Dear Philomena is a story of pain, suffering, torment, brokenness, stepping into a dark pit of the unknown, and, just as you are about to disappear, someone pulls you back. This someone doesn’t just appear out of the blue, they were there with you all the time. Through the pain and suffering, they held your hand, and their presence detected your final steps into that dark pit of unknowns and they were on hand to pull you back.
Imagine going through something that you are almost unable to explain, or, imagine you seeing dead people (literally). You try to explain to those around you, but either; (a) they think you have finally lost your marbles, (b) they pretend for a while that they see them too, just to humour you perhaps till they get wary of the ghost stories, (c) they hang around long enough to prove to you that you need help (except they won’t be the ones to offer you the help, but know a doctor friend of a cousin married to a sister of a guy you met 5years ago on an international flight, whose card you might or might not have but will check), (d) there at the brave ones who tell you straight away there are no such things as ghosts. But, there is that one person, she hangs around long enough to almost take on your pain, they see the dead people with you, or, for the sake of your mentality, they accept that indeed there are dead people right there in front of you and they see them too.
Dear Philomena is a testament of friendship through the good and really ugly, the sort of ugly some wish on their worst enemies. The good is there, but overshadowed by the plain ugly. You may be led to believe it is the story of a boy and a girl (we love these kinds of stories), except, it is not about that kind of boy or that kind of girl.
One could choose to read Dear Philomena from the point of the relationship between Mugabi and Philo as I fondly came to name her while reading the book. It is a long-distance relationship, the kind that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have over the phone, in Sleepless In Seattle, but without the mushy stuff. If you were to take away Mugabi’s pain, the endless visits to doctors, the frustrations, the anger, pain, behind it you witness a beautiful long-distance friendship. Though at one point you may choose to see it as a relationship, because you want to believe these two will end up together or were together at some point and one had to move away.
Through the excruciating pain, Philomena is at Mugabi’s side, though not physically, but she is there in spirit. He cannot explain his condition and neither can the doctors, but it stems from a childhood stroke he had, coupled, perhaps, with the trauma of losing his father. The strokes keep coming, he goes on a pillage (pilgrimage of all sorts of medications, traditional and conventional), through all sorts of therapy, trial experiments, sleepless nights. He, at one point, is rendered disable which surprise doctors cannot explain. He has the kind of friends who think he is making it up (including doctors), they diagnose it as being “in his head”, and recommend therapy, the list of friends dwindles down, he is not “fun” to have out with because of his phantom illness, they too grow wary.
He has those who stick around, the ones who say I am with you, I sympathise with you, I am here if you need anything. And then there is Philomena. She almost wears his pain, across the distance, she takes on a second skin, Mugabi’s skin, so she can be there with him to almost carry this cross with him, though it’s not possible.
Reading Dear Philomena, I am reminded of the value of family, and relationships that go with it, relationships with our siblings. Mugabi is living away from his native Uganda, his father is gone, his mother is back “home” and he is living in a different country with his siblings. Some people going through this might choose to return “home”, get treated by family or even taken to a pastor to pray healing into you!
Mugabi stays in the US, his siblings rally around him, especially his sister. She almost takes on the mother role, she attends the doctors’ appointments, monitors his medication, that one point she is able to advise of a medication that had previously had negative effects on her brother. While we don’t read much about Mugabi’s sister, we are left to imagine this bond held between the siblings, they lean on each other.
Reading Dear Philomena in a way makes one feel like they are doing “lugambo”, which in Luganda translates into gossip. We are in essence listening in or rather reading in on these conversations between Mugabi and Philomena, we are eavesdropping in on their communications and during the moments that we are not, the phone calls that we are only told the duration of, even these phone calls, we try to string together and let our imagination run wild. What did they talk about, are their calls interrupted, and who in this day and age has hour long conversations – think of the phone bill (regardless of the popularity of the paaka paaka or tokota business), and, seriously, didn’t we stop having these long calls back in high school?
Nevertheless, these conversations give us a further glimpse into the relationship of Philo and Mugabi, how intertwined their lives are. We are invited into their past, their history and their present, of Philomena’s journey through nursing school to qualifying. At a point, they appear to be having brother and sister conversations, this shifts to what could be perceived as “lovers in conversation”, and then friends. They fill each other in on their days, their lives, milestones, and even love lives, at least Philomena’s love life. She shares with us (with Mugabi) the dates she goes on, and her crushes. We almost want that she goes on these dates with Mugabi and not other guys because clearly they are both just meant to be. But, he never asks her, although he remains supportive. He remains a true friend ready to hear about her dating life and offer advice. We never quite know if Mugabi eventually gets the help he needs, if he gets better or is eventually put on a treatment regime that will see him get better.
The book just ends abruptly, though if it were to continue, I am not sure how the story would unfold. Would Mugabi return to Uganda to seek “alternative” treatment, would he move to the same state as Philomena, return to school, or would the doctors find out what’s “wrong” with him? A very interesting read, highly recommended.
Dear Philomena is written by Mugabi Byenkya, and published, in 2017, by Discovery Diversity Publishing. This review of it is written for Turn The Page by Laureene Ndagire. The title is available for ordering and delivery on our online bookshop and in all our points of sale in Kampala (Orangepine Reading Space and Bookpoint Uganda) for pick up.