This photograph was taken at the Equator, 72 kilometres along the Kampala- Masaka road, by one of us during our field trips in 1976. Among this small group are four Ugandans including myself, two Tanzanians including Vale(wearing sun glasses) and one South African.
Khalil Gibran, my favourite author once said : “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
My peers and I consider ourselves as part of the traumatised generation of Uganda. We joined the only national university of that time on the 2nd of July 1972 and the then Life President, Genera Idi Amin Dada expelled the Non-Ugandan Asian on the 4th August 1972. On the 17th February 1977, Janani Luwum, the then Anglican Archbishop,Erinayo Oryema, the Inspector General of Police, and Oboth Ofumbi, the Minister of internal affairs were brutally murdered by the regime. A week later we wrote our final examinations for the award of the degree of the Bachelor of Medicine And Bachelor of Surgery. In between these two events there was an explosion of violence that made Kampala and other towns incredibly stressful.
It was not surprising that our Class was the last international one by composition. The majority of us were Ugandans but we had students from Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Malawi. Time never stops so despite the political repression and killings, we developed a sense of safety, became very close and each other’s keeper. We lived our youth: we danced, partied and explored our surroundings, creating cherished memories.
On graduation day, 18th March 1977, we celebrated academic success, perseverance and comradeship. With the world at our feet, we went our separate ways to save lives and make a difference in the world around us.
Two weeks ago I happened to be in Nairobi , Kenya and took the trouble to look up Vale, one of my colleagues from Tanzania. Our surnames are alphabetically positioned close so we were always in the same group: we rotated through all the medical and surgical disciplines together, climbed down the then functional Kilembe Copper mines, under occupational health and visited the leprosy centre in Kumi , northern Uganda. We used to let off steam during the weekends by attending bachelors parties , and dancing the night away in night clubs around Kampala. During those turbulent five years at university, we had become like a brother and sister to each other.
We had not seen each other since graduation but thanks to the Internet and Social media, that continues to make the world increasingly digital. Our Class started connecting in 2016. It made it extremely easy for the two old friends to meet.
I found him waiting for me in the Lavington Café Java, where he had made a reservation for two. I spotted him straight away, a classy dresser; he was wearing a grey suit. He stood up to give me the real bear’s hug usually reserved for a long lost relative. He looked me over appraisingly,“ You have n’t changed much. I could easily pick you out of this Saturday crowd.’’
“ Neither have you. You’ve looked after yourself extremely well,’’ I replied, inspecting him from head to foot.
He looked strong and robust like the Muvule tree back home.
He pulled out a chair for me to sit and helped me through ordering the meal and drinks.He spoke in that familiar gentle tone that made me feel relaxed and secure in his presence just like the old days.
Our profession follows us wherever we go so I was not surprised when he informed me that he was managing one woman in early labour at the Nairobi Private Hospital.
“ That’s one aspect of patient management that the Mobile Phone has made many times easier,’’I said, cutting through the fish fillet.
As we caught up with our lives, the forty one years rolled back, leaving two young fun-loving students in their early twenties.
Our hair was speckled with grey, our faces had grown wrinkles but we were still as free-spirited as before.
He had put on weight and looked the true image of the professor he was. I had lost weight but had made efforts to look my best in a black and white Polka Dot jacket over a black dress.
In the forty one years, he had worked in Kenya, Malawi- where he had been instrumental in setting up the medical school. After twelve years he had returned to Kenya and was now in Private practice. He hoped to retire and return home: Tanzania, in a few years’ time. Fortunately for him, a daughter had followed in his footsteps as a doctor though she specialized in Public health.
Since both of us had lived outside our home countries, we had had to work extra hard to support our children through the formal and university education including the masters degrees.
In those years I had stayed on in Uganda but later followed my husband to Botswana. Our three children had declared at an earlier age that Medicine was not their calling. They hated it for its tight schedule and unpredictable outcomes.
“Since when did you become a pastor?’’ I teased.
He laughed, “No, I’m not. I’m just a good Christian.’’
Since forming our WhatsApp group, Vale without fail starts our day with a spiritual nugget. Sometimes he sends it out as early as 4 am! It carries us through the day.
As we inquired about our colleagues, it was disheartening to learn that we had lost a number of them during the 1990s HIV/AIDS pandemic and a number from natural causes.
“We were n’t the angels in the Class, we’re just too lucky to be alive and well,” I said abruptly.
“I’d also add that we’re also very privileged to be spending some hours together after four decades!”
He paid for the meals and drinks and later dropped me home. Amazingly he was still that perfect gentleman who opened the car door for me and got me safely to my door. For the professional man he was, he drove straight to the hospital to review the patient in labour. He did not know any better.
As I lay in bed, I could not help but ponder on how it had all begun and how we had arrived at this moment in time.
At graduation, we had equal opportunities as young doctors but the fact that we still lived in patriarchal societies controlled our destiny.
Vale as a man had lived his life-climbing the professional ladder to the top, fortunately he kept his family together and friends so he is not isolated. I as a woman who had chosen to have a career have had to juggle medicine and motherhood and being a good wife. I had to follow my husband to Botswana where the career prospects were better. Looking back, I am glad I had had the wisdom to understand that I could not be superwoman- trying to do it all. I slowed down and brought up our three children. We were products of our time: naturally I the woman was the caregiver while my husband was the protector of the family . Societal conditioning had endorsed it.
“How did you escape suffering from burnout and being maimed,” I asked myself.
“ I had the love and support from both families and my children became my friends
Now that I have returned home, I have become too frugal with my time. I’m unashamedly putting myself first: doing what I love and what I enjoy. I have learned to let go and to my amazement, I have found a new identity in retirement. I am claiming the wisdom, freedom and experience that come with age.
To my amusement and amazement, Doris Day’s number 1 hit of the 1950s started playing in my head, loud and clear.
Que Sera , Sera ( whatever will be , will be)
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother what I will be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here’s what she had to say
Que Sera , Sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.
While you are reading this post, I have three questions for you:
Are you able to express your unique gifts in the world?
Are you engaging fully in the world around you ? How has cultural
conditioning and societal pressures limited you?
Remember that you have one life to live and that there is no perfect time or perfect weather so you just do what you have to do.