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When Uganda works

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The donor and the recipient wearing red and blue shirts standing with transplant surgeons at Mulago Hospital. PHOTO URN

The inspiring story of a young man whose life was saved because different components of our country functioned.

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda Maurice Mark Kiyemba is a 24 years-old Ugandan. Throughout his growth experience, he was falling sick regularly with strange fevers, headaches and general body weakness. He went to Kirudu Hospital for a CT scan. They found his kidneys were too small to perform their functions. This was in 2017 when he was in S5. They put him on drugs for blood pressure because when kidneys cannot function well, blood pressure goes up.

In 2019 his problems became worse. He was anemic, lost appetite, his blood pressure (despite medication) was high and suffered excessive vomiting, swelling of the feet, etc. He went back to Kirudu because the kidneys completely shut down. He was put on dialysis twice a week. This was just as he joined Makerere. He had to handle his medical and his studies at the same time. But the medication requirements (dialysis) made it impossible for him to be consistent at Makerere. So, the doctors advised him to get a kidney transplant. But the family did not have money to do this. He tried fundraising to go to India. Then covid struck and the process halted.

During the lockdown, as he was going to hospital for dialysis at 9pm, soldiers arrested him alongside his uncle (who was escorting him) for violating covid restrictions. He explained that he was going to hospital for dialysis. But this did not stop them beating him and his uncle for curfew violations. Yet he had all his medical documents and he had showed them to the soldiers, who didn’t even read them. He got badly injured and had to undergo surgery on one of his testicles. His uncle was also badly beaten and had to walk on crutches for a couple of months.

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President Yoweri Museveni had said on television that soldiers should not beat civilians. So, Kiyemba went to Katwe police to open a case. However, the DPC feared and said they would like to help but they don’t want to antagonize the army. Then Joseph Tumusiime, an activist young man I raised, told them to involve the media. He gave them a number of a reporter at NTV who came and interviewed Kiyemba. A few days later, police headquarters in Naguru had called the Kiyemba family and invited them to meet the AIGP, Hassan Kasingye. But on the day of the appointment, deputy IGP Paul Lokech died suddenly. Kiyemba could not meet Kasingye.

Instead, Kiyembe met Kasingye’s personal assistant who became very helpful. He got police to write a letter instructing CPS to ask Katwe Police why they had refused to record the case and issue a reference number. Then suddenly, Katwe police, who has chased him away, looked for Kiyemba and his uncle asking why they had gone to the media without talking to them. This happened before NTV broadcast the story. It seems NTV had called police for a comment, hence the call from headquarters and the response of Katwe police. After that, the story was broadcast on NTV.

When he saw it on the news on NTV, Brig. Keith Katungi, then Military Police commandant, intervened. He looked for Kiyemba and sent a UPDF patrol vehicle to his home. He was taken to Makindye where the army organized a parade for identification of the culprits. Kiyemba identified the soldiers who had beaten him. Then they called his uncle who also identified the same people. They arrested the soldiers and took them to the Military Court Martial. They were convicted for 12 months in prison.

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During the court martial, an NGO offered the family a lawyer to present them. When they were being sentenced, one of the soldiers pleaded that he had a family to take care of and that the court should be lenient. Kiyemba felt for the soldier and said he would be satisfied by an apology. “It was enough for me that he showed remorse…” he told court martial. The sentence was linient on the basis of Kiyemba’s forgiveness.

Meanwhile, on watching the story on NTV, then Chief of Defense Forces, Gen. David Muhoozi, called the family of Kiyemba to his office for a meeting. He was very apologetic and offered the UPDF would take care of Kiyemba’s medical bills. Kiyemba was put on the military medical insurance and transferred first to Victoria Hospital for all his subsequent treatment – including his biweekly dialysis sessions and the medications, which were very expensive. Later he was transferred to Bombo Military Hospital. After the NTV story, curfew regulations were eased, beating of people by soldiers on patrol ended. Henceforth, UPDF deployed military personnel with supervisors to ensure civilians are not brutalized.

Yet during his Third Year, final term (2021) Kiyemba arrived late for his last paper because he had been on dialysis. The invigilator allowed him to sit the paper. He handed his mobile phone to the invigilator. After the paper, he signed that he had completed. But when he went to get his phone, the invigilator refused to give it back. Instead, he took the phone to the exam coordinator alleging that he was involved in exam malpractice.

Kiyemba went to the coordinator and pleaded, including kneeling down, for his phone explaining his circumstances. The lady responsible said that even if he was from the death bed, she would not yield. He appealed to the dean who also turned him down and said he has to face the disciplinary committee. The committee heard Kiyemba and cancelled his paper and semester and even suspended him for two years. Kiyemba appealed to the vice chancellor who said he has no power to reverse the decision of the committee.

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Despite the inhumanity of Makerere University, our nation’s highest education institution of learning, Kiyemba’s journey continued its positive path. Mulago Hospital had completed its organ transplant unit and were ready to begin kidney transplants. Kiyemba was shortlisted to be among the first people to get the benefit. His brother offered to donate him his kidney. But how was he to pay for the kidney transplant? President Yoweri Museveni intervened and offered to pay. Then he was shifted from Bombo to Mulago in September. He stayed in Mulago till December 20th, 2023 when the surgery was successfully done. Some doctors came in from India who worked with Ugandan surgeons on the operation. The operation began at 6am and ended at 12 noon. The day after the operation he was able to talk and even produce urine for the first time in three years.

Kiyemba recently visited me at office. We talked about his experience. Here, and by some miracle, all of Uganda’s components (except Makerere University) worked in synch: the mass media had performed its role that prompted both the police and military leadership to take positive action. Civil society played its part as did Museveni. For all our failures, quarrels and recriminations, it is amazing that something, and specifically this time, Uganda works.

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