Sam Owori’s final journey An evocative and heart-rending account of a much-loved senior Rotary International leader’s burial ceremony.

It was past six in the evening on Friday, July 28, when we drove into a little village in the town of Tororo in Uganda. Having landed at the Entebbe airport, the drive from Kampala to here was about four hours. The Ugandan Rotarians had kindly arranged a police escort for us which expedited the journey from Kampala to Tororo on the busy road — the main East African route from Kenya to Congo through Uganda. The drive was not without incident, for we were involved in a multi-car accident, but were fortunately only shaken, and no one was seriously hurt.

Tributes pour in from Rotary clubs.
Tributes pour in from Rotary clubs.

We pass Tororo and a few minutes later, Past RI President Rajendra Saboo and I arrive at the Owori home in the village of Kidera. Maybe, I should say the Owori homestead, because in reality it was a large compound where his father and other members of his family had also lived and grown up. Sam had 14 siblings.

Sam and Norah had just built their new home; a home where Sam had never lived. He and Norah probably planned it for their retirement. But now, as fate decrees and destiny has decided, it is the place where he will rest temporarily before being taken on his last journey to his final resting place.

As we walk up the driveway to the house, there are many people milling around both inside and outside. The mood is expectedly sombre and subdued. The grief hangs thick in the air.

Norah shares with us the pain of those final moments — an elective, non-threatening, relatively minor surgery. Many in her position would ask: ‘Why?’ She only says, “That’s what HE above willed.”

Inside the house, the men are seated in the enclosed verandah, while the women are inside, much like in our own culture. The body is laid out in a closed casket in the centre of the drawing room, draped in both the Uganda and Rotary flags. We shake our heads in a gentle negative gesture when they attempt to open the casket in order to enable us to view the body. We want to remember our friend as we knew him; the smiling face, always serene, calm and reassuring. We sit with Norah. She is brave in her solitude and strong in her fortitude. She looks tired and her eyes look exhausted as if the tears had dried. She has been almost a week alongside the mortal remains of a person who was the love of her life for decades.

She shares with us the pain of those final moments — an elective, non-threatening, relatively minor surgery in a Dallas, Texas, hospital, from which these unexpectedly fatal complications would arise. Many in her position would ask: ‘Why?’ She only says, “That’s what HE above willed.”

The casket being brought in for the final ceremony.
The casket being brought in for the final ceremony.

We can see arrangements aplenty going on outside for the following day’s funeral. As darkness falls, we leave for our modest hotel about 20 minutes away.

It’s Saturday, July 29. We arrive just before the casket containing Sam’s body is brought out from his home. Soldiers carry it from the house to the large compound outside, where a special canopy has been erected to hold the casket on a raised stand. Spread around are marquees, with seating on all four sides, with prominent signs put up to indicate that these are reserved for State guests, Rotary VIPs, relatives, villagers, etc. It is rather like a small cricket pitch with all the spectators outside the boundary lines. The grounds are filled.

We want to remember our friend as we knew him; the smiling face, always serene, calm and reassuring.

Norah is in a full length white dress, holding herself with dignity and poise. Their sons Adrin, Bonny and Daniel, sit around her. The guard of honour of six stands at attention on either side of the closed casket.

Many dignitaries are present including Ministers; so are a large throng of people from the villages around. Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, had attended the ceremony in Parliament and sent a representative to the previous day’s ceremony in Kampala, where Sam’s body lay in state at the nation’s Parliament. Earlier, the President of Uganda had spoken to Norah on the phone in Dallas, as soon as he heard about the tragic death of Sam.

PRIPs Rajendra K Saboo and K R Ravindran at the funeral.
PRIPs Rajendra K Saboo and K R Ravindran at the funeral.

Past President Raja remarks that even in death Sam had brought glory to Rotary.

RI Vice President Dean Rohrs had also been present in Kampala both at the Parliament and at the church service at the All Saints Nakasero, Kampala.

As the master of ceremonies announced our names, we walk up to lay a wreath of lilies and roses atop the casket. There are hymns and many speeches thereafter. The King of the region, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Bishop, the DG, Past President Raja and myself… we all speak. PRIP Raja’s speech is full of emotion and sentiment. He speaks of his long relationship with Sam and the incidents which had touched him. He expresses that we were there because we felt compelled to be present as a tribute to this fallen friend, a great leader and not because Rotary wanted us to go.

Past President Raja remarks that even in death Sam had brought glory to Rotary.

Without exception, every speaker including the regional King, the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers, and the Bishops, while praising Sam, refer to Rotary in glowing words for what the organisation has been and what it is doing for a better world. African Rotarians and their Rotary leaders put up a brave front, but the anguish and the torment and the feeling “we are left alone”, is writ large on their faces.

And then it is time to make that last journey to Sam’s final resting place.

Norah Owori with family members.
Norah Owori with family members.

We precede the hearse, walking in slow and measured steps and arrive at the graveside a little distance away from his father’s abode. The large crowd’s behaviour is disciplined and dignified. At all times, decorum is maintained. The casket is carried from the hearse to the grave by the soldiers and placed atop the mechanical strapping, which at the appropriate time would lower the casket to the bottom of the grave.

Surrounding the grave are six soldiers — three on either side, who prepare to give a six-shot gun salute to the departed leader. Norah and the children, close friends, VIPs and some of us, stand alongside with the large crowd gathering behind. Guests bow their heads and one can hear the stifled sound of sobs. The soldiers synchronise the gun shots.

Raja-Ravi
PRIP Rajendra K Saboo pays tribute to RIPE Sam Owori.

The pastor says a prayer, a hymn is sung and the flags atop the casket are removed. It is time to bid adieu to Sam and the device gently lowers the casket to the floor of the grave. We strew the rose petals atop the casket. Dust returning to dust — Sam Frobisher Owori, President Elect of Rotary International, is laid to rest.

Genesis 3:19. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

As we turn away from the grave to depart for home I think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the words: “Goodnight, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The writer is a Past RI President.

Pictures by Ibrahim Bagalana, a Rotaractor from Uganda.

5 comments on “Sam Owori’s final journey

  • Aug 29 2017 at 11:20 am
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    Yes, a fallen prince and a great friend but still alive in our minds. Farewell, Sam.

    • Rotary Club : Masaka
    Reply
  • Aug 29 2017 at 1:52 pm
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    Rest with the angels, our dear leader. It will take years, if ever, to fill the gap you left. But Rotary shall be well, for you set a path hard to ignore.

    • Rotary Club : Muyenga
    Reply
  • Aug 29 2017 at 5:10 pm
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    Sam was an amazing Rotarian who inspired all of us to serve. His dream of increasing the Rotary membership must be implemented by all of us!
    RIP Sam

    • Rotary Club : Masaka
    Reply
  • Aug 29 2017 at 6:41 pm
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    Sam was a polished Rotary leader and an inspirational Rotarian. May his gentle soul rest in eternal peace.

    • Rotary Club : Source of the Nile.
    Reply
  • Aug 29 2017 at 8:50 pm
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    Even in the darkest night Sam shall always be visible! Rest in peace our beloved hero.

    • Rotary Club : Rotary club of Jinja Uganda
    Reply

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