As life at district hospital gets better
In December 2015, as campaigns for the February 2016 presidential elections gathered momentum, three nurses at Abim district hospital were thrust into the spotlight with threats of a suspension from duty.
Their alleged crime was allowing leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye to visit the dilapidated medical facility. Some 15 months later, BENON HERBERT OLUKA visits the nurse who received Besigye.
Santina Adong does not own a radio or television in her one-bedroom house at Abim hospital’s staff quarters. So, when events surrounding the nursing officer were creating a storm on social and broadcast media, she did not have a clue.
“The first time that I knew it, a nurse [that] I [had] trained with in Matany [hospital] called me from Ntungamo,” Adong says. “She said, ‘Santina, congratulations. Thank you for helping Abim’.”
“Over what?” Adong asked.
“I saw you moving with [leading opposition presidential candidate Kizza] Besigye, showing him [around] the hospital, and you were firm when you were talking,” her friend responded.
Nursing officer Santina Adong got into trouble with the state for taking opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye around the hospital during campaigns
Adong says she was surprised because, she claims, she had not been aware that her guest that December 5, 2015 afternoon was the founding president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), a political nemesis to the ruling party who just about anyone in the NRM government fears and dreads being seen with publicly.
“I didn’t even know who they were because I had never seen the persons before, even Besigye. They did not introduce themselves,” she said. “I just knew that as usual visitors come and they want to know the situation in the hospital. I moved with them because, all along, there were no restrictions about showing visitors around the place.”
Yet, according to Adong, the circumstances that resulted in her hosting Besigye were purely coincidental. Two days earlier, the principal nursing officer, Mary Immaculate Akio, had gone for burial, leaving Adong in charge of her duties.
“Being the supervisor, when visitors come, you cannot really run away and leave them to the juniors,” she told The Observer in an interview on February 27.
But as a result of her dutifulness, the Abim district chief administrative officer (CAO), Moses Kaziba, wrote to Adong, Akio and Paska Akello (a third nurse, who shadowed Adong as she guided Besigye around the hospital), asking them to explain their actions within two weeks or risk suspension from the hospital.
IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
Word quickly went around Abim that Adongo had been “suspended” from duty, and some friends went to her house to console her.
One of them took a picture of the letter and shared it on Facebook, generating a storm whose ripple effects destabilised an already shaken Adong. With tensions rising, the then resident district commissioner (RDC) of Abim, Samuel Mpimbaza Hashaka, called Adong to his office. He ordered her to stop communicating with outsiders about the matter.
Adong retreated to her house, mentally tortured, isolated, stressed, and on the verge of a psychological breakdown.
“After his advice, I stayed indoors. I could not move anywhere,” she says, her voice breaking at the memory. “If the [Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union] had not called me, I would have died in my house.”
UNMU officials invited the three nurses to Kampala for four days, counseled them and promised to engage the district administration. On December 22, four UNMU officials travelled to Abim and held a meeting with the CAO.
Coupled with pressure from other quarters, the district and health ministry officials eventually relented and the three nurses retained their jobs. However, the three nurses still face resentment from the district authorities.
When the International Council of Nursing and UNMU organised a trip for them to Ethiopia in September 2016, some district officials were not impressed. They called UNMU, asking how the trio was selected for the trip “yet there are people more senior than them.”
That attitude has bred fear among the three nurses. One of them, Akio, declined to speak to The Observer, saying she fears any further reprisals.
“This problem was solved some time back. Why do you want to go back to it and yet you very well know the trouble it caused us?” she asked.
In fact, Adong had initially turned down The Observer, until this reporter called UNMU general secretary Lucy Atim, who offered her re-assurances.
“What happened to us created fear in me,” Adong says at some point. “When I am at work, I fear talking to any stranger. I have great fear in me; so much. I have to conceal each and everything that I know.”
ROUGH PERSONAL LIFE
A tall, gangly figure, Adong turns 44 on April 7. However, she looks several years older, the result of regular wear-and-tear from a life of unrelenting hardship.
Born to subsistence farmers in Nyakoi sub-county, Abim district, Adong lost her father while in primary six. As a result, she had to resort to selling locally brewed alcohol (kwete) to finance part of her studies.
“My education was not easy,” she says, simply. “Even my mother gave up. She would tell me, ‘just get married rather than suffer [looking for tuition fees].’ But I was a die-hard. I continued with my studies [because] I wanted to achieve my goals through education.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Adong did not perform well enough in senior six to continue to university. Instead, she trained as a nurse at St. Kizito’s hospital, Matany, in Moroto district (1994-1997).
And for nearly 20 years, Adong has worked only within Karamoja sub-region – in Kotido, Kaabong, Moroto and Abim districts. In 2004, the married mother of four [her husband is a secondary school teacher] returned to Matany to pursue a diploma. It’s the highest academic qualification she ever hopes to achieve, due to competing family obligations.
“I cannot go for further studies anymore because [of] my kids,” she says. “It is better for the children to continue [with their education at the expense of her dreams].”
To pay her children’s fees, Adong regularly borrows from the hospital’s savings and credit cooperative. She also supplements her meagre income by running a retail shop in Abim town.
The day I interviewed Adong, she had spent the previous night on duty at the hospital. But by morning, she had pitched camp at her shop to sell her wares.
“Sometimes things are not moving,” she says. “The shops are very many, and yet from time to time I have to keep my shop closed because I can’t employ anyone.”
While Adong’s own personal fortunes have not improved since her ordeal, Abim hospital has reaped big. Shortly after Besigye’s visit, the government released Shs 700 million for the first phase of its renovation. It was concluded in August 2016.
“There is some improvement now,” Adong says. “But water is still a problem. It came for about a month and then it disappeared. And the wards are totally dark at night. Electricity has been cut off from the hospital because the bill is high. We have some kerosene lamps that we use but they are very dim; so, it’s difficult to work.”
The government promised to start the second phase of the hospital’s rehabilitation in April 2017. In addition, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called SUSTAIN fully equipped the laboratory, which uses solar electricity to run its operations 24 hours a day.
But there is more – thanks to the government and SUSTAIN.
“We now have four doctors; from zero to four,” Adong says, excitedly. “And some of them have told me: ‘It is because of you that we are here. If you had not voiced out those issues, we wouldn’t have come’.”
The hospital also receives a regular supply of drugs from the National Medical Stores (NMS), who she credits for doing their job efficiently.
“With medicine, we don’t have any problems,” she says. “We always have drugs.”
For Adong, her commitment to the cause remains unshaken by what happened.
“I love my job so much,” she says. “That was a call made for me by God. So, whatever has happened, I have forgiven. All the torture that I suffered, I have forgiven. All the people who were against me, I have forgiven. I will continue serving the people of Uganda diligently, without segregation.”