All electricity had gone out of Kisoro, and I was sitting in the garden of the lodge with a book on my lap when the news came that my driver’s son had been taken to the hospital with a case of malaria. Ugandan roads have no lights and Ugandan drivers have no sense of moderation, so when Ibra, my driver for the week-long trip to the edge of Uganda, asked to leave a few days earlier than we had planned and at 3PM, which meant traveling late into the lightless night, I hesitated, but my anxiety quickly yielded to medical urgency.
“How old is your son?” I asked Ibra in the car.
“He is five.”
“What is his name?”
“He is called Sekamanya. S-E-K-A-M-A-N-Y-A.”
“Does it mean something?”
“Does it mean something in Luganda?”
“We have kings,” he told me and chuckled, suddenly embarrassed. “It is the name of a king.”
When I offered to buy medicine before we left town, he refused. Ugandans hide fear and sadness, and maybe Ibra’s nonchalant expression and manner were nothing more than cultural conditioning. Within an hour of the drive, I shrugged off the urgency altogether, remembering that malaria is common in this part of Africa and many sick children return to health in a matter of days. We didn’t talk about Sekamanya any further, choosing to focus on radio and road instead, as I repeatedly failed to dissuade Ibra from passing large trucks precisely at those times when the curve was sharp and visibility wasn’t.
About half way through the trip, Ibra’s phone rang. He spoke in Luganda, which I couldn’t understand, and his tone, like his smile, communicated no vulnerability. When he hung up, I nervously asked him if it was about his son.
“Yes,” he told me. “Sekamanya is fine.”
“He is fine? That’s very good news.”
“Yes. My brother called. They told me I need to go to hospital. To clear the bill. But he is fine.”
Ibra’s smile loosened, confirming that the earlier version was nothing less than tense concealment of fear. We listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It on Home” (“the beat is very OK”, he told me), Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” (“is that country music?”), and Edward Sharpe (no comment from Ibra).
It was dark now, and the myriad of trucks on the road kicked up dust that limited visibility even further. The continued possibility of an accident reminded me of a cocktail party I attended years earlier, where I’d talked with a medical student prepping for ER medicine. We indulged each other’s fascination with the violent, undignified, and unexpected type of death. It wasn’t just the banal assessment that life can drastically change in a fraction of a second that drew me, but, even more than that, the fact that the universe continues relentlessly in the face of tragedy–unabated, unaffected, unfeeling, with a stupid indifference. Mortality’s staggering aspect isn’t the the mangled body, but the absence of discernible disruption in the world. When the Death Star destroys peaceful Alderaan, Obi-Wan feels “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” But here on Earth, there is no despair in the wind, no empathy in birdsong, and no Jedi to feel terrible about it. Death is ripple-free. When my mother died, I didn’t know about it for days. You would think the universe would whisper bad news to you, but it doesn’t, and it feels like a betrayal.
My reflections were cut short when Lily Allen’s “Fuck You” came on the radio. I lowered the volume, thinking that most Ugandans wouldn’t appreciate the progressive politics or the impolite refrain. Ibra certainly had no comment, which was comment enough.
We arrived in Munyonyo at just about midnight. Ibra dropped me off at home, then drove off to see his son. I went to sleep, relieved about Sekamanya, relieved that we left when we did, relieved that we made it back without incident.
The next morning, I dawdled on the edge of Muchinson Bay before a work call scheduled for 10:30 AM. I was about to dial when a text message came from Ibra’s boss: Sekamanya had died in the morning. Another message flashed: “Ibra is so sad”.
I had no time to reply. I slowly dialed the bridge to the conference call instead, the mere act of pressing numbers suddenly a momentous effort. The phone rang, slowly, loudly, coldly, intrusively, wrongly. The death of a child is so ugly that we don’t even have a word for it in the English language. I connected to the bridge, and I focused desperately on the conversation: the legal issues, the business goals, the timing. The sadness receded as I puzzled over various subjects, and when I hung up about half an hour later I felt calm and satisfied that the call turned out OK.
A minute passed, and I stared blankly at the water, my mind back in Uganda. Ibra’s son was dead, I remembered. Ibra’s son Sekamanya was dead, and I was making calls. And it felt like betrayal.