“When Sister Carmel Abwot was asked to take over St Mary’s Midwifery Training School and Kalongo hospital, she had a lot of thinking to do. She was not sure she could manage the transition from the Italian missionaries, who had a precedence of thoroughness in running the intertwined facility.
That was in 1997. “First of all, I was inexperienced in running a school because I had only one year experience on the ward. From the ward, I was promoted to a tutor and then a principal,” she recalls. It was a fast rise. Sister Abwot turned to prayer, and asked God to guide her on how to ably run the facility.
“It was challenging because I took over from Europeans, so people underlooked me. I told them that we are of the same colour and we needed to work together, to steer the institution to another level. After two years, we were able to stabilise,” she recalls.
Service in a war-torn area
In 1998, rebels attacked a school near the hospital and abducted 40 students. Naturally, there was panic. Sister Abwot recalls the fear that engulfed the school community.
The school was closed for a while awaiting normalcy to return to the region as the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) wreaked havoc in northern Uganda. Kalongo is located in Abim District, 160 kilometres from Gulu Town.
When the abduction happened, Sister Abwot was at a crossroad. At the time, the school population was of 90 students, four clinical instructors and five tutors. Deep inside, she felt she needed to rise to the occassion because she needed to prove herself and also mentor young girls as her daughters because she would never have any biological children.
Given the rural setting in which the hospital is situated, many people do not have a sufficient source of income and as such, health workers cannot charge patients high fees. A delivery at this hospital costs Shs15, 000, one of the lowest charges for an operation anywhere in the world.
“Whereas Shs15, 000 sounds like a small fee, many mothers cannot afford it and ask to be discharged without paying,” Abwot explains.
Kalongo hospital was originally called Dr Ambrosoli Memorial Hospital after Dr Fr Giuseppe Ambrosoli, an Italian physician, surgeon and catholic priest who helped transform the hospital from a simple dispensary and health centre to a fully-fledged hospital.
According to Dr Ambrosoli Foundation, the hospital provides professional healthcare to about 50,000 people, of which 50 per cent are children under five.
Today, the hospital has 302 beds and six wards; surgery, maternity and gynaecology, paediatrics, general medicine, tuberculosis, and private wing.
In 1959, two years after the establishment of the hospital, Father Giuseppe Ambrosoli founded St Mary’s Midwifery Training School to facilitate maternity and childbirth, a cause of enormous mortality at that time in Africa.
The hospital is run under the Archdiocese of Gulu, which has a link with the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu, in Northern Uganda, a group which Abwot joined as a teenager.
She started envisioning herself as a sister at a tender age of seven years old. While playing with her peers, she enjoyed tying her head with a white scarf out of admiration for sisters.
Called to serve
When she was joining secondary school, she had a chat with her father, revealing to him her wish to take up the religious vocation. She was surprised when her father told her it had been his prayer to see her become a nun.
At the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu, Sister Abwot attended high school and got introduced to life in a Convent. That was in 1973. She was 15 years old.
As a condition to join the vocation, she had written an application letter detailing why she wanted to become a nun. She recalls explaining that she wanted to help the poor and helpless as her contribution to making the world a better place.
She was introduced to an intensely prayerful life and also taught how to live in a community.
“I made vows to be obedient and live humbly. We would earn a salary but we knew it was to help others, so we didn’t own anything because our superiors wanted our hearts to be free to serve without being attached to any material gains,” she explains.
She joined with some 60 hopefuls but says many did not make it. Out of her class, only seven became sisters. After high school, she undertook a course in teaching but beyond teaching, she wanted to become a nurse and midwife.
She enrolled for a course at Nsambya Hospital School of Nursing and Midwifery in Kampala. She underwent training and on completion, was posted to Kalongo Hospital as a midwife.
Her motivation to do midwifery was her aspiration to help mothers and babies in labour ward. She did her work with diligence. In 1994, she was promoted to become the head of the maternity section at the hospital.
However, the facility and health units in the area needed more manpower.
“I thought that my services were needed as a teacher so I asked to tutor at the midwifery school. I felt I could have impact on many students who would go out and help in the communities,” she recalls.
At the time, the missionaries were summarising their work at the two institutions and Sister Abwot was a natural replacement because she worked well with everyone- students and staff.
To her, teaching and training were key in preparing students for the field or health units. She always taught them that love for the profession of midwifery was key.
“I tell my students that loving mothers and their babies is key because that is they are the first people that can attend to them. Then, the love among themselves and the tutors because it improves teamwork,” she explains.
Sister Abwot is a principled but naturally likeable person as seen in the way she relates with staff and students. They can mean business and joke in the same conversation.