Juliette, twenty-two years old, a life taken before her time, God rest her soul.
It was the morning of August 24th and the sun rose over Lake Victoria a beautiful ball of red fire. There’s nothing quite like a sunrise over the lake. If you happen to be sitting in the village, away from the city, all is quiet, the ground is covered in dew, the lake is gently sending in small waves and then pulling them out again. The sky is coated in different hues of blue, pink, orange, and red, and the outline of the jungle and the trees jutting up out of it make a perfect portrait for the eye to see.
Most mornings are like that in Uganda – beautiful.
It’s hard to say what she was thinking when she woke up that morning; here she was at camp having a great time hanging out with her friends, just relaxing on a holiday from work. The day ahead was full of games, study groups, and teaching sessions. She had been waiting for this camp for three months and now it was finally here.
The three boys had been swimming for about twenty minutes when they swam past the body floating in the water. It looked like she was practicing her floating or diving underneath the water to pick up things. People all around them were doing it so they just kept on their way shouting and splashing each other. Ten minutes later they came back and she was still there floating face down in the water.
One of them went over and pulled on her braids, there was no response. He pulled a little harder, still nothing. He shouted for his friends and they came over and grabbed her and started pulling her body towards the shore. People started noticing and began to shout that someone was drowning.
Breakfast that morning was tea and bread. She sat with some of her friends and talked about the day ahead. They knew there was free time later that afternoon and decided that they would go swimming.
“I haven’t been swimming in a long time, I don’t even know if I remember how.”
“Well, you really shouldn’t go in the lake if you don’t know how to swim.”
“I think I’ll be okay, I won’t go in very deep.”
They finished their tea and went their separate ways promising to meet again at lunch.
The morning session was good. The speaker taught about walking the excellent life, showing people who you really are, not by the words you say, but by your actions towards your fellow man. They sang a few songs and spent a few minutes praying, then they were told to break off to clean up their rooms and to wait for the bell before they gathered in the pavilion again.
I had fallen earlier that day while playing soccer and had sprained my ankle so I was hobbling along anywhere I went. I had been keeping a filmed documentary of the week and was walking down the hill to film the kids swimming. A boy came running up the hill shouting, “someone’s drowning, someone’s drowning! Hurry up, they need your help!”
I immediately forgot about filming and started down the hill as quickly as I could go. There was a large crowd on the shore looking out at the lake and an even bigger crowd gathered at the end of the pier. I ran out onto the pier and pushed my way through the crowd. From where I was standing I could see the three boys pulling the body as best as they could towards the shore. She was face down in the water and I started shouting, “turn over the body! She needs air!”
But everyone was shouting at that time and the boys were too far away to hear clearly anyway, so I pulled off my socks and shoes and jumped off of the pier into the water and started running out to help them.
The morning flew by quickly with the thought of free time that afternoon. Lunch was full of food and gossip, laughing and fellowship. They broke off into small groups for the afternoon according to age group and held open discussions and shared questions and thoughts about life.
Then the bell rang and game time began.
Her group was involved in an odd game of tug-of-war, but she sat underneath the tree and watched instead of playing. She wasn’t very strong and all the boys shouted if everyone didn’t try hard enough. Her team didn’t succeed in any of their attempts. The other teams were bigger and stronger, but she really didn’t care.
Someone came up and put a hand on her shoulder, “let’s go get ready for swimming.”
They ran back to their room and changed into their bathing suits.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay in the water?” her friend asked as they walked down the hill towards the lake.
“I’ll be fine, I won’t go in very deep.”
The water was cool on her toes, but the sun was shining down hot and bright, so she waded in.
The bottom of the lake was a murky mixture of sand and mud and my feet sank in a few inches as I ran out to meet the boys that were pulling the body in. I got to them and shouted to turn the body over, it was so heavy that it took all of us to flip her over. When I saw her face I was scared. I had never been so close to death before. I turned my eyes away and fixed them on the shore. We lifted her up out of the water as best as we could and started pulling her, two of us holding her arms and the other two holding her legs.
The mud became more solid as we drew closer, then it became proper sand, small stones, and then turned into grass as we carried her up onto the area overlooking the lake.
We gently laid her on the ground and by then some people had arrived to administer CPR. The boys walked away, visibly shaken and I had to walk away as well, I couldn’t bear to look at her face again.
The thought of drowning is so foreign and frightening to me that I don’t know how to even imagine what she went through as she was out there in the water. Maybe she fell and became unconscious, or perhaps she became stuck in the mud and struggled for the last few moments of her life. I tried to imagine the gasping for air, staring up through the water at the sky just a few inches away, the struggle to free herself from the mud and the panic as fear began to set in. The splashing as she swung her arms frantically and the darkness closing in around her eyes, but my mind shuts out the thoughts almost as soon as they begin.
As I stood there watching the scene, I was standing next to one of the boys I help mentor. I looked over at him and saw the tears rolling down his face. I had no words to say, so I just stood there beside him and watched as different people valiantly tried their best to resuscitate her.
They administered CPR for forty-five minutes, blowing air into her lungs and pressing her chest trying to get her heart pumping and her blood flowing. Finally, they had to give up, she was gone.
Later that evening we walked down to the pier together and sat down on the edge with our feet hanging over the water.
“God is good,” he said quietly.
“Yes he is,” I replied.
We sat for a few more minutes just listening to the gentle lapping of the waves.
“You know what,” I said, “the Bible says that life is like a vapor, here today and gone tomorrow, and I didn’t really understand that until today. She was here for twenty-two years and to everyone that knew her it seemed like a long time, like she was always here. Now she’s gone and when they look back it will seem like she was here for such a brief amount of time. In a few more years it will seem as if she was never here, everything about her will just be a memory.”
“I guess even if you live for one hundred years it would be the same way, on the big scale of things.”
“Yeah, life is short, we have to make the most of it while we’re here.”
We stood up and walked along the pier back towards the campsite, I glanced over my shoulder at the lake, the sun was just setting and its golden rays stretched across the blue sky that faded into night.
It was time to start living.