When missionaries first came to Uganda one of their priorities was to be heavily involved in social work and the health sector was no exception. In 1968 when I arrived in Ibanda Parish, a big project was in the making: building a hospital for the region: Ibanda Hospital. The project was funded in its entirety by Misereor, a German Catholic Charity. Misereor also submitted a series of plans for the project. Being a rather curious person, I could not resist going down to the site to see what was brewing. In fact, I found an existing small medical centre: Ibanda Dispensary, run by Irish sisters. We have already mentioned them earlier when extolling their hospitality and culinary skills! Over the years they would show some more skills, I can assure you.
The project leader was a stout Swiss lady called Sylvia Probst, a member of the community of Irish sisters. She was a nurse herself and endowed with very developed organisational skills, not always orthodox but certainly result oriented! She had been given the task to see the project through to completion. To maximise her work and make it effective, she drove a small green Volkswagen beetle and always gave the impression that she was in a hurry, or at least the engine always seemed in a hurry. You could hear her coming from far away as the engine was revving at over-speed. We found out quickly that she was driving keeping her foot half-way down the clutch, thus creating the sound of a sports car! We took the habit of calling her “Mama Clutch!”. No wonder the clutch of the VW had to be replaced rather quickly!
Apart from that, she was a most charming person and could join any joke worth a good laugh. She showed me the plans of the proposed buildings, and I must say they were impressive. A series of low buildings inter-connected by covered passage ways and spread over a few acres, gave the impression of a friendly place where it would be good to be treated for any ailments coming your way! The hospital was putting up a theatre block, a private ward, two general wards, a maternity ward and a surgical ward. Good planning I thought, but then what did I know about medical facilities? Of course equipment would have to be purchased, a thing Sylvia had already done by that time, but first the buildings had still to come up. So she contacted various contractors and bidding started. At the end of the day, one came out first and was awarded the contract, Mr Charles Kimbowa. He had been to the site a few times to assess what would be needed for the works. On a Monday morning he arrived on the site with three workers, a pickup van and his old car. With them they were carrying an old concrete mixer, two wheelbarrows and some hoes and pickaxes as well as some shovels. And they had come to build a complete hospital! I learned very quickly that building could not start as he had no capital to buy raw materials such as cement, sand, stones, iron bars, bricks, and other building materials. Haggling started with Sylvia, but by the end of the day the contractor had won and received 50% of the total contract money. He must have been a very happy man as soon new equipment arrived on the site as well as a new car for the contractor, a car he proudly showed round! Building started within the same week. It was an opportunity to give work to the local people, and each morning dozens of young men joined the contractor and his team. I must say things went well and the foundations of all the buildings were dug in no time; concrete and a slab was cast, and so the rise of buildings could proceed, at least so it was thought. I had a hunch that something was not right and with Brother Francis we talked it through. One Sunday morning, we walked to the site and looked at it all. It seemed fine but something told us that things were not in the right place. We looked at the site plans and started measuring and soon we found the problem. We got a pickaxe and started digging at a corner of one building and found that the first course of blocks was a full foot outside the foundations resting on loose soil. The concrete slab had been cast a full foot and a half outside the foundations, so as to give it more strength, said the contractor! Strange way of looking at construction! We told Sylvia, who did not seem to worry and told us that the contractor was a professional and we were amateurs! We insisted on digging more places and the same conclusion came up each time: the buildings were being built outside the foundations. Sylvia had no choice but to ask the contractor to dig up his slab and peg the foundation correctly so that walls would rest on solid ground. This was done with great reluctance but in the end everybody was happy it had been done. In no time the buildings came up, and after eight months the full site was covered with beautiful buildings and the finishing touches remained as the main task to be completed. One year and half after the start of building, the official opening could take place, and an extraordinary person, Brigid, a fully qualified registered nurse and midwife was installed as the first matron of the hospital. She would run the place for some years with an iron fist and a broad smile and give to it a reputation worthy of the best.
But there was still a problem. In the mind of the people the hospital was not yet fully inaugurated. In their minds some medical practice had first to take place and they were convinced that the first patient who would undergo surgery would not make it. We tried to shrug this off but the people remained adamant. The Irish sisters running the hospital had obtained from a Dutch organisation that two doctors would be provided for the next four years so as to give time for one of theirs to join the hospital team. And believe it or not, the first casualty of the hospital was near to happening. One evening a young woman was brought in in a pitiful state. She had drank a full glass of “Gamatox”, a disinfectant used for cattle bathing. One of the doctors having examined her had detected a serious swelling in the abdomen and it was decided to open her up to see exactly what was wrong. The hospital did not yet have an X-Ray machine at the time! So surgery took place but the condition of the patient was such that she did not make it. Outside the hospital a good number of people had gathered, aware that the first surgery was gong to take place. When they learned that the patient did not survive, the rumour went round that this had to happen and that now the place was safe for medical care! What a rough start for the doctors and the hospital team! But things calmed down very quickly and normal hospital activities became the order of the day. In the weeks following this incident some seriously big crates arrived and a brand new X-Ray machine was delivered together with theatre lights. Two technicians had come to install the X-Ray machine. The theatre lights had to be installed and with Francis we used our imagination to fix these lights in a most solid fashion above the operating table and fixed to the roof structure. It all worked well and we were proud of our achievements! Ibanda Hospital was up and running and the region had top quality medical facilities at its disposal. Soon the place would be flooded with patients and the adjacent Dispensary would serve as the screening centre for the hospital. Good work had been done and one of the main aspects of missionary work had been put into practice: bring charity into social activities! All of us were very happy.
As time went on the place was eventually handed over to Ugandan sisters and local doctors. But the basis had been solid and so it was time to pass on the baton. Still today the hospital stands proud in an area which has grown exponentially in population; medical attention is, and remains, a service necessary in the region. Well done to our Irish sisters and their vision and hard work!