THE LADY WITH AN INFECTIOUS SMILE.
The COVID-19 disease started in a place that seemed so far away in Wuhan city, China in December 2020 . One year later, it has spread to all the 192 countries of the world, it is in its second wave and is right inside our houses. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre as of the 26 th January 2021, Uganda had reported 39,261 cases and 318 deaths.
In the last one month, I have lost relatives, colleagues and friends here in Uganda and abroad. I am in a state of emotional turmoil.
Two weeks ago, one of my godsons lost his mother and father to COVID -19 disease within a space of two weeks! As if that was not enough, I lost one of my best friends to the disease on the 13th January 2021.
Dr.Sarah Namuli Mukasa Yiga had served as a medical doctor in South Africa since 1983. She was two years ahead of me in Gayaza High School. By the time I joined university in July 1972, Sarah was a third year student in the faculty of Medicine of the only University in the country, Makerere . We resided in Africa hall, the second women’s hall in the university.
Among the four first year medical students in that hall, I was the only one from my school but students from our school made up the majority of female students in the faculty of Medicine.
This provided us a unique small family where we thrived and looked out for each other.
We had gone through the freshers’ week but when the continuing students joined us, out of Sarah’s big heart, she effortlessly reached out to my group to help us settle in smoothly.
From the beginning she advised us to dress and behave as doctors, we had to learn to be punctual by being the first group of students to take our breakfast in the cafeteria when doors opened just before 7 :00am. She empasised to us that everything else was secondary to our course work. Sarah and her team gave us tips on how we could stay on top of our work, about dating and about which societies and sports teams we could join so as to make the most out of our stay at the university.
As days went by, they would spare time to quiz us on the topics we had covered, pass on past papers and notes for revision and advised on the extra text books we could buy using our book allowance apart from the standard ones recommended for each year.
After the quick breakfast, all the medical students would walk through the Katanga slum, a place with temporary shelters teeming with children and their parents. Whether it rained or not, the lectures at the Mulago teaching hospital started at 8:00am on the dot.
We became each other’s keeper and later when the first years came in , we felt that it was our duty to show them the ropes just as Sarah and her team had done for us.
On a normal day, most of us would come back together in time for supper at 7:00pm. We did this for five years and ended up forming strong bonds of friendship for a lifetime.
Sarah and I were quickly drawn together like a duck to water. We were top students, we were voracious readers, we were from close-knit families, we loved beautiful things and were always looking for fun and something to be happy about.
Franz Kafka said: “ Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
I was impressed by Sarah’s confidence and her ability to share her feelings and tears freely, allowing her friends to see who she really was deep inside. I was later to learn that she had inherited it from her loving parents.
Sarah was the ninth child in a family of ten while I was the third born in a bigger family. She became the big sister that I never had; guiding, nurturing and caring.
Her family became mine and mine became hers and this is how it has remained.
I used to call her a “work in progress” because she was always doing self-improvement on herself- the product and the packaging!
Two years later, she graduated and soon after got married to John, a postgraduate student in Surgery.
She had to convert to Catholicism. I was deeply involved in all the wedding preparations and in a similar manner, she took a central role in my wedding preparations and ceremonies in 1981.
Then we got wrapped up in the raising of our young families and in the progress of our careers.
During the civil strife of the early 80’s , Sarah and her family were forced to flee to South Africa They ended up in the Orange Free State in one of the ten black homelands of Apartheid South Africa.
They left their most precious items like wedding photographs with me
and I had to send them later through their sister in Kenya.
They worked at Moroka hospital , Thaba Nchu until the apartheid system was dismantled in April 1994.
They seized the opportunity of free movement of black people in a multiracial democracy and moved to Bloemfontein city, 70 kilometres away. It remains a white –dominated city up to today.
My grandmother could have told Sarah and I that dogs had licked our feet when we were babies; we were both passionate about travel- visiting new places and meeting new people. In 1996 I visited them in Bloemfontein. Sarah drove me to Thaba Nchu to see all her friends and the hospital where they had worked for a decade. Open farm lands owned by Boers.
In her quest to improve herself, she took up a master’s degree course in Family Health Practice. Later, she worked with the Orange Free State University.
In 1994, when my husband and I sought for economic exile in Botswana, our visits to Bloemfontein became more frequent and Sarah’s family visited often. Our children came to know each other well.
The biggest challenge to the two of us was getting the best education for our children. Sarah ended up sending her young daughters to a boarding school in Nairobi , Kenya. Sadly the youngest , almost eleven, died in a freak accident at that school. It was an extremely traumatic experience for the family.
For university, they took their three children to University of CapeTown and mine joined her youngest ones at the same university some years later. By sheer coincidence, none of our six children chose to join our profession. They had the ability and capacity to go into medicine but mine just hated our rigorous and unpredictable schedules of work.
Among the highest moments together were:
- The graduation and celebration of our children’s achievements. We always celebrated together.
- Sarah’s surprise 60th Birthday party in Bloemfontein in September 2009. Her husband’s surprise birthday present was her sister and great friend, Margaret, from Uganda!
- Our pilgrimage to Israel in April 2011- Sarah arranged for me to join a group about 60 people from her Catholic Church in Bloemfontein. I was the only protestant in the group and had I bent to their wishes, I could have converted and been baptised in River Jordan.
- My daughter’s wedding in Uganda in November 2014- Sarah was in it from the traditional give-away of the bride to the After Party. She delightfully danced the night away.
- During her ten day’s visit with John to Uganda in the pre-covid-19 days, January 2020. She spent an afternoon and stayed for the night with me and my octogenarian mother. Sarah cared to carry a soft scarf for my mother. We spent the night reminiscing and planning future travels together.
- Her last birthday of 4th September 2020- I sent her an Audio message mainly thanking her for being a rock solid friend for all those years. I told her that I admired and respected her for her strong faith and spirituality, her love and concern for others- always giving and loving more than she received, her integrity , passion for life and sense of humour. She replied by sending me a photograph of herself seated among her birthday bouquets. She was as colourful as the flowers.
- Her daily Spiritual nuggets to carry me through the day, which sometimes came in as early as 5:00am! Then later in the day she would send me the funniest clips just for the belly laughs.
- The unbroken connection between us- She always knew where I was and I knew where she was. When she first felt unwell on the 20th December while the two of them were visiting Helen , their eldest daughter, in Johannesburg, she text me and informed me that she was going for the COVID-19 test. She text me soon after receiving the results and when she was admitted to hospital, two days later. I had even suggested that her phone should have been confiscated from her to allow her to rest- easier said than done. The last message I received from her was on the 7th January which was followed by that most dreaded call on the 13th January 2021!
What made Sarah’s death most painful is having to grieve alone due to the COVID-19 restrictions. I felt safe not to tell mother; she knows Sarah as one of my best friends. I could not be near John and our children in their greatest time of need. Due to the Internet blackout during the general election in Uganda, I was among the few who listened in to the funeral service of the 16th January in Bloemfontein. I had to be connected through a niece’s phone in Nairobi, Kenya!
I have picked a few lessons from this huge loss: Life is the greatest gift that comes with each dawn and should therefore be celebrated and lived fully every day. I am only here for a while and I should consistently learn to love with no regrets- telling your loved ones every day how much you love and care for them and then strive to give of your best.
Last but not least, let each one of us go through the day knowing that COVID-19 disease is real, it has changed our lives forever. It is my responsibility to protect myself and others by masking up, hand- sanitizing often, physical distancing and keeping abreast with new information that becomes available from the Ministry of Health. While we await the new vaccine, let us stay at home and ensure that we stay safe and healthy.
Sarah Namuli, the amazing African multitasking woman, the unique human being, you touched and enriched our lives abundantly. You will live on in your children, in our hearts and in the treasure trove of memories that we created together.
May God Rest Her Soul in Eternal Peace.