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John Mbire (1965-2019); thank you for the laughter!

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John Mbire (1965-2019); thank you for the laughter!

The news of John Mbire’s death this past Friday hit me like a landslide on a sunny afternoon. I knew he was mortal, of course, and I knew that he had been struggling with failing health. 


However, none of that had prepared me for the devastating phone call from Joy Mbire Odera reporting that our little brother was gone. In my foolish human reckoning, John, the youngest of my maternal cousins, was supposed to be there, until we, his bigger brothers and sisters, were gone. 


Over the years, even as the rest of us were yielding to the ravages of time, John had remained youthful in thought and attitude, his humour and intellect an antidote for the depressing daily news. 


Yes, his humour! My tears and heartache have been eased in the last few days by memories of John’s easy laughter and his witty observations about the human condition. 


As a child, he was the master prankster. As an adult, African politics was his specialty. Ugandan rulers and their self-absorbed ministrations were his obsession. American political actors tickled him. Humanity’s limitless capacity for hypocrisy and contradiction was his most beloved subject for deconstruction. 


Having thoroughly studied the Ugandan character and history, John was non-partisan with his humour, sparing no-one. He laughed at human gullibility and got a thrill out of mimicking the tricksters in pulpits who had turned Jesus Christ into a source of unimaginable worldly riches. He would have given Trevor Noah (the South African comedian) good competition had he held nightly court to dispense his humour to a live TV audience.


Death, our horrible adversary that never loses a game, has silenced him. We call John’s name and hear a silent, motionless response. We pinch ourselves, in the hope that it is all a dream, yet we know that his body, buried in Kabaare yesterday, is gone forever.


I have seen many people die - the unborn, the being born, newborns, children, adolescents, adults, the elderly – the full spectrum of humanity. The dead look the same – lifeless, raceless, tribeless, classless and freed from human folly.


So, one would think that I would be used to death. In fact, I hate death. To do otherwise, would be to devalue the sanctity of life. It would weaken my resolve to enjoy the only life on Earth that the Lord has given me. It would undo my professional struggle against death-causing agents and conditions. So, I do all I can to frustrate death and to prolong and maintain a good quality of life for me and for others. 


However, I am not afraid of death. It is a reality that begins its journey towards our rendezvous the moment we are born. Life is a fatal condition. Always ends in death. Sooner than we think.  The Psalmist says: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”


This should not be news to anyone, not even those who carry on as though immortal, causing pain and suffering to others, and living with purposeful recklessness. Yet, though we know that death is our inevitable destiny, we happily deny that reality in order to stay alive. 


We deny it by not dwelling on it. Pushed into the dark recesses of our brains until death strikes one of our own, triggering a temporary encounter with a truth that, within weeks, at most months, yields again to our illusion of invulnerability. That illusion sustains us even as we go through the darkness of a loved one’s death.  It enables us to be aware of our mortality without being handicapped by that reality. 


Recognizing the inevitability of death should humble us. We must live and let live. We must live with a purpose, serving and making a positive difference to others.  


We whom John has left behind should review our lives and choose how we want to live out the hours, days, weeks, months or years that remain before we join him. My choice is to live every day as though it is my last; to seek to live in peace with all; to feed my healthy passions without holding back; to tame unhealthy ones; and to make a difference, however small, to at least another one of God’s children. 


We must free ourselves of the inessential, of the mindless, fruitless and destructive quarrels that sap our energies and achieve naught. 


Knowledge of our mortality should compel us to love and forgive; to treasure and respect all lives; to do unto others as we would they do unto us; and to surrender our lives to Jesus Christ who conquered sin and death so that we may live. 


My generation is taking the final bow as, one by one, the final curtain comes down on the cast of characters that took the stage in the period between the Second World War and Man’s first landing on the Moon. John was among the youngest of our generation. Very sobering.


His body is gone from us, but John Mbire lives! As I write, I am enjoying a rewind through a life I first encountered in 1965, days after his birth to Tereza and Ponsiano Ruraara Mbire in Kabaare, Kigyezi.  I see him grow to become one of the brightest people I knew. I see him form strong friendships with people from a broad spectrum of ethnic communities, and I see his omnipresent smile, a joke and an arresting question each time I visited home.  


I also see him struggling with his illnesses, even rebelling against medical advice, exasperating all of us, especially his mother and his older brother Charles Magezi Mbire, who spared nothing and did everything to save John’s life. 


I now realise that John was not being stubborn each time he persuaded doctors in India and Washington DC to discharge him before he was fully healed. He was laughing at death, the way he laughed at life through his brief sojourn on Earth. And how he made us laugh with him! 


But now we see him in our dreams,

His beautiful wings with majesty stretched,

Like the Eagle, friend of his clan,

Soars in flight to place unknown.


The Sun has set on John, our brother,

The Stars shine bright and light his path,

The darkness hastens as we mourn

Left to wonder when it ends.


Our tears will dry,

Empty void remains,

But memories of laughter

Will ease our pain.


© Muniini K. Mulera



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