Educated East Africans of a certain age will recall a time when the poem Building the Nation by Ugandan poet Henry Muwanga Barlow was essential reading in school, in the same league as writing by the leading lights in African literature.
This six-stanza poem exposed the false hopes of the Uganda Independence project. The elite who succeeded the colonisers took after their predecessors’ opulent lifestyle as well, abandoning the egalitarian promises of nation building.
Now Barlow’s last born daughter Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa has written The VIP Room, a poem about the death of her father — a ranking civil servant until his retirement in 1987 — at the Mulago National Referral Hospital.
The poem offers a depressing examination of the decay of Mulago and by extension the entire nation’s healthcare system or its very essence if you will. If Building the Nation is a fitting assessment of the premature birth Uganda suffered at Independence, The VIP room aptly represents the fits and starts that have characterised its story since then.
The deeply emotive poem features in Philippa’s republished personal memoir, Flame and Song, a 188-page book in which she reminisces about growing up in a Ugandan middle class family in the ever shifting sands of the country’s existence as an independent state.
The book was released in April 4, 2017 by Sooo Many Stories, an equally new Ugandan publisher whose raison d’être is to shine a light on as many stories as Philippa’s as there exists.
The publisher secured East African rights to the book, which was initially published last year in South Africa where the author has lived for the past 23 years.
The account of how Barlow’s life slowly ebbed away, in a VIP section of Mulago hospital, tells of the surgeon who was supposed to fix Barlow’s broken hip but instead chose to attend a conference; the lab that was supposed to quickly run vital tests but lay derelict; the head nurse who was supposed to supply sterilised bedding but preferred not to, to prevent them from getting soiled, and her juniors who were supposed to monitor Barlow all night but took time away supposedly to attend to other patients.
These incidents are all too familiar to many a Ugandan across the country’s excuses of healthcare facilities or, for that matter, the public service system in general.
At the time Philippa was born in 1964, Mulago ranked among the best hospitals in Africa. So high were its standards that when then president Milton Obote was shot in the neck in 1969 in an attempted assassination, he did not require to be flown out of the country for treatment.
Doctors at Mulago successfully stabilised and treated him.
Yet in a twist of bitter irony, President Yoweri Museveni, who waged a rebellion against Obote enroute to capturing power in 1986, has not only publicly expressed distrust in Uganda’s medical workers, but has also starved them and the health sector generally of adequate funding. He at one time had his pregnant daughter flown on the presidential jet to Germany to have the baby.
It is little wonder to many Ugandans therefore that that the Nairobi Hospital and the Kenyatta National and Referral Hospital in neighbouring Kenya have become Uganda’s main referral hospitals for its important citizens. The very important persons fly to South Africa, India, Europe and the United States for treatment.
So much for the promise of a fundamental change in the governance of the country.
In Flame and Song, Philippa demonstrates her mastery of language, lending the book gravitas.
This skill makes it possible for her to be economical with details about sensitive bits of her family’s story such as three of her siblings’ lifelong mental challenges without affecting the narrative.
Like many other Ugandans, Philippa, the last born in a family of five, moved to South Africa to get away from the political terror and uncertainty that has held Uganda hostage. Once there, she was persuaded to settle down because of essential life comforts like a reliable healthcare and education system that her homeland is still struggling to provide — a stinging commentary on what has befallen the hopes of a country she was born in, coming into the world as she did just two years after Independence.
Philippa was hardly out of her diapers in 1966 when Uganda plunged into its first major national crisis. Milton Obote, the executive prime minister at the time, attacked the palace of Sir Edward Muteesa II, the king of Buganda and ceremonial president of Uganda, forcing the king to escape into exile. Obote effectively introduced the gun as the only reliable arbiter of political disputes in post-Independence Uganda, which thrives to date.
For Philippa and her generation, political violence and the recourse to arms to resolve it formed the foundation of their young lives. It introduced silences that crushed or at least grazed blossoming familial and even communal relations, distorted a sense of belonging, and shaped futures in unexpected ways.
For her as well as the majority of her peers, the effect of all this either remains closed off, a chapter unworthy of reopening, or has only begun being explored – which she encourages a lot more people to do.
“We need to understand why things are the way they are in our families, our country. We’re building on a lot of silence and that’s not a good thing,” Philippa said at the book launch on April 4 at the Ibamba Restaurant at the Uganda Museum in Kampala.
Flame and Song is written as a way for Philippa to grieve for her parents since she wrote in the wake of their deaths. Her father died in 2006 and the mother six years later in 2012. Yet it appears to work better as a dirge for her country.
Initially, Philippa had wanted to write about her mother – the family’s cornerstone – who survived everything that came her way while holding together a very delicate family, with a firstborn child suffering from depression while two others had cerebral palsy. While bits and pieces of her mother appear here and there, Flame and Song also appears more as a part memoir of her quiet father, eulogised as a consummate civil servant who wrote poetry for over 45 years in an effort to understand himself and his environment.
The book is only 188 pages long but the story is powerful enough to stay with you for a long time.
Building The Nation
Today I did my share
In building the nation.
I drove a Permanent Secretary
To an important urgent function
In fact to a lunch at the Vic.
The menu reflected its importance
Cold bell beer with small talk,
Then fried chicken with niceties
Wine to fill the hollowness of the laughs
Ice-cream to cover the stereotype jokes
Coffee to keep the PS awake on return journey.
I drove the Permanent Secretary back.
He yawned many times in back of the car
Then to keep awake, he suddenly asked,
Did you have any lunch friend?
I replied looking straight ahead
And secretly smiling at his belated concern
That I had not, but was slimming!
Upon which he said with seriousness
That amused more than annoyed me,
Mwanainchi, I too had none!
I attended to matters of state.
Highly delicate diplomatic duties you know,
And friend, it goes against my grain,
Causes me stomach ulcers and wind.
Ah, he continued, yawning again,
The pains we suffer in building the nation!
So the PS had ulcers too!
My ulcers I think are equally painful
Only they are caused by hunger,
Not sumptuous lunches!
So two nation builders
Arrived home this evening
With terrible stomach pains
The result of building the nation –
– Different ways.
The VIP room
‘The builder of the nation is dead.
But he was old,’
Waiting three days
for the physician
to say ‘His heart is okay, you can fix his hip’
and then have the surgeon disappear
to a conference, they say.
‘The builder of the nation is dead.
But he was old,’
In the VIP room, on the 6th floor, of our
national flagship hospital
we loved him and prayed for him.
It was all we could do,
impotent against a system
that made us grateful for crumbs.