“When a man is born, the human race as well as the individual, he is thrown out of a situation which was definite…into a situation which is indefinite, uncertain and open. There is certainty only about the past — and about the future only as far as that it is death.”- The Art of Loving –Fromm, Erich.
Comfort is the illusory throne upon which we humans perch, nibbling on food to pass time, our backs turned to the noisy clocks. Discomfort is that morning when you wake up, too weak to lift the hand that yesterday threw a bowling ball — when standing face to face with your mortality, you realize that you will never win.
Discomfort is the realization that death has every reason to brag. No matter how many times you look left and right and then at the sky before committing a sin, or a crime, you can only be indifferent to every other death but yours.
In Uganda, we believed that only the old died. In fact, there is a casual saying in Buganda, “akakadde tekafa kamu kukyalo¹”, casually embracing the fact of death as a culmination of a long life. However, when the teenage girl or the young husband died, the Baganda called that entiisa² or ekikangabwa³.
Fast-forward to this millennium, the unimaginable happened. The young became determined to outrun their grandparents or to break their parents’ hearts — whichever came first. I cannot contact the Uganda Bureau of Statistics to confirm my observation. All I know is that since 2011, I have lost ten too many friends. The life expectancy of a millennial has fallen to fourty-one.
To speak of death indicates depression, a fragile mental constitution, a defeatist attitude towards life. Death being a taboo topic, an insult to life, makes us reluctant to face the possibility of this world moving on without us. We struggle all our lives to write our names on the wide surface of a restless sea. However, the day we die, a new set of triplets is born, and our memory only lingers in foam.
I say that recognition of death is the greatest form of optimism. It is the act of looking Death in the face and saying, “Well, since you must come in, you might as well sit down till closing time.”
Death is an irritating guest breathing down your neck — an infant who only wants what he wants. He toddles after you as you go about your tasks. He pulls at your clothes and asks, “Is it time to go?”
You yell, “It’s eight in the morning! We are going home at night,” and carry on trying to memorize the theory of Love.
He sits on your lap and makes it impossible to work. “It’s six o’clock.” He grumbles because he is weirdly good at telling Time.
You throw him a sweet, but he swallows everything too fast. You learn that he is an impossible menace to distract — that he wants you and nothing else.
Tell him, “I know you’re tired and hungry but I have these mundane and eventually pointless tasks to do. I must finish them because they matter to me and they will unfairly define my life. We will know it’s time to go when the bell rings for the building to close.”
We must live our lives bravely, in spite of this belligerent child. We must snatch happiness from his sticky hands and ignore his pout. His time will come but for now, this is ours.
As you know, I too do not know what I am talking about. The fear of death is natural to a living human being. It is the cessation of life, as we know it, coupled with uncertainty of our destination.
Weeks ago, I sat on a bus at four in the morning on a work trip. Twenty minutes in, I needed to pee. Suddenly, four hours of travel became four hours too long. As I twisted my legs in yoga poses I only saved in Watch Later on YouTube, the last passenger boarded. He took the seat beside me. “A bus has just tumbled down the gully ahead of us.” He narrated with the morbid excitement we can only summon for the death of faceless strangers. “People are dying in large numbers. The driver fell asleep.”
Too focused on controlling my bladder, I had not heard the screams of ambulances rushing towards the scene. A full bladder creates the kind of discomfort I cannot put into words. However, hearing that just ahead of us, in a bus resembling the one I sat in, people who might have wanted to pee as badly as I did had perished without reaching their destination, terrified me. Death is the ultimate discomfort we spend our lives skirting. We run back and forth like cloth merchants trying to finish their stock before the rains but remembering Death for five seconds can diminish the strongest urge to pee.
In that moment, I realized that I could have been on that bus had I woken up earlier. In Luganda, there is a saying, “Tewekulisa lumbe⁴”. My father never told me its true meaning, but I imagine the Baganda knew that Death attends all parties though he is a guest of honor at only one — the last one. No matter how many times you throw your landlord off your doorstep, you will never be rid of him until you vacate his house.
That morning on the bus, the urge to pee disappeared and I decided to do something I fear, with good reason. I, a healthy woman not yet in her old age (what is old anyway?), but as capable of dying as anyone else due to the recent demise of too many friends, decided to be brave. I jotted down the rough contents of my very first Will. For what is a Will if not a summary of how we have squandered our lives — of the things that didn’t matter to the world but were everything to us?
My Will read as below:
MY FIRST WILL AND TESTAMENT
To my two long-suffering sisters R & S, I have dictatorially appointed you the executors of this unsigned and unwitnessed document which contains not one iota of legal merit:
- Feel free to disclose the identity behind my nom-de plume with pictures on your social media in case some people haven’t already guessed who I am.
- The costumes I use on stage shall go to the Playhouse. MR looks organized. He’ll know what to do with them.
- I have an asymmetrical black dress, which some friend of mine (she knows herself), has been nagging me about. Give it to her. She has stalked me online for it.
- The rest of my clothes should go to the Banaku⁵, as my uncle Petero calls them — the less privileged.
- Check my email and send the manuscript of a poetry collection I wrote, to Raclain (that’s her stage name). The collection is called “To All the Apples”. Raclain has been supportive of me publishing it.
- Release the book I have edited for years (procrastination is real) no matter what state it is in. If it is too rough around the edges, publish it online so that nobody has to pay for it. If the editor finished his job, see what fortune you can make from it. Anybody who knows the main character’s name before publishing deserves a free copy.
- My laptop goes to my mushy sister, S because clearly R has no need for a third one.
- My next-of-kin may enjoy my life insurance. Unfortunately, I started saving last month. I do not see her getting much out of it. Let us drink to a longer life for me if we are to build your fortunes, dearest.
- Also, at the non-depressing funeral, which you shall hold with non-boring-but-not-too-loud music, please tell those present the true name behind Nagundi. No secrets shall clutter my grave.
- All my life’s savings shall go to the estate. I am sure it will cover your household expenses for a week…at most. If any individual says I owe her or him money exceeding 50,000/=, she or he is a barefaced liar.
- I have hidden all the passwords to my accounts and PIN codes somewhere in the house. You can find them if you look hard enough. (Don’t look under saucepans)
- I wish I had amassed buried treasure in Kalangala to bequeath to you. Rest assured you will not find any no matter how hard you look.
- Most importantly, I bequeath to you, my sisters and sisters, my diaries for reading, mocking and weeping at the realization of how boring my life actually was even in print. As a detour, you will also learn how pathetically I love everyone and everything I love. Yes. Even our long-lost sister in the diaspora is free to partake.
- To all the people who know me in detail and still love me, I wish I could quantify love and send it to your bank accounts or turn it to Bitcoin. There is no technology for that yet so you may donate my heart. If this too involves too much paperwork and unnecessary drama, then to hell with it…It’s the thought that counts.
- To all mourners, please do not feel pressured into burying me if the trip is too expensive and you cannot find time. Life is too short to be blackmailed by the dead. All I ask is that you do not make a song and dance of my funeral. I’d say cremation but a faithless part of me still worries that it hurts.
- I cannot believe how poor I am. That is it!
Message to The Vindictive Yet Stunning World.
I did not expect to be speechless at such a time. I’ve waxed philosophical since I was five years old (as seen from the above performance) but the truth is that I’ve been scared for the lion’s share of this life. Even as a child, I had a panoramic view of life and its less attractive aspects — the growing and the aging. With time, I came to suspect that all of it ended in Death.
I would have liked to know the faces of my children (if I ever did pluck up the courage to have them) — to ask them if I did a good job or whether I beat myself up over invented failures like many mothers do. I would have wanted to know if they played more outdoor games than I did. Did their hormones allow them to be confident at fourteen? Did they find any merit in being good even when the world humbled them — when there seemed to be no rewards in staying kind? Did I teach them how to make the choice between the obvious good and seductive evil? Did I look happy with their father? Did we make them believe in love? Did they choose to settle for nothing less than what we had? Did I ever tell them the wonders that God in His raw unfettered form can do for a struggling soul? Did I teach them to remember the birthdays of people who mattered to them? Did they learn to feel guilty when they forgot?
Did we do well, your father and me? Did you ever wish for another mother? Was my life what people would call a full life? Did anyone wipe a tear, murmur platitudes at the funeral and cry “gone too soon” while secretly hating my guts?
If by any chance, these children grow up to be intolerably bad-mannered brats, cancel out that section. They are no children of mine. Do not read that addendum where I give them all my hidden wealth.
I don’t want to cause a single person the amount of pain I have suffered upon losing my loved ones but what kind of life would I have lived if I didn’t?
I hope I lived well. I am not sorry if I did not. I was not here to entertain you but I‘m truly sorry if I did not. I did not mean to hurt you and I am glad if I did not. I was good at hiding what I really felt in my own embarrassed opinion. If you suspected that I loved you, there is half a chance that I did…
[P.S: For goodness sake, this is not a suicide note. I probably died in a freak Nakawa Market accident squashed under fifty heads of lettuce. To understand this joke, please watch season 1 of The Good Place.]
- Akakadde tekafa kamu kukyalo: Old people die will always die in twos in every village.
2. Entiisa: A horrific event
3. Ekikangabwa: A horrific event
4. Tewekulisa lumbe: Do not rejoice at narrowly escaping death.
5. Banaku: The poor.
6. Ngenze: I have gone.
Justin Teopista Nagundi is a Ugandan writer who uses this pen-name to hoodwink her friends into objectively reading her work. She intends to reveal her real name upon publishing her first book, which, as you can imagine, is taking much longer than she anticipated. You can find her imaginary presence on Twitter @JT_Nagundi. She has published her work with Writers Space Africa and her article “Of Blood and Vinegar” carried the day as the most viewed guest blog on KIHOUTEI : A WOMAN’S WORLD WRITERS. She also has picture poetry on Instagram @justin.teopista.nagundi.