Odonga B&W
Prof. Alexander Mwa Odonga (1922-2016)

We lost Professor Alexander Mwa Odonga last week. Our friend and mentor, who taught us surgery at Makerere University Medical School, died at Mulago Hospital on Tuesday, August 24 after a very long and distinguished life of service to humanity.

A Makerere graduate in the class of 1948, Mr. Odonga was the symbol of Ugandan professionalism of the past and of our hoped-for Ugandan professionalism of the future.

As a teacher and supervisor, he set very high standards. Like most of his generation of doctors, he was an exacting taskmaster, driven by the desire to produce the very finest graduates. No, he was not like  Sir Lancelot Spratt in Richard Gordon’s “Doctor” series. He was a soft-spoken but firm gentleman who easily earned our respect.

To Mr. Odonga, skills alone were not enough. Rules mattered. Honesty mattered. Ethics mattered. Confidentiality mattered. Commitment mattered. Time mattered. Cleanliness mattered. Attire mattered.

I learnt the lesson about his uncompromising expectations the hard way. When I showed up for teaching rounds one morning, Mr. Odonga looked at me with a stern face as though I was a stranger. “Can I help you?” he asked me.

A classmate relieved my confusion by pointing at my neck. Details are hazy now, but in my mad rush from Galloway House, a medical student’s residence, I had forgotten to put on a tie. To Mr. Odonga, I was an intruder.

Dapper, with snow-white shirt, well pressed dark-colored pants, a tie with the perfect knot, freshly laundered lab coat, shiny black polished classic shoes, neat hair with a parting on the left side, Mr. Odonga’s attire remains vivid more than 40 years after he threw me out of his rounds. Think of Louis Farrakhan who, except for a lighter complexion and a more passionate speaking style, is a near physical copy of the great surgeon.

I hurried to Galloway House, donned a tie, returned to the ward and found Mr. Odonga expounding on a now forgotten surgical matter. “You are late,” he informed me, before continuing with teaching. Lessons learnt, again. Actions have consequences. Respect the traditions of the profession. Appearance matters. You are the message.

doctor with phonendoscope
A doctor’s attire mattered to Prof. Alexander Odonga

This was four decades before extensive research would show that doctors’ attire did indeed affect patient confidence and comfort.

Prof. Odonga’s patriotism could be exasperating at times. As Dean of the Medical School, he refused to endorse my plans to take American examinations that would have enabled me to apply for postgraduate education in the USA.

One needed a Bank of Uganda permit to get US dollars to pay for the examination of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG). The Dean’s signature on the bank application forms was a mandatory requirement.

“Why do we educate you if all of you are going to run away from this country?” he asked me. My assurances that I would return as soon as I was done did not sway him.

Within a year of that meeting, Prof. Odonga and I were reunited in Nairobi, both of us refugees. He had fled Uganda in the aftermath of the murders of Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, and two cabinet ministers.

I did not have the courage to point out the irony of our shared circumstances. One did not tease one’s elder, even over a matter that he might well have found amusing.

In the event, he became one of my great supports in Nairobi, where he was dean of the school of dentistry at Nairobi University. Prof. and Mrs. Janet Odonga, together with their late daughter Beatrice, were among Ugandan exiles that helped us and attended our very modest wedding.

Prof. Odonga returned to Uganda after the war that removed Idi Amin from power, and resumed his work at Mulago Hospital. As a parting gift to the profession, he wrote a textbook on Practical Medical Ethics. He then retired in 1996 to embark on a new career. He published Ododo 1 and Ododo 2, two books of Lwo fables that I am told are written in the original form. He also published a well-received Lwo-English dictionary.

One imagines Prof. Odonga in his last years, looking back at the long journey he had walked, thanking the Lord that he was a blessed child.

Born among the Patiko Clan of the Acholi in 1920 (according to his widow) or 1922 (according to his own book about Makerere Medical School), Odonga completed his secondary education at King’s College, Budo before proceeding to Makerere Medical School.

The first person from Northern Uganda to become a medical doctor, Odonga was also one of the first two Ugandans to pass the British examination for Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, achieved at Edinburgh in 1962.

Though he suffered the indignities of colonial racism and post-colonial repression and exile, Odonga always maintained an aura of the unshakable man, accepting life’s knocks with regal grace.

He was a very well educated Christian gentleman, with a passion for the visual arts and great music. Yet Odonga greatly suffered the pain of watching his beloved profession descend into the darkness that had engulfed the rest of the land.

The mistreatment of Uganda’s underpaid and often unpaid and under-resourced doctors pained him. He wrote about it and talked about it. His daughter Florence, a pediatrician herself, told me that even after he had lost his eyesight, he continued to pray for divine intervention in the Ugandan doctors’ plight.

He was probably irked by the desecration of his beloved Makerere and Mulago hills, with slums and chaos replacing the beautiful landscape. What went through his mind as he stood by the windows of Mulago’s Ward 3B, surveying the disaster that Katanga Valley had become under the rule of Makerere graduates? Hopefully he wrote down his thoughts about the eyesore that he had to put up with.

That said, at 94 (or 96), Odonga has had very good innings, in physical longevity and personal and professional accomplishments.

So I do not mourn him. I celebrate his life, one that has had an enormous impact on numerous students and patients and, in turn, his students’ students and their patients in all corners of the Globe.

To his wife Janet, to their daughters Florence, Judith, Eve and Brenda, and to their sons Charles and Steven, our love and prayers for God’s grace upon you. It is well.

What a joy to know that Prof. Odonga enjoyed life without getting lost in the darkness that consumed many of his countrymen!

After the introduction to his book, Makerere University Medical School 1924-1974, Odonga wrote: “Oh truth let your rays be my guiding light, Dark though may the ways be.”

He will be pleased if we follow in his footsteps.

 

 

African-American black doctor man over blue background.
“Can I help you?” Odonga asked a similarly attired student .

 

 

 

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9 Responses to “Professor Alexander Odonga: outstanding symbol of Ugandan professionalism”

  1. Lillian Kimumwe

    I do remember Prof Odonga very well. I used to admire his smartness always. I used to wonder how he kept his suits so neat and straight.All I knew was that he was one of the very best of the best surgeons ever. Now I know that he was much more after reading your article.

    To my friends Florence and Judith and all members of Prof. Odonga’s family, I extend my condolences. May you be comforted at this time of losing your dearest dad.

    May Prof. Odonga’s soul rest in eternal peace. Amen

    Reply
  2. Wonderful tribute that left my face wet. Thanks Muniini for being a witness. Not just a student but a witness who looked. Listened and now remembers. Thanks for retrieving history.

    Reply
  3. Amama Mbabazi

    A well written eulogy for Prof. Ondoga. I find it meaningful and I think captures the essence of the late professor. I thought it was thoughtful and will benefit our people of all ages and professions especially the medical doctors. I like your emphasis on decency in the attire of doctors and other medical staff. Sometimes l am miffed by the shabbiness of the dress and the profanity of the language of our hospital staff. If I had more space I would recount what a Ugandan distinguished retired civil servant shared with me on how she was treated when she took her late son to three of our leading Government hospitals in Kampala. It is outside of the realm of imagination.

    Reply
    • Muniini K. Mulera

      Thank you Ndugu Amama. Please share the experience of our retired compatriot.

      Reply
  4. Kanu Tejura

    I did my Surgical Residency for three months under him as a house officer in 1971 after graduating in medicine from Bombay University.I found him to be a great helpful person with immense personality and knowledgeable
    Person.He was a person Who inspired us to be better doctors.When ever I think about great people I came across, he was one of those person.Today I was thinking about him and so was googling about him and found sad news.May his soul Rest In Peace.Amen.

    Reply
    • Muniini K. Mulera

      Dr. Tejura, you express a universal sentiment about Professor Odonga.

      Reply
  5. If we want to change Uganda now for a better praying, civilised, friendly, welcoming, caring, forgiving, healing and loving country for the future, God is calling us today to follow the footsteps of The Late Prof Alexander Mwa Odonga 1922-2016.

    Reply
  6. Greg Lebona

    What a great teacher and gentleman! An outstanding surgeon who shaped our lives as students at Mulago, Dr Muniini! Beautiful tribute*

    Reply
    • Muniini K. Mulera

      Greg, we are very lucky to have been his students. Very lucky indeed. He was the definition of a complete physician.

      Reply

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