The information about Uncle Kees arrives in dribs and drabs, in no particular pattern and from a variety of sources. The stories from my Dad were the beginning, leading to different forms of inquiry with little basis except that Uncle Kees was part of the Mill Hill Missionaries, stationed in Uganda in the town of Kamuli. As material is uncovered and discovered, ever so slowly, I attempt to link the information to create narratives in my mind, much of which will find its way into these blog posts.
I thought to start by tackling the three “facts” identified in my previous posting, beginning with my father’s assertion there was a building named after Uncle Kees. My Dad did not specify where this building was located (Uganda, of course, perhaps Kamuli) or the nature of the building; nor did he possess any pictures. I did not know what to look for, expect or imagine, hampered by my poor knowledge of the country and ignorance of the life or circumstances of the people.
In May 2016, Olga and I visited the Netherlands, part of a regular connection with family in Europe. On this occasion, I had arranged in advance to meet with several cousins in order to learn more about Uncle Kees. The visit included a dinner with Corrie, daughter of my Uncle Gert (youngest in the Decock family), who visited Uncle Kees in Uganda in 1979. She also connected with Dr. Cees van Deursen, and arranged for him to join us for a the meal and some reminiscing at Uncle Gert and Tante El’s home (this occasion would be the first the two have gotten together since their respective return more than 30 years earlier). Dr. van Deursen was a young physician who worked with Uncle Kees in Kamuli for three years from February 1978 to March 1981. The Doctor brought with him and shared stories, film and pictures from his time. The evening was filled with laughter and fond memories and a few tears with the recall of my uncle’s passing.
Among the doctor’s collection of photographs was one of the building: FATHER DE COCK MEMORIAL HALL.
It was true. There was a building name after Uncle Kees, in memory of his life’s work in the parish. The precise location still eluded me but the image eventually became my proof of legitimacy when I wrote to the Mill Hill office in Kampala a year later making inquiries and arrangements for a visit in May, 2017 when I was able to witness for myself the structure bearing his name. It was situated behind the church, a stone’s throw from the rectory, the hospital and a school house.
The hall was very simple, in need of some sprucing both inside and out. There were no windows. The walls were largely made of blocks, checkered with spaces for air flow to manage the heat. At the front was a small stage, with a table facing a long, solid dirt floor. It showed signs of regular use and typified other structures within the compound.
Inside, in the morning of the next day, we encountered a group of children who feted me with a rousing song, celebrating the visit of the “son” of Fr. de Cock. They welcomed me with the enthusiasm for a royal visit, ironically, the kind of recognition my uncle would have shunned. The entire experience was humbling and overwhelming.
My Kamuli hosts, members of the church and people who had worked with my uncle in some capacity in the parish, informed me that Fr. de Cock built the hall. In fact, he was responsible for a number of buildings in the surrounding area: several churches in other communities; Lubaga Boys Primary School; St. Pius X Junior Secondary School; the St. Francis ward in Kamuli Mission Hospital; the first permanent house for the Headmaster of St. John Bosco Secondary School; the water pipes and tanks for the hospital; and he personally physically fitted the bell to the top of the parish church.
Indeed, he was renowned for his practical skills, in particular the seemingly profound form of construction by beginning with concrete pillars, then mounting a roof before completing the walls. My hosts emphasized this point about first establishing pillars, one also explained to me in an interview a year earlier with Fr. Karel van der Horst* who was stationed at Kamuli parish for three years in the latter part of the 1970’s.
“His great idea was always pillars. Pillars, you know, I mean corner pillars of the house. A pillar here, a pillar there, a pillar there, a pillar there, then a few in between. And then the walls had to be connected to all these pillars and that was the church. So he put strong pillars, standing, made of cement and iron, the proper thing because he knew all that was needed, and then a roof on it and the rest was for the people to finish.”
Fr. Kees de Cock established pillars for education, for health, and for the spiritual well-being of the community, the foundation for their future. The affection with which people still passionately speak of his time in Uganda and his passing almost 40 years later are a reflection of his skills as a builder and his life as an “ordinary” person.
*I interviewed Fr. Karel van der Host at his residence at the Missiehuis Vrijland, Oosterbeek on May 12, 2016. Father Karel passed away two years later on May 7, 2018. I very much appreciate his willingness to share his experience and allowing me to tape the morning discussion.