Archive for April, 2010

21
Apr
10

georges kanuma

My dear friend Georges Kanuma passed away on April 14, 2010, at age 38. These words still seem foreign and incongruous to me. Georges? Passed away? I cannot grasp that yet.

Please read a  few tributes to him here:

http://iglhrc.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/passing-of-burundian-lgbt-activist-georges-kanuma/

http://www.everyonegroup.com/EveryOne/MainPage/Entries/2010/4/19_Burundi__Message_of_condolence_for_Georges_Kanuma.html

I first encountered Georges in 2008 when my boss sent me an email with a link to a Time Magazine piece, “Helping the Hidden Community of HIV”
(http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1833962,00.html).
My boss wrote me something like, “Know this guy? Find him.” And I did.

Georges was the elder of the Burundian LGBT community, its “grandmere”, one of the few in their mid-30’s. It’s a young and dynamic community that I’ve come to know and value working with through Georges. In many ways, he was the activist we could all agree on. The first to really step forward with clear ideas, a will to organize and plain boldness. Others will do and have done a better job of talking about Georges, the gay activist. I’ll just share a few bubbles of what Georges the person was to me.

The first time I visited Georges in a hospital was months ago when he got malaria. I brought him a pizza one night and it’s one of the highlights of my time in Burundi to deliver a pizza to a hospital and share it with Georges. It had seemed like such a clumsy joke that he was in the hospital at all. It was a grand time. When I heard that Georges was in the hospital again for malaria, I kind of grinned and thought back fondly to my last visit. But it seemed more serious this time. He recovered, but the malaria had severely weakened him, I learned. When I checked in a few days later, he was still in the hospital.

Georges died of kidney failure. ‘Failure’ is an apt word. The medication failed Georges. We failed Georges. The medical care system in Burundi failed Georges. Burundi as a whole failed Georges. A gay man in central Africa fighting for human rights, in a country where a law had just passed outlawing homosexual acts. The odds were always against him. When we considered our options to find better care for him, we were not considering which hospital to send him to, we were thinking which country. Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda…

Georges always complained about my driving – 40km down a side street was enough to shock him – four elegant fingers pressed to his chest, pinkie raised slightly, chin tucked in, “Jeff!” A hint of a BBC accent, no less. But I can’t help thinking that maybe if I were there the day he died, it might have been my driving that could have saved him. When it became clear than an air evacuation was not possible, the road option remained for a short while. Maybe it would have been enough.

One of my favorite memories of Georges was when we went shopping for winter clothes at the central market so he could attend a conference Heartland Alliance was organizing in Chicago. He was terrified of the mid-March cold. So one morning he shows up at my house in a white tee and (I swear) swishy lilac track pants. I couldn’t help but stare at their catastrophic awesomeness. “What? These look great!”

It had rained that morning and as we picked our way through the mud and craters, I saw Georges hiking up his precious pants. I joked to him that he didn’t belong in Burundi. “I know!” he says and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.

In the market, Georges made some truly astonishing finds. A pink scarf (more like a boa), green mittens and my favorite, a black beanie with a huge marijuana leaf stitched on. I could already see our president’s face. I could see the email I already expected: “Jeff, why is Georges wearing a hat that promotes drug use?” and I might respond with Georges’ own answer: “But it’s so pretty and green!”

In the end we settled for something less controversial but no less awkward: a Christmas green sweater with a reindeer on it and a navy hat with a bunny stitched on. I also lent him the coat that I wore in Sweden and he managed to find some long underwear (who thought it would be a good idea to sell longjohns in central Africa?? Actually, well done!) He promised not to smoke while wearing my coat. So about a week after he left, I got a surprise phone call one evening, and it was Georges calling to say hello and to tell me that it was so warm today, he was out on the fire escape smoking and he wasn’t wearing my coat. I asked him how that was possible, mid-March and all, and he replied, actually he was freezing but he didn’t want to get my coat dirty. (My coat still returned smelling like an ashtray after an all-nighter, but now I’m sure it was other people smoking.)

It’s actually a rather mundane memory. And for that same reason, I don’t really have many photos of Georges (and none with me here in Sri Lanka). We weren’t at many official functions or conferences together. We just did normal things and no one occasion needed to be specially documented. That’s how I could tell he was an especially good friend. I just assumed he would be around and there was no urgent need to capture our mutual presence. Now that I think about it, most of the people I have been very close to are people I don’t have many photos of. I don’t know if there’s regret in that observation, but in this case, I wish I did have more images because my memories are dominated by a bed-ridden Georges in his last days as his body failed him.

I was on my way to Sri Lanka so I found out about George’s passing over the phone, at a moment when I had expected to hear he had been evacuated to Nairobi. There is a void in me from that shock that still waits for a bridge between disbelief and reality. It’s impossible to know, with certainty, that the end is coming – that’s what hope does, I think, but the goodbye, that small acknowledgement that an ending (and a beginning) is happening, that is so fundamental to my deracinement and my wandermust, and that is what I might be missing now. It is how I mark changes in my lives (sic), document those unexpected turns and find pause to articulate meaning, to seek peace. There’s a song lyric I just came across this week that sums it up well: “Ending of everything, the ending is everything.”

I still see Georges, a few weeks ago when we went dancing, more than a year ago when we first met for lunch (he had fish baked in tin foil). I still feel his hand when I grasped it the night before he passed, that blue clamminess of someone who’s been in the hospital a while – unmistakable, rubbery, cold. His stare when speech no longer obeyed him. Just a few sensations left. They keep coming back but they’ll dissolve soon enough – what’s next? I’m not sure there is anything after. I missed Georges’ funeral today. Another missed chance to say goodbye. I wonder how the next chance will arrive and what to say then. I wonder if I’ll miss it again. I wonder how to say goodbye to a friend who should have never left.

Thank you, Georges. Sorry, Georges. Let’s go dancing, Georges.

(And thank you, Felicia, for being there at the end.)