Recently, Uganda lost an incredible man. Reverend Canon Ephraim Gensi died after a 2 year battle with cancer.
It still came as a shock, despite him being sick. Maybe because Ephraim was larger than life – everything about him seemed a little extravagant, impressive, super-sized.
His commitment to his faith
His love of his family
His fascination with new ideas
So I don’t think I can quite believe that life was actually able to leave him…
When I try to conjure him up in memory, all I can think of is him saying some cheeky remark or another to tease (normally about my marriage, or my lack of lots of children), and then laughing at my response.
Ephraim knew how to have fun.
It was one of the things I loved best about being around him. He was so jubilant. He didn’t let me (or anyone!) take life too seriously, which I have a tendency to do.
I’m not quite sure what I want to say to the wider world about the fact that he is gone, or why I need to write this in a blog. But I do.
Perhaps, most importantly, I write to acknowledge what an incredible influence he was on our life. I want for him to get as much of the accolades as he deserves, for Michael’s and my life’s direction and our work in Uganda.
In all honesty, without him, I’m not sure we would be living here.
Michael met Ephraim in January 2003. They immediately clicked and formed an unexpected friendship. Michael’s next trip a year later, Michael stayed in Ephraim’s house with his family and shared his vision (then as a young medical student) about a hospital he wanted to begin in Uganda. Ephraim was immediately supportive.
Years later in 2008, I had started dating Michael and was living in Uganda for 6 months, on my own. I stayed with the Gensi’s when I first arrived for a week. One of my earliest memories is of Ephraim doing what he always does – listening to the challenge I was facing, and then taking charge and coming up with a solution. In my first 6 months in Uganda, I was staying with a host family an hour away, and had had some ‘difficulties’ with the family. I remember, after Ephraim heard about it from Pete (his son, who I had been complaining to) he asked me to come out on the front porch, and asked me ‘Now, what is the problem I am hearing with your living arrangements?’. He listened intensely while I explained, and then started in his typical way ‘Now, this is what we are going to do…’ as if it was his problem all along and not that of a 20-something volunteer he had just met who was crashing at his house. From then on, I spent most of my weekends at their place.
There are hundreds of people who have worked with us along the way to make Maranatha Health possible, both in Australia and Uganda. But it is only our own parents, a few close friends, and Ephraim and Margaret who have worked selflessly since day one to support our crazy ideals and the monumentally challenging reality of Maranatha Health, without ever asking for anything in return.
Since moving to Uganda in 2011, Ephraim and his wife Margaret (and their four -now grown up- kids) have provided us with a much needed family to be a part of. Anytime we were in Kampala, it was taken for granted that we stayed with them. That sense of belonging, when in a foreign culture, has been a wonderful gift to us.
The last 5 years has not been a walk in the park. In so many ways living here has been a lonely journey. Most of our Ugandan and Australian friends, while extremely supportive, cannot comprehend the day-to-day differences between our life here and our life back home in Australia.
But Ephraim understood. As the chairperson of MH and as our father, as someone who is incredibly Ugandan but understands western culture immensely from years of living outside the country, he has been there every step of the way – offering us wisdom, a sympathetic ear, his expertise, thousands of phone calls, his presence at dozens of meetings… all because he believed in us. We have often taken refuge at the Gensi’s house when things have been tough – the family listening to our rants, providing sympathetic sighs, and offering personal contacts and any help they could offer. Ephraim has always been at the forefront of this.
Ephraim, over the past 3 or 4 years, had spoken a lot to us about the importance he increasingly placed on leaving a good legacy, and of choosing to spend his life doing things with a higher purpose. His life, and his burial, certainly reflected this.
Ugandan burials are almost the polar opposite of Australian funerals. They often last all day (sometimes longer), and the person is almost always buried at their village home. Many people come and there is normally a big meal after the proceedings. For days after family and friends visit the immediate family to offer their condolences and spend time with the family, often sleeping at the house, bringing food, and grieving together. People came from all over the country to bury Ephraim. It was incredible. Over and over again as I walked around afterwards, I bumped into friends that I had met at Ephraim and Margaret’s house over the years. Almost all have a story to tell about Ephraim and Margarets’s generosity. Either they had been given a place to stay for a few days, a month, a year; Ephraim had found them a job; they had been sponsored through school; or had been counselled and given a shoulder to cry on when life was tough.
The reality that Ephraim was actually gone hit me as we arrived at the burial proceedings. We were an hour late, after 6 hours of driving and getting lost on terrible, potholed, dirt roads. There were thousands of people sitting and standing on the large grassy yard at Ephraim’s village home, spilling out from under large white tents up to the hedges behind. In the throngs of people, the loudspeaker booming speeches of Ephraim’s life, and a man greeting us and leading us to the centre and to the sad faces of Margaret, Peter, Caleb Esther and Rachel;…my heart beat sped up and I realized with a panic that mzee* is really gone. He won’t be coming back. It took all my strength not to fall in a sobbing mess – a response that would’ve looked extremely out-of-place in this culture. Instead I squeezed hands and patted backs and cried quiet tears for the mzee we all loved and took my seat next to them in the family tent, trying to focus on the ceremony. The finality of death struck me – as if someone had slapped my face – and for the first time I realized that I really wouldn’t hear his laugh again. I wouldn’t get to ask him for any more advice. There would be no more philosophical discussions, and no more opportunity to thank him for all he has done for us. It was time to say goodbye.
So because I must – farewell Mzee. We will miss you tremendously. Words are not enough to express all you have been for Michael and I, and this world seems a lot bigger and scarier without you here for guidance and laughter. Thank God for you. Maranatha.
Mzee – ‘old man, father,’ in many Bantu langauges.