NORTHAMPTON — People find family, community and home in different ways. Mubukwanu Kakula found it on the streets.
On Wednesday morning, Kakula’s street family turned out in full force — 100 strong — to pay their respects to a man one speaker called a “cool, black, prince of the streets” at a service at First Churches on Main Street in Northampton.
Kakula died April 16 at age 39 of complications from a long struggle with alcohol.
Despite that, his wife, Elizabeth Kakula Pike, said, “He was very full of life, very full of life.”
Friends knew Kakula as “Mubu.” On Wednesday they shared stories about the pleasures he found in life — books, writing, playing basketball, reciting Shakespeare and long conversations about the meaning of life. They spoke of his demons, too.
Born in Africa, he moved to the area to attend Hampshire College, where he studied communications and creative writing. But in the end, alcoholism took him down.
“His journey on planet Earth was not an easy one,” said Brendan Plante, an outreach worker for the homeless commuity who helped Pike Kakula organize the service. “But you would never know that. He walked with pride on planet Earth. Mubu will live on in local lore. I will miss him dearly. I think we all will.”
People showed up Wednesday bearing flowers, in funeral finery, with women in dresses and shawls and men in suit jackets and ties. Light in the church sanctuary glowed orange, with morning sun coming in through stained glass windows as those arriving hugged each other in greeting and then took their places among the cushioned pews. But there was grittiness to this gathering as well, as speakers honored their friend by speaking truthfully about his life struggles as well as his joys.
Music played — aptly, the Paul Simon/Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaboration “Homeless,” with the haunting lyrics “Homeless, homeless, moonlight sleeping on the midnight lake” — while in the background a baby babbled, and Kakula’s friends teared up.
Plante, who has been working with the local homeless community for about 15 years, said it was Kakula who talked to him about 10 years ago about developing a way to honor homeless people when they die.
“They pass and they’re whisked away outside the area and no one in the homeless community has an opportunity to grieve or mourn this person,” Plante said in an interview before the service began. “Mubu was a well-respected person in the homeless community, so we get together — it’s the community pulling together.”
In the case of Kakula, he said, it was important for people to come together to honor someone they looked up to.
“He was a very, very smart man, very well-respected, and a very compassionate man,” said Plante.
And because it takes time for word to spread among the homeless community, the services tend to be held about a month after the death. They are always different. Sometimes they are in a church, and sometimes they are a small number of people gathered in a circle, sharing stories about the person who died — “much as a family would at a gathering,” said Plante.
The stories told at Kakula’s service were heartfelt, alternately provoking laughter or tears.
Brenna Totty, of Easthampton, said Kakula was the first person she met when she arrived in Northampton from Oklahoma in 2012 and initially stayed at a Northampton shelter.
She said Kakula introduced himself, and said in a formal cadence he was well known for, “Pardon me, but might I have permission to fall in love with you?”
This story brought lively laughter, particularly from the women in the pews, which prompted Totty to say, “I know I’m not the only woman he said that to, but right then I felt instantly at ease.”
She recalled other times when he would ask passers-by for money — also in a formal way that would take them aback, saying, “Pardon me, but might I impede your progress to ask you for a quarter?”
And while she remembered lighter moments, she said she feels his absence acutely every day.
“It’s such a loss to lose such a brilliant mind,” said Totty. “He left me in awe of his intellect.”
Totty, no longer homeless, said like Kakula, she found a sense of home with the people on the streets. “The homeless community became this extended family that was more family than my own family,” she said — and she knew Kakula felt similarly.
She said they called each other a brother and sister who had different mothers.
Another speaker also said Kakula was like a “little brother” to her, and yet another speaker said he was like a son to her.
Claudia Phillips said Kakula was the same age as her own daughter, and she would often warn him that she was about to speak to him as a mother might.
“I know this is supposed to be a celebration, but I admit it is with a heavy heart that I stand here,” Phillips said. “Mubu was a sweet and gentle man and there wasn’t a mean bone in his body.”
She said they loved to discuss books, and swap books and recommend books to each other. She said he was a prolific writer, but he had a habit of losing the notebooks he wrote in. She said he loved playing basketball and running, and he tried to incorporate health into his life, though, she suggested, that wasn’t easy.
“Once Mubu passed a note under my door that said, ‘please don’t give up on me,’” Phillips said. “If you are out there, Mubu, I want you to know I never gave up on you.”
Patrick O’Brien said he first met Kakula at a shelter about a year and a half ago, but got to know him better as they connected out in the parks or on the streets. He described a man who was a character with a sense of humor and zest for life that compelled him to reach out to people.
“When pretty women walked by, he would say, ‘Hello, I am Mubu, how are you,” said O’Brien, with dramatic emphasis on HELLO and MUBU. “And if a really pretty woman walked by, he would say, ‘I am PRINCE Mubu from AFRICA, how are you?’ ”
He said he often asked Kakula why he drank so much, but for all his warmth and openness, he was a private person about his struggles, and would answer with vague references to “things that happened” in his past.
“The man had class — funny thing about class, class doesn’t mean having money, it doesn’t mean having education, it means having manners and treating people the way you want to be treated,” said O’Brien. “He was a classy, classy man.”
Amherst Regional High School senior Jake Lopez met Kakula on the bus he took between his Amherst home and his Northampton job at the Spare Time bowling alley. Kakula also often traveled between Amherst and Northampton, and the two would sit together in the back of the bus, engaging in long talks.
“He liked long talks, that’s obvious,” said Lopez. “Short talks were cheap to him.”
One man, who gave his name only as Pyro, said he often shared vodka with Kakula in Pulaski Park or on a downtown street bench, sometimes with one or the other of them “shaking like a leaf” because they needed a drink so badly.
“Me and Mubu were kindred spirits from the day we met. We talked about everything right off the bat — girls, lack of girls, philosophy, life, health,” he said. “He touched my heart. He touched my soul.”
Conventional wisdom might hold that someone who lives on the streets has no family close by, but that’s not true and it wasn’t true for Kakula.
He had been married to Elizabeth Kakula Pike for two years. She has an apartment on King Street. She said because she is disabled with Crohn’s disease, the conditions of her lease don’t permit a roommate, even a husband, so their arrangement was that her husband would stay with her 14 days out of the month, and go to a shelter for the rest of the time.
Pike said her husband tried many times to quit drinking, and he had some success when he did so. But in the end, recovery eluded him. She was with him when he died, she said, and it was during a period where he was trying to quit. She believes he reduced his alcohol consumption too quickly, which led to seizures and cardiac arrest.
“He wouldn’t go to detox. He wanted to do it his way,” she said.
Mubu Kakula was born Dec. 6, 1974, in Lusaka, Zambia. His wife and friends are now trying to raise the money to send him back to Africa so he can be buried next to his father, which Pike says he would want because he was close with his father.
A web page created where people can donate money to help pay the costs of sending his body back to Africa is at:http://bit.ly/1stB53g