Olivia Nakidde died after being burnt by porridge at school. She was only three years old when it happened. Three months later, her parents share with Emmanuel Ngabire how they coped with her death
A washed school uniform hangs on two nails in the wall just above her bed; and the two pictures above it, one of St. Michael subduing the devil and the other of a meek-looking Jesus pointing at his heart, give the impression that we are standing on holy ground.
This is home to John Ssentudde and Ruth Kirabo, whose three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Olivia Nakidde, died on March 17 from complications related to excessive burns and poor care.
The previous Monday, Nakidde had fallen into a reportedly unattended container of hot porridge placed at the front of the classroom and left to cool at ABC Nursery School in Gayaza. By the time she managed to drag herself out of the container, she had already been severely burnt.
Ssentudde, small-bodied and frail-looking, seems like a man broken by sadness. His voice is weak and shaky, as from much weeping and he is continually wringing his hands.
By his side sits his light-skinned wife, Kirabo, carrying Oriana, Nakidde's five-month-old sister. Kirabo appears sad and subdued, but seems a little more relaxed than her husband - she smiles a bit more.
"Olivia loved her baby sister!" Kirabo reminisces, "Every morning, before going to school, she would come to her and shout in her tiny voice: 'Bye baby!' before heading out."
In one corner of their bedroom stands a new bed with a mattress still wrapped in its polythene packaging.
"I bought it for her on Saturday morning. Olivia had been sleeping on an old mattress on the floor - I wanted to cheer her up with a bed and a new mattress - I thought it would help her recover faster. That same day, at 10:00pm, she died," says Kirabo.
How the ordeal started
"A neighbour, who had gone to pick her child from school, called me and said Nakidde had been burnt by porridge. I dashed to the school and found my daughter lying down. They were trying to cool her body by pouring lots of water over her. She had been burnt mostly on her left side, and the skin on her left arm, leg and buttocks, seemed torn and hung from her scalded flesh in sickly shreds," Kirabo narrates.
To Kirabo, her daughter's fate was cruelly ironic: "Nakidde hated hot things! She could never touch the kettle, even when I assured her that it was cold; and when she was eating warm food, she would give me so much trouble. She preferred cooler options like fruits or groundnuts."
The sight of her daughter's pain was so overwhelming that Kirabo passed out. When she regained consciousness, Nakidde had been moved to the school's sick-bay and arrangements were being made by the school management to take her to a nearby health centre for further treatment - they later took her to a clinic on Gayaza road.
The doctor's assurance that the burns were not severe ignited Kirabo's hope that Nakidde would get well soon. Consequently, they took her back home after she had been bandaged - she stayed home and they usually took her back to the doctor for review and more treatment.
"Nakidde was a child like any other," says Kirabo. "She liked to play, mostly in the house because she was very neat. She also loved singing and dancing. Her favourite song was Irene Namubiru's Birowoozo. She knew most of the words in the song, and when I got it on my phone's memory card, she would ask me to play it over and over again for her," Kirabo recalls sadly.
Nakidde also loved the Pampers TV advert. She would literally jump for joy and clap her hands excitedly every time it came on. "I used to find it amusing because the baby in that advert reminded me of Nakidde when she was still a baby. She was as chubby as that Pampers baby. She weighed five kilos at birth and seven after just one week. To this day, we cannot bear to watch that advert," she says.
However, not all their memories of Nakidde are sad. Kirabo says her daughter was quiet and obedient, but she could be quite obstinate at times. "She was fond of her father and knew she could get anything out of him. When she really wanted something and I refused to give it to her, she would pout and warn me in her quiet way: 'Nze ne daddy tujja kuzaalayo mummy omulala! (daddy and I will give birth to another mummy!)' " Kirabo recalls, laughing softly.
It is plain that her father was just as fond of her. "When my daughter died, the pain was so much - I thought I was going to run mad," says Ssentudde in a low voice.
"After the burial, when we got back home, I played Birowoozo over and over again for hours. I could not stop crying," he adds, visibly distressed. His grief had been so intense that his wife had feared for him.
"For almost a week after that, he would sit alone in the bedroom and listen to that song on repeat for hours on end. I got so worried that I thought of deleting it from my phone," Kirabo says.
Meanwhile, Kirabo was dealing with her own troubles. Everything became a source of pain, especially looking out through their bedroom window. "Our bedroom window faces Nakidde's school directly. In fact, you can see her classroom from the window," Kirabo says.
"I would find myself terrified of going to the window because I did not want to see the room in which my daughter got burnt; yet something seemed to draw me towards it, especially at break time, when the children were playing. I would find myself standing at the window, tears flowing down my cheeks, searching among the playing children for Nakidde," she says in a rather shaky voice, clearly struggling to contain her mounting anguish.
For a moment, there is a loaded silence and every crawling second is heavy with bitter emotion. An unbearable sadness seems to seep out from the walls of their bare-brick house. Even the yam and sugarcane plants just outside the house seem motionless. It is Ssentudde who breaks the silence: "If it were possible, we would move from this place so that we do not have to see that school every day!"
Sadly, it does not seem possible; not soon at any rate. This is a family that cannot be mistaken for affluence - they cannot afford to shift at will.
The incomplete two-roomed house they are living in was the result of great sacrifice and hard work from Ssentudde's taxi-driving job - he did not want his young family to start out renting. On the other hand, Kirabo is a stay-home mum - they simply have to find a way to cope.
On whether they have ever sought expert help on how they can best recover from such trauma, they seem baffled and amused by the idea; Kirabo cannot help laughing. "Pay someone to talk to you? Ahaa!" she sighs, still smiling.
Fortunately, the worst seems to be over. Talking to the couple gives the impression that if things appear bad now, they were terrible before - and bad is a long climb up from terrible.
"We are coming to terms with it now. When Nakidde passed on, I talked to my mother, who also lost a child - my little sister when I was young. I wanted her to tell me what she felt then, how she managed. She told me that it gets easier with time, and that her duty towards her remaining children compelled her to be strong," Kirabo reveals.
"She told me to devote all my energy to looking after my other baby. I can still hear her words in my head, 'You should not only mourn for the child you lost, and forget the one you still have,'" she counselled me.
Their faith has also been of great help - they are born-again Christians.
"We are lucky to be believers. At least we hope to see our girl in heaven. If we were 'of this world', it would have been a lot harder to bear."
Appeal to school authorities
The couple urges schools to be more careful in ensuring safety for the children under their care.
"What happened to Nakidde should not happen to anyone else and serious punitive measures should be taken against schools that let this happen."
Safety at the school
When asked about the safety measures put in place since that gruesome case, the school's head teacher declined to comment.
However, a teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that since that incident, porridge is no longer served in class: "It is first cooled in the kitchen and then served outside the class on a raised table away from the children's reach."
Kasangati Police Station CID officer Juliet Nakabugo says two people, Robina Sensukusa, Nakidde's class teacher, and Kevin Ayeko, a caretaker at the school, have been charged with causing death by negligence.
Despite these charges, Ssentudde says: "Nothing will bring our daughter back to us. Not even victory in court. But we feel we must do it to get justice for Nakidde's sake. The people responsible should not be allowed to get away with it that easily."
For this family, the journey out of their grief is far from over, going by Kirabo's words: "This pain stays with you until you die. No matter how far away you go, it goes with you. It will only end when I join her."