When members of the Makerere Medical School Class of 1977 gather in Kampala during the weekend of November 10-12 for a greatly anticipated reunion, it will be the first time that the majority will have seen each other in 40 years. That is a very long time, of course, yet the memories of our trials and triumphs are vivid.
It was perhaps the most challenging five years in the lives of most of us. We joined the Medical School at a time of transition and uncertainty. The first military regime was settling into its unpredictable routine. Our individual and collective trauma came fast and furious.
The expulsion of Ugandan-Asians, among them our classmates, followed by a military invasion by Tanzania-based exiles, then public executions of alleged guerrillas, military coup attempts, multiple murders, disappearances and incarcerations of citizens, all manner of human rights abuses and a progressively worsening economic milieu were enough to unhinge students.
Days before the final year examinations in February 1977, the archbishop of the Church of Uganda and two cabinet ministers were murdered by Field Marshall Idi Amin’s soldiers. Without the benefit of trauma or grief counselling, we took the written and oral examinations in a state of great anxiety and depression for some. Our graduation on March 18, 1977 marked remarkable triumph despite adversity.
It was also easily the most important period of our formative years. We read extensively, entering a new world of knowledge that opened the human body to us, erasing its mystery, but revealing its complexity. We made intimate friends with strangers – Cunningham, Guyton, Hutchison, Hutchinson, Donald, Nelson, Bailey & Love, Cecil & Loeb, Simpson and others – classic textbooks that, in my view, remain unsurpassed in their impact on my journey in medicine.
And so we gained knowledge and skills that formed the foundation of the service we have rendered to humanity during the last four decades. For me, it marked the broadest extent of medical knowledge that I would ever have.
It is this positive experience that will be at the centre of the deliberations by those who will be at the reunion, not just as an opportunity to walk down memory lane, but to reflect on our collective role as we embark on the next phase of our careers.
It will also be an opportunity to express our gratitude to our teachers whose outstanding work prepared us very well. We stand on the shoulders of giants. It will be an honour to share a moment with those men and women, some of whom are still at it, teaching, healing and mentoring the next generation of doctors.
We shall honour our brothers and sisters who have died, including Liri Amone Abongomera, Livingstone Byarugaba, Naphtali Ebamu, Justus Katungu, Christopher Kayonga, Charles Matovu, Godfrey Barbosa Ndimbirwe, Brent Nduhuura and Augustine Nnywevu-Kasenge.
Of course, the reunion will also provide an opportunity to catch up on each other’s journeys and to celebrate life. We are scattered in distant stations – Australia, Botswana, Canada, Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, United States of America and South Africa. We are present in nearly all the specialties of medicine and surgery. But we remain united by the shared experience that, I suspect, most of us would gladly repeat.
Our reunion takes place at a time of physician discontent in Uganda. It is also a time when the fundamental causes and perpetuators of disease remain the same as they were 40 years ago. Yes, the dizzying advances in science and practice of medicine and surgery have been extraordinary since we left medical school. However, poverty, unbalanced sharing of limited public resources, poor education, social, cultural and political injustice are the same enemies that we confronted as students.
In my view, our great responsibility as doctors remains the same as it has always been – to be strong and fearless advocates for the voiceless and vulnerable. We uphold the definition of health in its totality, namely, a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not just the absence of disease or infirmity. We must therefore continue to go beyond the stethoscope and the other tools in our diagnostic armoury, and intensify our engagement in the political and economic conversation, for these are more critical than the struggle against bacteria and cancer cells.
Doctors remain significant and indispensable leaders of the health care team. They must be recognized as such and accorded working conditions that enable them to discharge their responsibilities without the distractions of survival.
While we recognise Uganda’s economic challenges, it is unconscionable that doctors continue to be overworked, undervalued and underpaid. I know that most of my colleagues from the Class of ’77 support the struggle in which our younger colleagues are engaged.
It is our hope that the government will meet its obligation to the public through providing doctors with a conducive environment that will enable them to continue to serve. Many of us are happy to share free advice and support based on our varied experience in different jurisdictions.
While planning the reunion has been a collective effort by several members of the Class of ’77, the bulk of the work has been done by Dr. Christina Mugwanya Kadama and Dr. Jane Nannono Kavuma-Kayonga. On behalf of all, I say thank you ladies. It will be a great pleasure to see everyone, for we are yet alive! For a purpose.