It 7:30am on a cold Monday morning when a hospital cleaner greets Mr Basil Enatu.
“Ijaibiai (How are you?)?” he asks.
“Etamit, konye lolo emamei aswam na epol (I am fair, but there is no much work today),” Mr Enatu replies.
At the entrance of a tiny gate leading to the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) department of Soroti Regional Referral Hospital, a handful of people have gathered. Their faces are long, drawn and sad.
Moments later, Mr Enatu appears with gloves, a white jacket and a mask covering his nose and mouth, and enters a small building, about 10 metres away from the ENT department.
About 10 minutes later, he emerges from inside, and signals with an index finger to the handful of people, to join him.
A body of a young man that had been cleaned in this small building that is lit by rays of the morning sun, lies lifeless. The relatives have come to pick and take it for burial.
For many people, this is a strange place, yet for Mr Enatu, this is a normal working environment he reports to every day to get something to put on his table at the end of the day.
Mr Enatu has worked singlehandedly as a mortuary attendant at Soroti Hospital for the last 32 years. He also performs duties at Nakatunya Public Mortuary and Royal Funeral Homes.
“I love working on bodies because they do not complain, do not fight, are humble, and are not trouble causers,” Mr Enatu say. After all, he says, rich or poor, all are buried the same way by being lowered into the grave.
His journey to help those that are afraid of touching bodies has not been easy. Throughout his career, Mr Enatu says he has prepared hundreds of bodies.
The 57-year-old says his busiest days are towards Christmas and New Year’s Eve where accidents are rampant due to excitement. He also cites the time when there was an outbreak of Hepatitis B in Teso region saying that while on average he handles between two to five bodies a day, he used to handle on average about 40 bodies a week during the outbreak, and five to seven during festive periods.
When I tasked him to explain the number of 40 bodies further as that seems rather high, he says he would get calls from as far deep in the villages, where people would request him to help work on their dead relatives’ bodies for fear of contracting Hepatitis B, even though the person had not been confirmed to have died of the disease.
Mr Enatu says his work entails washing and dressing bodies, helping doctors to cut some body parts to take for post-mortem, and entering the victim’s records in the database.
Other duties are wheeling the bodies to the cold room for storage until relatives come to claim them, burying unclaimed bodies, treating bodies and sometimes picking the bodies of those who perished due to road accidents.
However, he says the most challenging bit for him has been burying unclaimed bodies that spend a long time in Nakatunya Mortuary.
“This is a serious problem I have endured for long because authorities at Soroti Municipal Council sometimes delay to provide gadgets and money,” he says.
Also, Mr Enatu says, many times frustrated and angry relatives make unnecessary demands like wanting him to escort them with the bodies up to their home because they are afraid of touching them.
“But despite these challenges, I take this work like any other,” he says.
When I ask him about the myths and misconceptions surrounding his work like getting nightmares, Mr Enatu says it has not happened to him because he’s a prayerful man.
“That happens if you do not put God first in whatever you do,” he says.
Away from challenges within the workplace, there are those out of the mortuary he has to deal with. Some people do not want to associate with him and keep making funny comments about his work.
“At the time when I used to drink ajono or malwa (a local brew), people would not want to share a drinking straw or calabash with me.”
“I also noticed a scenario where a vendor had to wash the tube I used for taking ajono using hot water. People do not even want to share a pot of ajono or shake hands with me,” says Mr Enatu.
“But I don’t worry about such comments, though sometimes as a human being I also have my ego.”
Born in Ogera Parish, Bugondo Sub County in Serere District, Enatu had not wished to be a mortuary attendant even though he used to bury the dead from his village.
He’s the first born out of 12 children, two girls and 10 boys, produced by Kolostika Alelo and the late John Opio. He studied up to P.4 at Bugondo Primary School and he decided to work as a casual labourer because of the problems that he was going through at that time.
He worked for Serere Research Station for five years before being laid off. He then moved to Soroti Hospital to work as a cleaner.
He remembers that it was Dr John Eedu, who was the then hospital director, who whispered to him about the availability of the vacancy of a mortuary attendant.
“Can you be able to work as a mortuary attendant?” Dr Eedu asked him, then he Mr Enatu to send his application to Ministry of Health in Kampala.
They were five people who applied from Lango, Teso, Bugisu, Sebei and Acholi.
“What helped me is that I was already working as a cleaner and I used to help relatives work on the bodies of their loved ones,” Mr Enatu says, whereby he used to roll the dead bodies to the mortuary.
“So, when my appointment letter came, I was already working at the hospital,” he said.
The interviews is constantly interrupted by phone calls from different people he later says are his relatives and others who want to confirm whether their relative has died when they hear about an accident over the radio.
Mr Enatu is blessed with 12 children – four girls and eight boys. He has three wives including Ms Hellen Apio, Ms Rose Agemo and Ms Catherine Agero. One of his former wives, Melda Apolot, however, passed on.
“My family is very encouraging to me, and they support my work. Two of his wives are in the village in Atiira Sub County, Serere District where he bought land, and one is with him at Madera.
He says very few people appreciate him, and in most cases people get close to him after they have lost a relative.
Mr Enatu has a number of certificates from mainly Soroti hospital, recognising him as the overall best worker who keeps time, and loves his work. He is also trained in disease prevention and control including that of Ebola, HIV, and Hepatitis B.
Although Mr Enatu is used to working on bodies, there have been times when he has been reduced to tears after seeing such sad and horrible scenes.
He recalls that during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels incursion into Teso in 2003, he almost broke down when he saw a very old woman that was hacked by the rebels who was brought to the hospital and died later.
“LRA war in Teso was very challenging because you could see bodies of innocent people. As a human being, you would also feel bad because most of these people end up being buried away from their ancestral homes,” he said.
Mr Enatu also says he sometimes finds it hard to console relatives of the deceased in vain. “Some people when you try to tell them that death is for all of us and they should take heart, they don’t listen, instead they wail a lot,” says Mr Enatu.
The mortuary attendant says he earns a salary of Shs200,000 every month, and that his love for humanity is what has kept him in his career.
“If I was looking at the salary, I would not have managed to work here,” he says as he puts his right hand into his pocket to pick a piece of cloth to clean his face.
Mr Enatu is dedicated to his work. It is a job that many people would shun, but which has to be done and is happy to step in those shoes.