Uganda: The Curious Case of Renee Bach - Facing Trial Over Child Deaths in Busoga

(file photo).

In 2007, Bach left the comfort of exotic locales to settle in a drab windswept landing site of Masese in Jinja District. Two years later, she established a charity known as Serving His Children (SHC).

The charity, according to documents, started as a community based organisation to deal with largely malnutrition, which continues to ravage districts in eastern Uganda. This later transformed into a medical facility.

Today, Bach and her charity face allegations that scores of ailing children died under her care. The claims are part of a suit filed in March at the Jinja High Court by Women's Pro Bono Initiative on behalf of two mothers, Annet Kakai of Buikwe District and Zubeda Gimbo of Namutumba District. Hearing of the case was adjourned to January.

Much of the evidence in regard to the death allegations is attributed to a former employee of the SHC, Mr Charles Olweny, who joined the organisation as a gatekeeper in August 2009 and was in 2014 elevated to the position of driver.

Mr Olweny claims that during the eight-year period he worked with the charity, he ferried between five and seven bodies per day, which translates into 2,555 bodies annually or 20,440 bodies during the eight years.

The two women claim their children died at Bach's facility in Masese, which was operating illegally, in violation of children's right to life.

The applicants want court to outlaw the charity from Uganda and are demanding general damages.

In the 551-page defence filed in May, Bach denies all the allegations, with her lawyers describing them as 'preposterous.' However, when the story was reported, it placed Bach into the crosshairs of a combustible debate about the white saviour trope and its flaws. Adorning the garb of physicians and armed with a stethoscope, Bach is accused of 'passing off' as a doctor.

Seeking evidence

Bach's conduct that allegedly resulted in death, in the view of those who harbour antipathy towards the white saviour benevolence, was an accident waiting to happen. Over the course of two months, we pitched camp in Busoga and Bugisu sub-regions to establish the facts. But there seems to be a variance of opinion about Bach from some families whose children received treatment from her organisation.

Mr James Okello's daughter was ailing eight years ago when he sought help at SHC. But in September last year, his former wife, Ms Jane Amali, received a call from a former staff at Bach's charity organisation. The caller asked her to bring along her daughter from Mayuge District to Jinja, which is a 40km distance.

For a moment, Ms Amali was undecided; first, she neither had the money nor the means to quickly get to Jinja and secondly, the reason for such an impromptu travel did not seem clear. After poring over the matter with Mr Okello, she decided to go, in company of her sister.

In Jinja, the meeting turned into an interrogation, Ms Amali recalls. She slightly knew the caller but there were four other people; another employee, or so she thought, of the charity, a cameraman, and two females who claimed to be lawyers.

Queries

"They asked me if I knew the white lady (Bach). I said yes. They said she had treated so many children who had died and that mine was among the few lucky ones who survived, probably by God's mercy," she recounts.

Ms Amali says she told the meeting that she needed to first consult her husband. "Someone telling you to give a false testimony against anyone is a big temptation," she adds.

Back at home, Mr Okello was exasperated by such a suggestion. They agreed to reject any contacts of those who were seeking to compromise them.

Mr Okello says that sometime in 2013, their daughter, then aged one year, seriously fell sick and with the pitiable state of health facilities in many rural areas, they could not find proper medical care in government hospitals in Mayuge and Jinja. They visited SHC, which treated malnutrition cases.

At SHC, according to corroborated accounts, the child's dire condition could not be treated. Bach booked her into International Hospital Kampala (IHK) where she was treated and covered all expenses and offered her own blood when the patient needed a transfusion.

Outside IHK, Mr Okello's daughter was treated at several other facilities, including three times at SHC. Mr Okello says numerous medical procedures left her daughter with a huge scar on the head. "Now these people want to take photos --to accuse the white lady," he says.

"At the point when I needed help and she [Patricia] was dying, it is the white lady who helped us. Now these people want us to accuse her falsely; I do not claim to be a good Christian but it is just wrong," Mr Okello says. "They promised us Shs2 million and more if we turn against the white lady," he adds.

Mr Okello further reveals: "Even [for] the times she was treated at SHC, Patricia was treated by other doctors not the white lady, for her she would stand on the sides to observe."

Mr Okello and wife kept receiving incessant calls prodding them to cooperate but they declined, which has since turned into torment. Early this year, with Mr Okello away on routine business, some people sneaked into their home to forcefully take Patricia's photos but they were overwhelmed by the neighbours.

According to the neighbours' accounts, the unknown people, suspected to be the SHC former staff or their associates, used a local chairperson of a neighbouring village whom they tagged with to Mr Okello's home in an attempt to erase suspicion.

Mr Okello filed a complaint at police and with the resident district commissioner. "These people are on a serious mission. If they can do something like this, I worry the worst might come. We are not even involved in their court things but I wonder what they want from us," he says.

The curious case

When these reporters visited Mr Okello's home in Luvu Village, Bukatube Sub-county in Mayuge District, they were interrogated about their identities and why they were visiting in the presence of the area chairperson. It was not until Mr Okello telephoned a source they had met earlier that they were let free.

In Namulebufu Village, Namisindwa District, which was carved out of Manafwa, Daily Monitor located six-year-old Masai Mawunda, whose family is not party to the case, but alleges that certain people are imploring the family to take on Bach in court.

Masai's father, Mr Israel Wangoli, says his son was admitted to a facility operated by SHC where a medical operation went wrong, leading to deformities. Mr Wangoli says he should be paid damages for the state his son is in.

The family claims Masai had a minor wound, which was treated but it deepened and subsequently required grafting; where a chunk of flesh was removed from his left thigh and put on his arm at Jinja Regional Referral Hospital.

Masai suffers from unknown cognitive complications characterised by hitting his head hard on the floor to an extent that he bleeds. Perhaps what medical experts can discern is whether the previous treatment has a causal link to his current state.

The family blames this on Bach and her charity. While his family insists that he only had minor wounds when he was first admitted to SHC, medical records seen by Daily Monitor show that he was admitted in June 2013 with a swollen head, feet, eyelid and an upper body larger than the lower part.

Masai's grandmother, Angellena Kabuyi, states on the medical forms that barely two weeks after he was born, his head started shaking profusely. She also revealed that she did not have proper records of the baby's parents to ascertain whether it was a genetic disorder.

Today, Kabuyi blames the current state of her grandson on Bach and is seeking payment from her organisation.

According to Dr Emma Gahima, the officer in-charge of Bugobero Health Centre IV in Manafwa, malnutrition in the district and surrounding areas is prevalent and residents attribute it to anything, including witchcraft.

"When she [Renee] worked here, I was fairly new but as a nutrition focal person in the district, we were excited to partner with her," Dr Gahima says.

"So she brought money and the district provided personnel to work with her. If she stood by as doctors were working, that does not mean she treated anyone and as matter of fact, no patient has died here but we read about claims being made and we also wonder," he said.

The Manafwa District health officer, Dr Gideon Wamasebu, says: "The little I have heard is that story has been presented with a lot of negativities; the claims that she acted as a medical officer/clinician, leading to many deaths are purely unfounded," he adds.

A July police probe attributes these allegations to a crowd funding outfit known as 'No White Saviours Movement', which reportedly seeks to end white saviour tokenism in Uganda. The organisation was founded by an American, Kelsey Nielsen, and a group of Ugandans.

Police report

"This allegation of 100+ children reported dead is a hoax and intended to mobilise funds from well-wishers, sympathisers and blackmail. The ongoing court case in Jinja was trumped on to the organisation to frustrate their efforts to continue their programmes."

The police report reads further: "... No White Saviours is not about justice but rather creation of a big emotional experience thus sowing seeds of hate, complaint, religion based warfare and estheticism among the members of local and international community."

The Ministry of Health also commissioned an inquiry into the claims but failed to find evidence of the alleged deaths.

"The team was unable to support allegations that children died in large numbers due to the services of SHC," the confidential report by the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners Council reads in part.

According to corroborated accounts, the story and the death claims unfolded last year following months' long strife between Bach and a group of aggrieved staff terminated earlier in 2017.

So could this be an elaborate plot to frame Bach or did her medical experiments go wrong as we will reveal in part two of the story?

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