Drumming for the Pope

By Julia C. Spring

At the far end of Kololo Field, on a stage sheltered from the tropical sun by wings of canvas, I spied a red dot. “Look there!” I told Phyllis, “just to the left of that post.”

Pope Paul VI was conducting mass in 1969 at this Kampala, Uganda, sports field where people gathered on national holidays for air shows and long speeches. The huge crowd was going wild, singing, ululating and praying in shouts. Tribal drums contributed high staccato sounds. The amplified mass was drowned out, even near the loudspeakers.

Everyone was dressed up: long brilliant cotton dresses with contrasting sashes, men’s shirts with the Pope’s face. Celebratory banners were flying along with Ugandan flags in yellow, black and red.

It very hot in the field. We couldn’t get any closer to the Pope, so we edged our way through the ecstatic sweaty throng. People let us through while barely noticing us.

Phyllis and I expected the usual Kampala Road activity because many shopkeepers were Hindus, but they too had taken advantage of this extra holiday. The sidewalk with its white overhang swallowed up our sandals’ soft slaps.

Our goal was the Mona Lisa Cafe, owned by Ismaili Muslims. As we entered, we were confronted by large black and white photographs of their spiritual leader the Aga Khan, Uganda’s President Obote, and the Mona Lisa herself. We usually brought lunch to Butabika, the psychiatric hospital where we were volunteer social workers, so it was a treat to be in a restaurant on a weekday. I ordered chicken tikka; I hadn’t eaten Indian food before Uganda and loved it though it made my eyes water.

Laughing because we, Jew and Protestant, had actually seen the Pope in East Africa, Phyllis and I rehashed the elaborate preparations for his visit. In addition to the huge platform and tent, there was massive street clean-up, banner-hanging, patching up construction eyesores on the papal route. There was people clean-up too: regular sweeps to remove beggars, the ragged and the deviant. Anyone appearing remotely mentally ill had been deposited in the Butabika admissions wards.

We talked about Dr. Wood, a Scots psychiatrist with whom we worked. He had hoped that multiple self-described Popes or Marys would wind up at Butabika, and checked admissions daily. He told us of a study where three psychiatric patients, each sure he was Jesus, were put on one American hospital ward to see how they interacted. Each maintained his delusion that he was Christ, the others impostors.

Dr. Wood wanted to replicate this with Popes and was disappointed when he couldn’t. Phyllis and I laughed gently about him but we were disappointed, too.

Tomorrow was a work day, so when rain started bouncing off the pavement we ran for the bus, crowded with Ugandans talking excitedly in multiple languages. Its metal roof crackled with the day’s tropical downpour, sounding just like the staccato drumming for the Pope.

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Julia C. Spring is a lawyer/social worker specializing in mental health and adult guardianship law, teaching many students in both fields. When her professional writing became more personal, she began to write short memoir pieces. A number have published in Hospital Drive, Corn Belt Almanac, Red Fez, Persimmon Tree and other journals.

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