Dr. Margaret Mungherera, one of the most eminent Ugandan doctors died a few weeks ago. She is one of the first people I ever interviewed in my journalism career. I was young, wet behind the ears, naïve, without even an ID to identify myself. And yet she did not judge me. I was doing a story about a three year old child who had been defiled by a man in his twenties. I wanted to find out from Dr. Mungherera, a psychologist of note, what all this meant from a psychological point of view. She did not judge me. She did not ask for my ID. She asked me to meet her over coffee at some place near Kampala Pentecostal Church(now Watoto Church) for an interview. And there, over sumptuous samosas, she delved into the intricacies of such unnatural behaviour as defilement and its implications on our society. She came along with one of her sisters- then a student in South Africa. She was friendly, and motherly. This was more than ten years ago.
The last time I met Dr. Mungherera was in 2013. She had just been elected President of the World Medical Association- the first woman in Africa to assume that position. Same motherly, friendly professional. My intention was to interview her and write a profile of her that would also chronicle her achievements. You have written enough about me,” she said. You need to write about what this appointment means to Uganda and other countries and what this new role is set to achieve.
Here below is the story I wrote from that interview. Rest well Dr. Mungherera. This story was first published by The New Vision newspaper in 2013.
Dr. Margaret Mungherera is probably the most written about medical doctor in Uganda today. So I understood her reluctance to have “another interview about me in the press.” But how do you not write about the first African woman to head the World Medical Association (WMA)? A few days earlier, I had heard her story on the BBC’s Outlook programme with some form of personal embarrassment. And even though Mathew Bannister did not delve into her life, the journalistic feeling that a story has been nipped right from your own backyard-lingered.
My initial phone calls to Mungherera predictably went unanswered. Yet I kept calling her cell phone if only to listen to more of her spiritually-laden alternating caller tunes. The first tune was a gospel song and the lyrics were prayerful: “Lord you are my refuge and my shelter. In your presence I will hide… Though I fall I will rise. In the dark, you are my light…” The second was Biblical. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the earth…”
When she finally answered the phone, her instructions were curt. “You have heard enough about me, if you are going to do another interview, it better be on my new role as WMA president…This is what the public needs to hear…” The resolve in her voice was clear as she struggled to fix me into her packed schedule.
If I had not met Dr. Mugherera before all this, I’d have dismissed her as belligerent. But from my interview with her some ten odd years ago, I knew better.
I was on time for our meeting which had been scheduled for 10:30 am in her office at the department of Medicine and Surgery in Mulago. Yet I did not see her until a few minutes past midday. I sat for nearly one and half hours as people went in and out. It was a Monday but for some reason she had scheduled my interview for 8:30 am the previous Friday. There is little to distract you in Dr. Mungherera’s office- just a set of red velvet sofas, bits of paper work and a gentleman who keeps taking phone calls on her behalf. She speaks very fast; as if words will soon run out of her mouth. Once in a while, she calmed down, pierced me with an intense gaze, her smiling eyes radiating through the thick brown rims of her spectacles. This was very calming. Amidst giving instructions to her assistant, checking her tiny laptop for updates and occasionally answering her blackberry phone, she told me about the WMA and her vision for the association.
“The WMA is an international organisation comprising medical associations from different parts of the world. It strives to promote independence and ethical standards among professional doctors. It also serves as a forum for members to deliberate on issues that concern their practice,” she said. “The Association has grown from 27 national medical associations in 1947 to over 100 now.”
Mungherera’s appointment was not particularly unexpected as she had been greatly involved in advocacy work at both the national and international front. Nationally, she helped form and lead the Uganda Medical Association which has been instrumental in improving standards in medical practice and championing the rights and welfare of doctors and improving health care in this country. She served as Vice President of the East, Central and South Africa region of Commonwealth medical Associations and has participated in global medical conventions and initiatives. This according to some observers put her in good standing of key voting WMA member nations like the UK, Germany, South Africa and the USA.
As President of WMA Dr. Mungherera will be a springboard to important policy interventions that will not only promote good ethical practice in the world but also champion human rights of patients and physicians. “I will work with governments and international organisations to promote proper medical practice and physician’s welfare in the world. More importantly, I will be an ambassador for Uganda and Africa.” It is her resolve that poor countries become more involved in activities of the Association. “I will also seek to address issues on mental health, women’s health (violence against women) and the improvement of doctor’s welfare, particularly young doctors.”
Dr. Myers Lugemwa, the Uganda Medical Association interim general secretary says that Dr. Mungherera’s appointment is an important landmark for Africa and especially for Uganda- a perfect 50th birthday gift. “It is proof of the confidence that the world out there has in the capacity of our doctors.” Lugemwa says Mungherera’s appointment is a good chance for Ugandan policymakers to sit down with doctors and discuss ways of improving the conditions under which they operate instead of “demonizing them.”
Dr. Mugherera cut her leadership teeth from a young age. At Gayaza high school she was a prefect and according to Dr. Peace Musinguzi Bagorogoza, a close friend- “very active in school activities.” As the first born, her five siblings relied on her counsel and friendship. “But for a little shyness, It is a job that she did well,” her father Seezi Mugherera says. She never disappoints. That is why Dr. Musinguzi hopes that in her new position “my best friend will advocate improvement of the appalling conditions under which doctors in this country operate.”
As she assumes her new role, Dr. Mungherera carries a lot of expectations on her shoulders. While at it, she will want to remember how as an infant, her school teacher mother carried little Margaret insider her crib into class and carefully place her in a corner as she taught away. It is Margaret’s turn to carry the world.
Dr. Mungherera Fact file:
• Born: 25th October 1957 to Seezi and Joyce Mungherera. She is the first born of six children-three girls and three boys.
• Went to Kijjabwemi Primary school in Masaka, Nakasero Primary school in Kampala and Gayaza High school.
• Attended Makerere University medical school and the London school of Tropical medicine and Hygiene.
• Served in Butabika mental hospital as a medical officer and later as a visiting psychiatrist there.
• Later pursued a Master’s degree in psychiatry at Makerere University.
• Returned to work to Makerere University medical school where she taught psychiatry and developed a Forensic Psychiatry course for Postgraduate doctors there.
• She headed the Uganda Medical Association and was a member of the commission of enquiry that investigated the Global Fund scandal. She is an advocate for doctor’s welfare, mental health rights among so many other roles.
• She is married to Richard Mushanga, a retired banker. The couple had two adopted children one of whom passed on. They have homes in Bunga and Bushenyi.
• She is a Rotarian and loves to visit places.
• She is also a member of Cohort 77, a group of doctors that were at University around the year 1977.
Fare-thee-well good doctor