Thought and Ideas
Dr Olweny went on leave but never returned to office
Posted Sunday, October 6 2013 at 01:00
After serving Makerere University for 16 years, Dr Charles Olweny, now vice chancellor Uganda Martyrs University, went on a sabbatical leave to Zambia not knowing it was the beginning of his life in exile. He talked to Sunday Monitor’s Henry Lubega about how he learnt of his planned arrest and starting a cancer institute in Australia.
When I left the country in 1982, I was going on a sabbatical leave and not to exile. I had first applied for a sabbatical leave in 1978 when I was head of department of medicine and director of Cancer institute. The university then said they could not let me go because there was no one to take over during my leave.
In 1982, I submitted a second application to Vice Chancellor Asavio Wandira, explaining my earlier application and even named the people who were willing to take over during my absence from the two offices; this time my application was approved.
My argument for a sabbatical leave was that I was a head of department in a tropical country but none of my staff wanted to do tropical medicine. I promised to also go to a tropical disease research centre. Vice Chancellor Wandira approved my application and I was given a position at the World Health Organisation research Centre in Ndola, Zambia, as a consultant.
Soon after getting to Ndola, I got a hand delivered letter which was a shock of my life.
The letter read: “You may not know but the day you left was the day you were to be picked up, things have changed, the people who were arranging to pick you up are themselves no more, so you may choose to comeback or not.”
I recalled things that had happened in the past and I decided I was not coming back. I remembered the time when I was president of the Uganda Medical Association, doctors were being killed and authorities didn’t want me to talk about it.
At the burial of Dr Barlow, I was asked to give a speech and I said: “May his soul not rest in peace until we have peace in this country.” I was misunderstood. I was soon called to Paulo Muwanga’s office at Nile Hotel (Now Serena Hotel) he told me:“Keep your big mouth shut or else we will shut it for you.”
I went away and continued with my work.
Another incident occurred at the State Research Bureau when my assistant was arrested as he went to post some drugs to Kenyatta Hospital. We used to send some of our patients to Kenya for radiotherapy because we didn’t have the machines in Mulago, so in return we were giving them drugs they did not have. When I got to the State Research Bureau, they said it was me they were interested in. After two hours of interrogation, I was set free and my assistant was to be released the next day.
Another incident had happened in 1978 when one evening while at the hospital I received two mysterious phone calls. I later learnt that the Newsweek Magazine in the US had run an article saying I had challenged Amin from changing Makerere University to Amin University and that I had paid with my life. When I played back all these incidents, I decided not to come back.
Settling in exile
Having taken that decision, I wrote to Makerere, asking to extend my sabbatical leave and they did without knowing the circumstances. Towards the end of the extension in 1984, I again wrote, asking for another extension. I did not hear from them.
Instead, I got a letter from the University Secretary, telling me I had abandoned my duties and I should come and hand over. Towards the end of my contract, a Ugandan colleague of mine at the research centre brought me an advert in the medical journal The Lancet. He said: “Doc I think they are looking for you.” The first time he found me in the laboratory, I told him not to bother me, but he kept coming back and on the third time he convinced me to apply for a job in Australia. I didn’t hear from them for three months.
When the contract at Ndola expired, the WHO sent me to University of Zimbabwe to teach and with the special duties of setting up the country’s cancer registry. One morning after three months of sending my application, I received a call from Australia and the caller was a director of the Royal Ragren Hospital. She told me I was one of the five people short listed. She asked me to go for interviews before Christmas or two months after Christmas.
I went to Australia after Christmas. By then I had moved to my new post in Zimbabwe. I spent there one week and did the interview. Two weeks later, a job offer letter was delivered to my home in Zimbabwe. I had spent only two months in my new job at the University of Zimbabwe. I wrote back and told them I had just accepted a new post in Zimbabwe for 12 months and they accepted to wait.
So in December 1984, I relocated to Australia with my wife and five children. I set up a new cancer unit and trained many Australians. After three years, I was invited to a meeting in in Montreal, Quebec Canada. A year after the conference, I got a call from Canada, the caller said we met in Canada and he heard my presentation. He said there was a WHO project and for it to succeed it ought to have a third world input. The minister of Health in Manitoba where the project was to be based called me and said they needed me badly.
I said I could only accept after visiting the place with my wife.
In May 1988, we visited and agreed to move to Canada, and I started working with University of Manitoba’s cancer care Manitoba, where I stayed for 16 years.
While in Canada in 2005, I received a letter from the chairman of the Uganda Episcopal Conference and chancellor of the Uganda Martyrs University, Bishop Paul Bakyenga, asking me to consider taking up a new position as the vice chancellor of the Uganda Martyrs University. I asked to first come and visit the university. I talked to heads of department and different bishops, before going back.
By the time I left, I had made up my mind that I had done enough national and international service and it was time I did something for the church.