I have been writing about my visit to Kamuli, Uganda for a submission to a memoir writing competition and in that process a re-examination of my time has led me into a deeper understanding of the events. In previous posts about my uncle, Father Kees de Cock, I had described my quest to affirm some statements about him, espoused by my Dad. A more detailed representation of the May 2017 visit yields a richer recognition and understanding of the man known by the locals as Dikoko.
My chance opportunity to visit Uganda arose as a result of a work-related project in Tanzania. Once confirmed, I began corresponding with the Mill Hill Mission House in Kampala hoping there would be someone there to receive me. Bishop Phelan responded immediately connecting me with Father Wijnand Huis, the priest who had taken over after my uncle had died. Father Wijnand replied exuberantly and after several email exchanges, the timing for my visit was established. I had no idea what to expect.
The one stop, 16-hour flight, landed me at the Entebbe airport in the early evening. It was 8:00 pm local time when John, my arranged driver, began the hour-and-a-half, 35 km crawl into Kampala in the dark. There was little to see beyond the confines of the street as we drove through the poor infrastructure of narrow, cratered roads absent of lights or anything resembling a sign. People were milling about by foot and motorbike, mixing dangerously amid knee deep gutters and cow path walkways. The jeep teetered over the moguls leading into the guest house compound with its massive metal gate entrance. After an overnight stay in a simple room, equipped with open, screened windows and mosquito netting, John drove me to a sketchy rendezvous with a money changer ( I needed some Ugandan money ) before we embarked on a two-hour ride to meet Fr. Wijnand and his close friend, Justin Ojambo. The three of us then proceeded for an equally long journey north, through several towns and villages, to Kamuli.
The initial welcome from Fr. Bikina, the parish priest, was cool, our conversation slow, a series of adjustments with unsure footing. I was ill prepared for the reception that followed. We spilled onto the outside porch, new arrivals meandering in slowly, scrounging for chairs to gather around, patiently awaiting their turn to speak about their relationship with Fr. Kees de Cock.
The praise began with Andrew Mugaya’s recounting of Fr. Kees installing the generator at the hospital next door. His mechanical prowess in repairing cars was mentioned often. Semenda Sylvester who was baptized by Fr. Kees in 1968, reminded how he had constructed the hall to help train new catechists. Moses Waiswa spoke of my uncle’s love of education, reconstructing schools so that children could continue. Gertrude Wakaalumba who cooked for the parish, kneeled before me to present an 8 X 10 portrait of Fr. De Cock. She retold the story where he demonstrated his adoption of the culture by crying like an African at her own father’s funeral. Sebastion Kutegana the ongoing secretary brought a registry of the baptisms to show Fr. Kees’ writing and signature. Fr. Kees had found ways to help pay the hospital bills of his wife. Peter Nzlambi became a catechist under Fr. de Cock, spoke of his love of their work and of his encouragement. Funny stories of his dog, of playing soccer, of cooking the books to satisfy the bishop, of driving away rats, of installing microphones to hear his soft voice; thankful stories of caring and compassion, counselling and support.
Ponsiano Kayanga spoke of his appointment to take care of the room, following the announcement of my Uncle’s death, but couldn’t enter because the spirit of Fr. de Cock remained. Many mourners flocked to sleep outside on dried leaves, like a pilgrimage to his home. They considered themselves orphans and were present to honour his memory.
Fr. Kees had some medical issues, sometimes leaving to have them addressed in Europe, but he always returned. The news of his death shocked everyone and reverberated beyond the parish. People never had an opportunity to say goodbye, to mourn at a funeral. The congregation lobbied unsuccessfully to have his body returned for burial in Kamuli. I was the first person from the family to visit the parish since his death. In a country where nephews and nieces are considered sons and daughters, I represented his direct descendent. The reception, the gathering, the wake was an opportunity, as one person stated, to bring back the good memories which had left when Fr. Kees de Cock died. I embodied my uncle’s return and finally brought closure to the people of Kamuli.
After everyone had an opportunity to speak, we began sauntering around the grounds, when I was able to witness the FATHER DE COCK MEMORIAL HALL, situated behind the church, a stone’s throw from the rectory, the hospital and the schoolhouse (see henrydecock.org/2020/11/05/building-pillars/) The facade had faded from the photograph of its first designation and needed a refresh generally; nevertheless, the building remains an important feature of the parish community.
A small group gathered for a dinner in town where we were joined by Stephen Dhizaala and his wife Josephine. The former school headmaster and now chair of the local education council, Stephen had made all the arrangements of my visit. Stephen had been absent earlier because he buried his sister that day. Despite his own tragic loss, Stephen did not want to miss my presence.
The following morning, after a tour of the expanding facilities and a photo in front of another surprise, the Father de Cock Children’s Ward, I was escorted back to the hall. Inside we encountered a group of children who feted me with a rousing song, celebrating the visit of the “son” of Fr. de Cock. Overwhelmed, embarrassed, I did not know how to react as I stood awkwardly, watching, smiling, uncomfortable with the attention, unsure how to respond, what to say. The headmaster walked me across the dusty yard to a classroom of young boys, most barefoot on the dirty, pocked concrete floor. When Fr. Wijnand asked the class how they felt that day, the boys responded in unison, “humbling and obedient”. I was stunned. They were dutiful and quiet; only one brave soul answered my question about their lesson. The focus of everyone’s gaze, the son of Fr. Kees de Cock, I was the one feeling very humbling.
Stephen accompanied us as we began a tour of several structures for which Fr. de Cock was personally responsible: schools, churches, hospital buildings as well as seemingly mundane needs such as the water pipes and tanks for the hospital, installing the bell atop the parish church, replacing windows with open walls of circular tiles. Indeed, he was renowned for his practical skills; in particular a seemingly profound form of construction by beginning with concrete pillars, but also the constant repair of automobiles or the assembly of new hospital equipment.
Another goodbye, a heartfelt thankyou and we were on the road again. Forty-eight hours after landing at Entebbe, I was back in Jinja, head still spinning. The visit was over. I left with the regret of hindsight – why had I not given myself a few more days, arrived earlier, brought gifts of gratitude, expressed more thanks, asked more questions. A longing to return gnaws at my conscience.
The very brief incursion into Uganda helped verify my father’s claim there was a building named after his older brother, Fr. Kees de Cock. The nature of the building itself did not seem to matter. The naming and recognition by the Queen represented his status and therefore, considerable pride for my Dad. Although I had not imbued his assertions with any real importance or significance initially, my road to uncovering the life of Fr. Kees de Cock and to visit his parish in Kamuli 36 years after his death has brought me to an understanding beyond the discovery of facts.
The words of Fr. Willigers’ obituary (https://henrydecock.org/2020/10/17/server-to-everyone/) reverberate loudly: “[Fr. Kees de Cock] was true, and truly an ordinary man, … But in there lies the reason for his “legendary” status. He very seldom thought of himself, and hence reached his highest point that we all fully knew as: ‘The Servant for All’.” Dikoko, as he was known throughout the district paid attention to everyone and made no distinction between people. “You do not fool ordinary people in such things.” Fr. Kees de Cock lived his life with the values cherished by the people of Kamuli, Uganda who still honour his memory; beheld by my father, a younger brother separated by years, desiring a role model; and admired by a distant nephew laden with the compulsion to remain ordinary, hoping to accomplish as much.