Dr. Margaret Mungherera, dead at 59. Hard to write that. Last time I met her, Margaret was so full of life, so full of that energy that always uplifted us even when things appeared dark.
She came to us, like a bright meteorite in the dark African sky, here but a moment, an impact event, before disappearing into the great sea.
Now gone forever, in eternal dreamless sleep, her voice stilled, her smile frozen in our memories, but very much alive through the lives and systems she impacted in her very short life.
We were kindred spirits – medical doctors who were not afraid to shed our professional attire and get down into the muddy ring of politics to fight for positive change. And how she fought with valor and singular focus!
I am alive to the questions that must have occupied Margaret’s mind in an Indian hospital, an ocean away from home.
Margaret must have been anguished by her need to seek help in India for a cancer that was once treatable in Uganda. The realization that, after many years of leading the struggle for improved health care at home, the people in power had not listened to her must have been a pain that could not be relieved by even the most potent medicines.
Perhaps she remembered that while some Ugandan professionals received generous presidential handshakes for doing their jobs, she had devoted over 30 years to her country’s health care service in exchange for a pittance that passed for remuneration.
As usual, she must have thought of the junior doctors who were barely surviving on even less, and many others who had left the country in search of job satisfaction and fair wages.
This exploitation of physicians, together with very inadequate facilities, had undermined what was once a fine medical service.
Margaret spent years struggling to get this simple point across to those with the power to reverse the sick state of the country’s health services.
Naturally, her country’s rulers ignored her, even as the international medical fraternity celebrated her for her outstanding leadership and advocacy skills.
Now the very people that have been stone deaf to her cries on behalf of all citizens, will probably issue the most eloquent tributes and eulogies to this great woman. Why, they may even offer monetary contributions towards her burial costs, before returning to their business of taking care of themselves.
However, we must not despair. We must not give up. Today, we say special prayers for Margaret’s family, whose pain and sorrow is unfathomable to us.
Tomorrow, we must say special prayers for our country and its rulers, that we may have the collective courage to change course.
There is something wrong with a country where the speaker of parliament wants a helicopter, even when the country’s health facilities are dysfunctional because they lack basic resources.
For example, there is no working X-ray machine at Kabale Regional Referral Hospital. The operating theatre at Mparo Health Centre IV, commissioned by President Yoweri Museveni on November 24, 2003, is not in use because it lacks the necessary electricity to power its machines. The cost of connecting the Health Centre to the electric grid is less than $10,000.
No doubt there are similar, even worse, examples in places like Busoga and Acholi, the home areas of the parliamentary speaker and her deputy who are eager to fly in publicly funded helicopters.
There is a problem when the Church of Uganda mounts a major fundraiser for a former archbishop that has already been flown to the United Kingdom for surgery that could have been done at Mengo or Kisiizi Hospitals (both church-owned facilities) if they were appropriately resourced to serve hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Something is amiss when millions of dollars are spent on self-congratulatory celebrations of various “victory days” even as the citizens succumb to treatable ailments.
Words fail us as we watch a small section of the political elite and their cronies living first-world lives on the backs of the majority, their travel bags at the ready should they detect symptoms of illness.
However, all is not lost. Perhaps Margaret’s death will awaken the rulers to the reality that they have failed their subjects.
Margaret was a great person in every sense, one whom I admired and deeply respected, because she lived for a cause, not just for herself. Margaret was the classic “whole physician”, a believer in tackling the basic causes of disease, not just the symptoms.
To her the answer to our sick health care system began with investing in the health care workers and the public health facilities for all citizens. It is a fundamental principle of effective health care reform.
With her death, our struggle for healthcare reform in Uganda is bereft of one of our finest soldiers. But in the spirit of Gayaza High School, Margaret’s alma mater, we must Never Give Up.
May those doctors and other citizens who have imbibed Margaret’s message pick up her baton and push her agenda forward.