all we could do, the song from the devotion has echoed.

Your labor is not in vain.
<28 and="" anything="" as="" died="" dozens="" dr.="" effort="" far="" honors="" hours="" i="" in="" jonah="" kids="" kind="" lived="" mention="" much="" nbsp="" not="" of="" other="" out="" oxygen="" p="" probably="" resuscitating="" running="" sick="" so="" spite="" that="" thing.="" think="" to="" trying="" two="" weeks.="" would.=""> Though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained.
Your planting and reaping are never the same.
Your labor is not in vain.
For I am with you, I have called you by name,
Your labor is not in vain . . .
(Work Songs, from the Porter's Gate Worship Project).

Isaiah 25, Amos 9, the story unfolds.  Our current struggle will not be forever.  Jesus knows our names, and the flood that feels destructively frightening will clear the way for a forever-feast.  We cling to that by faith.  And this weekend we caught a glimpse of that in the wedding.  Nothing justifies the death of our friend Jonah.  Or of Jesus.  Their loss clarifies the stakes are high, the struggle is real, the consequences punishing.  But their deaths are not the end of the story.  Resurrection comes.  The doctors multiply.  An orphan marries what seems like a princess.  People from different tribes and continents came together to feast.  Hope grows.  The labor is not in vain.


Bob Wright said...

Jennifer your work is so important and your time so precious but I pray you will have time to put these posts into a book one day.

Balitebiya John said...

God will surely never forget your Labor of love, yet not you but His Grace effectually working in you by Faith. A profound and touching story, yet with Hope at its peak.

Anonymous said...

Yes - I'm sure many of us DID read it all and it was worth it. I appreciate your insightful writing. Hope you find times for rest and restoration this Advent season.