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.
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.