A friend of mine bought an old house in Fitchburg, Massachusetts last year. Inside one of the walls as if for insulation, was an old magazine, a publication called “The African Missions of the White Fathers,” which lists an address of 37 Ramparts Street, Quebec. This particular issue is dated 100 years ago: “First Year. No. 3.—March,.1909.”
Inside the periodical, and now shown below, is a letter sent from Uganda a year earlier than its publication. It is not poetry, but I offer it for Thanksgiving Day from here in New England. Yet, isn’t it more a letter to us from a brother? And instead of talking about our grandfathers, isn’t he still talking about our children? You’ll see what I mean. I hope you enjoy it. This grandfather/grandchild identity reminds me of, and for me, gives new meaning to the song, “I’m My Own Grandpa” written by Dwight Latham & Moe Jaffe in the 1940s. Below the article is a YouTube presentation of that song, sung by Willie Nelson. Aren’t we all one big family across time?
Happy Thanksgiving, wherever and whenever you are.
A Sunday Holiday of Fifty Negro Boys
A letter from Rev. Father Eug. Déry to his youthful brother.
Mitala-Mariya, March 10, 1908
I am sure that at your age a holiday is much more pleasant than the few hours spent in the class room. Let me then have the pleasure of relating to you some incidents of the long walk which my school boys enjoyed the day before yesterday. This picnic had been promised sometime ago, but had to be postponed on account of unsuitable weather.
The long wished for day was finally fixed for the 7th. of this month. I noticed that three or four days previous to this day, our boys attended school more assiduously, behaved somewhat better, and would work as never they did before. Fancy, what a pity it would be, should any of these dear boys be prevented from enjoying so delightful an acting !
In the morning of the 6th. I sent one of the eldest boys to the chief of the Province, to ask him if he could give us lodging and board till the next day, a Sunday. Kaima—that chief’s native name—informed me that he should be delighted to give us hospitality, and that he had ordered his people to prepare meat (!!…) and mashed bananas for their guests.
We started on Saturday evening. The head of the file comprises a drummer and two flute players ; behind these is your brother, followed by his fifty urchins : such are the rules of etiquette here in Uganda, when any great man travels (and the Fathers are great men here).
I forgot to mention a concertina. The awful noise they made with it ! They are better drummers. Our drum is a Feast Drum, the evening drum for singers and dancers. They beat it with their hands, very softly and rhythmically, indeed. Uganda flutes are simple reeds with four holes. The natives do wonders with such poor instruments.
Whilst our musicians beat the drums, play the flutes and tease the poor concertina, the other boys sing songs and hymns.
After three hours’ walk—nothing at all for a Uganda party—the runners from Kaima arrive two by two.
“Kaima sends us to see you (atutumye okukulaba i)”
“Well, how is he (Ao, atya) ?”
“He is seated, all goes on well (Gye ali, atudde).”
And while I receive Kaima’s messengers, he receives mine, hears the same greetings and answers in like manner. It is a point of honor for a Muganda messenger to repeat exactly what he has been ordered to say, and to do it quick. Therefore they must run hard, sweat, puff and blow till they reach those to whom they have been sent.
At length, Kaima himself is seen coming slowly with his drummers and flute players, and followed by hundreds of attendants and other subordinates. There then rises a deafening uproar ! On each side the drums sound as thunder. You must know that all the petty chiefs who accompany Kaima, have their drums, and that each drum is beaten in a different way according to the degree of the chief who owns it. Now all the people on both sides shriek and shout until the two parties meet, and even somewhat longer, noise being a sign of joy.
Having arrived in the middle of Kaima’s people, every one made it a point of duty to congratulate me on my happy journey ; and Kaima, for the honor of having such a guest. Meanwhile we reached Kaima’s chapel, which we entered to thank God by a public recitation of the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary” and the “Glory be to the Father.”
The boys were next shown into a large reed house whilst I was introduced by Kaima himself into his own Palace. I should like to give you a description of this palace ; but it would require too much space. An idea, however : here is the chief’s own hut ; there the cots of his attendants ; on the right side, a kitchen ; on the left, a large hall for the chiefs of the Province to meet, each Monday ; a little farther, a similar hall for strangers. All this is surrounded by a reed hedge, with a number of inner hedges, the object of which is to separate one dwelling from another ; a real labyrinth !
Kaima is one of our first and most faithful Christians, and has been through every persecution. He was the kings’ great gunsmith. Like all the high-bred Uganda chiefs, he has cut more than one ear, and killed many a man. But since his conversion to our Holy Faith, he has become very kind and engaging.
Do you remember the spectacles I asked you for ? They were for Kaima.
The fact that my boys had heard before me, at our arrival, that an ox had been killed for us, was a subject of great joy and, mark well, they made it no secret.
The following morning, before sunrise, every body was up. Sunday, was a great day for Kaima, because a High Mass was to be sung for the first time in his chapel ! In fact, even low Masses are seldom said in that place, being too far from the Mission. But could the whole Mitala school spend Sunday at Kaima’s and have no High Mass ? I should not be able to express the joy Kaima and his people felt.
After the service, a long program of sports. The Blacks are so fond of sport ! Foot races, trotting matches, wrestling, etc. etc.
Now and then Kaima would leave us and go to inspect the kitchen work. When all was ready, he himself gave orders for the distribution of the food. Seated in the armchair, a large basket of meat was brought before him. A tremendous business to perform, and a most important one too, on account of the number of guests to serve. Every one must say before he leaves the place : What a dinner I have had ! I have never eaten as I did to-day !
A whole leg of beef was portioned for the Priest, the Mukuru, your brother ; for his school boys, another leg ; for the chiefs, a shoulder ; for the village boys, the second shoulder ; and the remains for the Chief’s own household. Nothing is lost, not even the bowels.
To all this meat Kaima added numberless baskets of Matoke (mashed bananas).
The sports were suspended and our people served from baskets. No plates, nor knives, nor forks were used. Every one ate well, having found the Mmere (food) delicious.
Soon after, the sports were resumed. The first item of the new program was a rope tied to two trees ; to which, pieces of string with meat for the skilful to catch and eat. The boys were placed under these baits and had to jump and catch them with their teeth. Try to do that, Maurice, and tell me if it is an easy feat to do. Of course, some were successful ; but what faces they made ! It was enough to make you die of laughter.
Towards evening, by torch-light we proceeded to Kaima’s mansion to thank him for his very kind hospitality. Drums, flutes, voices and…concertina sounded in praise of that great chief’s liberality. Now and then I expressed my gratitude to him according to the custom of the country : “How well you have cooked ! Many thanks : Ofumbye nno webale!” Or again : “My boys have eaten exceedingly well: bakkuse” And though relishing the compliments lavished upon him, he seemed not to have heard me in order that I might repeat the tickling address.
We took leave early on Monday morning. According to the custom of the country, a great number of Kaima’s servants accompanied us till we reached the Mission, and remained for some hours with us.
You may well understand what a remembrance my boys will have of their visit to Kaima. One will tell his friends that he was fed there with meat ; another that he got a double ration …I not less than they shall remember that picnic ; “Johanna, if you do not work better, we shall go to Kaima’s without you ! …”
Eugène Déry, W. F.