Authors: Medad Birungi
TOMBSTONES AND BANANA TREES
Published by David C Cook
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David C Cook Distribution Canada
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David C Cook U.K., Kingsway Communications
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The graphic circle C logo is a registered trademark of David C Cook.
The website addresses recommended throughout this book are offered as a resource to you. These websites are not intended in any way to be or imply an endorsement on the part of David C Cook, nor do we vouch for their content.
Scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible. (Public Domain.)
The author has added italics to Scripture quotations for emphasis.
Â© 2011 Medad Birungi and Craig Borlase
The Team: Richard Herkes, Amy Kiechlin Konyndyk, Sarah Schultz, Caitlyn York, Karen Athen
Cover Design: FaceOut Studios, Jeff Miller
Cover Images: Craig Borlase
First Edition 2011
I dedicate this work to my late dear mother, Fridah Boneire Tibamwenda, who loved me and cared for me unconditionally, who prayed for me, and who sacrificed much for making me who I am now. To my late sister, Peninah Rwamwehare, who was murdered because of me. To my sisters Win, Peace, Justine, and Jennifer, who sacrificed a great deal for me. Also to Deborah Karagi, who taught me in Sunday school how to pray the Ten Commandments and who used to hide me from jigger hunters, and to Agnes Nsiganigagwa Bagyema, who nurtured me when I committed my life to Jesus and loved and mentored me till the end of her life. I will forever be grateful to these mighty women of valor who are now in glory in heaven. To my aunt Jane Kasibante for all her love to me. To Margaret Walker, a longtime missionary in Uganda who adopted me and introduced me to the international world. She has been an excellent mother. To Mrs. Carole Nolan, Mrs. Gesine Hoare, and Dr. Eileen Adamson, who mothered me while I was in London Bible College, for all their love, care, and support. And to Lydia Nyinamafa Barole, Feresi Rubuga, Mrs. Tibamuhana, and Mary Taneza Entungwaruhanga, who have loved me since childhood and who took over my life when my mother died and have done all-time parenting and mentored me greatly. To Anne Mikkola and Patti Ricotta, who introduced me to biblical equality that has kept my marriage lovely and exciting. These women have made this story possible.
I thank the Lord God, Master Creator, who saved me from sin and destruction and gave me strength, knowledge, and wisdom to accomplish the task of writing this book. Had it not been for Him I would not be alive and well, and I would not have written this amazing story of revolutionary forgiveness.
This has been a wonderful, emotional, challenging, and inspiring journey. It would not have even begun had it not been for Jonathan Brown and Richard Herkes at Kingsway, who saw, believed, and championed this book from the start. John Pac, Mark Bowater, Mark Debnam, Andy Hutch, and Les Moir have all played important parts with dedication and skill.
I thank Mr. Craig Borlase, my coauthor, who always tirelessly worked hard to shape and write this book. May God bless him a thousandfold.
I thank my dear wife, Constance Birungi, and the children, Barnabas, Joel, Festo, Esther, and Omega, for all the love, support, commitment, and prayer.
Ginia, Caitlyn, Amy, and all the team at David C Cook have been wonderful all along. Frog Orr-Ewing, the New Wine team, World Shine Foundation Team, and J.John: You are great people.
I also thank the Anglican Youth Fellowship Choir, who led me to Christ, and all members of the East African Revival team, clergy and bishopsâalive and departedâand missionaries from the United Kingdom who discipled, nurtured, and mentored me when I received Jesus Christ. I thank all my 245 intercessors and prayer partners for their prayers.
To God be the glory.
Medad's right: This has been quite a journey. Yet during the times when it looked as though it would be a short-lived adventure, JB and Richard Herkes had the belief, skill, and tenacity to see it through. Thanks are also due to the rest of the team at Kingsway, including Mark Bowater, Mark Debnam, Andy Hutch, John Pac, and Les Moir. Thank you, Frog, for pulling strings and J.John for gracious and generous support.
Without Cowboy we would never have been able to tour Southwest Uganda in safety and peace, and without Winnie and Eldard the trip would not have had such a lasting impact on me. Thanks too are due to the amazing Connie Birungi for supporting Medad throughout all this, and the Borlase crew for joining in the excitement about all things Ugandan.
This book was written to the sounds of Orchestra Makassy, King of Juju, Taha Rachid, and the people of Pastor Jackson's church up on the hill in Kigazi. Thanks to Jez Startup for opening my ears to African music and to Kay Amon for inspiration.
Last but one: Medad, your honesty, vulnerability, and continued passion for serving others continue to inspire me. May this book help you help others.
Finally, to the Canadian academic atheist I met at the Namirembe Guesthouse â¦ I think you may well have been right: This book really will change my life.
The Power of the Family
Life is good and I laugh a lot. You need to know that about me before we make a start. You need to know that I think of myself as being blessed with so much of God's graceâfar more than I deserve. You need to know that as I look at my life I see there is much that is beautiful and much that is good. You need to know all this because what comes next will probably remove the smile from your eyes.
This is a book about revolutionary forgiveness. And in order to write about forgiveness, you must have something to forgive. For there to be change, you must have something to leave behind. In order to know healing, you must first have received a wound.
I did not think I would ever experience such sorrow or despair as the day my father beat me down from the pickup trucks and abandoned usâmy mother, my sisters, my brothers, and meâby the side of the road at Kashumuruzi. We had no food, no possessions, and no hope of a future. All we had was the smell of diesel from the aging pickup trucks loaded with possessions, retreating down the roadâpossessions that, just minutes previously, had been our own. All we could hear was the sound of rejoicing that came from the hands and mouths of the rest of my father's wives and their children as they jeered from the trucks. All we could see were the villagers slowly peeling away from the scene and returning to their tasks, now that the drama that had entertained them was over. All I knew was that my mother, my sisters, my brothers, and I were weeping into the dirt, hoping life would end soon.
I did not think life would ever get worse than this. I did not think there was worse to come.
Yet there was. Far worse. But those are other stories for later pages. Right now I need to explain about the road and the pickup trucks, and in order to do that, I must tell you about that day.
It had started the way many mornings did. I woke up to the sound of singing carried in and out of my home on the wind, like sunlight playing in and out of the clouds. The music was coming from the church or the school on the other side of the valley. They always started early. I had never really belonged to either of them.
I was a typical six-year-old boy from a typical village in western Uganda. I had no need for shoes, was naked from the waist down, and was beginning to be aware of making the transition from infant to child. That meant I was becoming more adventurous, starting to move away from the compound where we lived, and finding out what was on offer in the land that surrounded it. Out beyond the pressed, swept earth, I was learning how to use my hands to make things out of the broad leaves of the banana trees that flooded the valley where we lived. I would use the broadest, thickest ones as mats on which I would sledge down the muddied slopes toward the stream. The rocks added the element of danger, and our scarred and bruised buttocks were the scorecards, clearly showing how often our games ended in pain. Thinner leaves I would use to make slippers for my feet. They only ever lasted a day, but I felt like a man when I wore them.
I was getting stronger. That meant I was starting to join in with the older children in the twice-daily trips down to the stream to collect water. My clay pot was small, but even five liters was heavy enough to make the task of carrying it a challenge. Especially when there were consequences to arriving back at home with a less-than-full load.
Our home was halfway up a steep hill at the north end of a wide open valley. Two generations ago there had been nothing in the area but forest; a sprawling forest that, if you saw it from the other side of the valley, looked like an ocean churned up by a storm. Up close you could see that the sides of the steep hills had created land at the bottom that was dark, musty, and alive with insects that fed on the rotting vegetation. That is what our village is called: Rwanjogori. It means
Why would anyone want to live in a place like this? Ask my grandfatherâhe was the one who first settled here, clearing back the forest and building the first home halfway up the hill away from the maggots that ruled the earth at the bottom. He had discovered it when he was looking for places to hide the cattle he stole from distant farms. He was the son of Bukumuura, son of Karumuna, of Bituura, of Ruhiiga, of Ngirane, of Kasigi, of Muntu. Every one of these men was a renowned polygamist, especially Ruhiiga, who had thirty-six wives. My grandfather's name was Kasabaraaraâand it means “one who grinds people who sleep in your house.” Yes, my grandfather was given the name of a killer and became a professional thief who colonized a land in which nobody would have dreamed of living. They say it is hard to get a clean bird from a dirty nest, that true change is difficult when you come from a difficult family background. I know there have been times in my life when I have wished the maggots would return and consume me for themselves.
The day my father abandoned us had started typically. The sound of children singing, cups of millet porridge to drink, a quick trip down the hill to collect the water that flowed out of the ground when you poked it with a stick. But after that things changed. It was moving day, and we were leaving Rwanjogori forever.
Or so we thought.
My father had been friendly ever since he had returned home after his year-and-a-half disappearanceâwhich itself is another story that we will get to in good time. Of course, his warm smiles and happy chatter could not fool us, and we remained suspiciousâeven six-year-old me. But my father was full of talk of great plans and big changes, all told with wide eyes and grand gestures made by hands that commanded the air. It did not take long for him to convince us that our overcrowding was a problem for which he had the perfect solution.
In Uganda, as in much of Africa, a home is made up of three elements: your house, the area immediately around itâoften called your compoundâand the land that you farm. My father owned a large slice of land that ran down from the top of the hill, flowing through to the valley below as it flattened out. His father had planted hundreds of banana trees, some with black trunks that offered
or plantain, as you might call itâa savory type of banana high in carbohydrates, cooked and served with a groundnut sauce or red beans. The green-trunked banana trees grow smaller fruit, but these little bananas are sweet and delicious. You have never tasted a real banana until you have pulled a handful from a tree and allowed their sugary sweetness to delight your taste buds.
Our house was made of mud that had been stuck onto a sturdy wooden frame. The walls were thick and the roof was thatched with dried grass from a nearby marsh. Because my mother was my father's first wife, our house was the biggest, with three rooms: a bedroom for my parents, another for my sisters, and a main living area in which my brothers and I slept and where we all ate when it was too wet or cold outside.
Our compound stretched around our house, and in it could be found our goats, maybe the odd cow, a dog or two, as well as the charcoal fire where my mother would cook. The earth was hard and dark, flattened by the feet of so many people living there. A few meters along from our house was another, slightly smaller. In it were my father's second wife and their children. Farther on still was another house and another wife and more children. And then another.
You could call our overcrowding a form of domestic congestion or an “overextended family,” but whichever words you use, the truth was simple: My father had taken too many wives. My mother was his first, but as his anger rose along with his drinking, so too did the number of wives. In one year he married five other women, and by the end of his life he had fathered a total of thirty-two children: twenty-six girls and six boys. So, yes, there were too many of us. Too many wives fighting for his attention, too many children desperate for a father, too many mouths left hungry by too little land.
“I know how our poverty will be wiped clean,” said my father one day. On his travels away from us he had found a large piece of land, two hundred miles west, where we could all live in plenty. Each wife would have five acres of land, more than enough to feed us and keep hunger away.
So he had sold our home and the land we had been squeezed into. On the morning of our planned departure, every able body was loaded up with possessions and sent off down the hill, past the spring, through the banana trees, and out onto the valley bottom, passing by the unmarked boundary that signaled the edge of my father's land. Once out on the valley floor we then carried our sleeping mats, cooking pots, animal skins, water jars, and low tables down the track for another mile to the village of Kashumuruzi.
Kashumuruzi was an exciting place. It was the link with the outside world. Where Rwanjogori was home to only a few families and nothing else, Kashumuruzi was different. Not only did it have a trading postâa shop that sold everything from home-brewed beer to pots and clothâbut its houses and compounds were all stuck on one side of a main road that, in one direction, ran to the distant local capital of Kabale, while the other way pointed to the waterfall of Kisiizi and, beyond that, the new land my father was taking us to.
At this time in my life I was not poor. True, all those extra wives and children had put a strain on our resources, so the move was something we all welcomed, even if we did so cautiously. But my father was a dealer in animal skins, and he was good at his job. He was a charismatic, attractive man. People listened when he spoke and readied themselves to follow when he led. We had status.
So there we were, sitting at the side of the road, our possessions piled high beneath the tall tree that gave a little shade in the gathering heat. It was a big day in the life of the local villages, and as the trucks arrived, so too did a small crowd of onlookers. My father spoke to the drivers as soon as they arrived, gave them instructions about where we were going and how to load the possessions. This was a side of him I had not seen much of before: commanding authority from other adults who seemed to lower their eyes and obey him quickly. I was used to seeing my siblings or my mother hurrying to obey his commands, avoiding eye contact and hoping to avoid his rage, but not other men. With the bystanders he was different: He seemed unusually happy, as if he was enjoying being the center of the show, like a magician preparing for a grand finale, smiling to himself at the knowledge that what was coming was sure to leave an impression for years to come on the minds of those watching.
We loaded everything we had onto the pickup trucks and then climbed on. We might not have been poor, but we were certainly not wealthy enough for me to have been in the back of a pickup truck before. We were certainly not
wealthy. As we prepared to drive through villages and even townsâyes, there would be towns on the journey!âI was excited beyond words, a six-year-old boy about to experience the most thrilling thing of all, on display for all to see as we made our way to our new life. To my mind this was already a very good day, what with all the excitement of carrying things down from our home and having so many people gathering to watch us. And it was about to get even better.
My mother was a kind woman, and a wise one too. She was also a woman of prayer. She knew how to pick her battles, and she had ushered my sisters and me up into the final pickup truck. Let the other wives fight for the status of riding in the first one with our father in the cab. It was probably best to keep a low profile anyway: My father had been acting strangely around my mother, my siblings, and me for months.
Before the engines started, my father got out and made his way back down the line. He stopped by our truck and looked at each of us in turn; my mother, me, my sisters, and my two brothers. Those wide eyes that had been sparkling and dancing for days were suddenly different. Darker. Narrowed. I did not want to look into them.
“All of you,” he said. “Get down.”
I could not move. I had received so many beatings and scoldings from my father that panic was never far from my heart whenever he addressed me. Usually I would run or fight, but this time I remained still, frozen.
“You have been a problem to me. You fought against me, and I cannot migrate with problems.” He quickly stepped around the back of the vehicle, reached into the brush behind the tall tree, and pulled out a stick. He wielded the six-foot flexible weapon with skill, bringing it stinging through the air, lashing us across our cowed backs. I do not know whether I fell, jumped, or was pushed down from the truck, but it did not take long before we were facing the dirt, surrounding our mother, crying.
The beatings hurt, but they were nothing new. My father knew how to hurt us, and there had been plenty of occasions in the past when he had inflicted pain on us in cruel ways that left scars visible even today. But these beatings at the side of the road were not the main event; they were a warm-up to something big. He was merely tenderizing the meat so that we were truly ready for the fire to follow.
It had been six months since my father had returned from his self-imposed exile, and every day he had been back at home with us he had kept a particular bucket close by. Each morning he had filled it with ash from the fire, and my mother had always asked him, “What do you want this ash for?” He only ever gave the same reply: “One day you will see.”
As we crouched there, huddled around our mother, the tree towering above us, the hill stretching back behind, the trucks to our side, the road at our feet, and an increasingly large crowd watching from the other side, my father dropped his stick and reached down for the bucket that he had also hidden in the brush behind the tree. Suddenly he was not a raging father or a stick-wielding disciplinarian. He was an actor, playing to the crowd opposite, his body half turned so they could all see the bucket of ash swinging in his hand, hovering over our heads. His voice, loud and formal, rang across the road as he announced to everyone: “I am leaving my children with their inheritance.” With that he tipped the bucket upside down, the great cloud of ash getting caught on the wind before much of it settled on our bodies.