Dr Margaret Mungherera: Influence beyond borders

Saturday October 27 2012

 Dr Margaret Mungherera, a psychiatrist serving as president of the Uganda Medical Association

Dr Margaret Mungherera, a psychiatrist serving as president of the Uganda Medical Association, was recently elected the first female president of the World Medical Association. She is slated to take up office in October 2013. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye 

By Grace Kenganzi.

From childhood, Dr Margaret Mungherera knew she wanted to be a medical specialist. She had inspiration in her uncle, who was the first medical doctor from Butaleja. What she did not know, nor envision, was that one day, she would surpass this childhood dream to become not just a doctor, but the president of the World’s Medical Association.
“The medical field was such that women could only be nurses or something else along those lines, but not doctors,” she remembers. At the time she got into the Makerere University Medical School, she was one of about 20 girls out of the more than 100 students in her year.

From there, her life reads like an impressive resumé. And as she narrates it, there isn’t the slightest bit of the coyness people usually have when they are uncomfortable to talk about their achievements. It is not with vanity that she speaks of the prestigious schools she has gone to or the work she has done, but a sort of acceptance that the lot life has dealt just happens to be a good hand, so, there is no shame in talking about it, especially if people are asking.

Saying it as it is, may be partly what has got Mungherera where she is. If doctors were not behaving as ethically as expected, she pointed it out at different occasions. When the same management she works for was treating its staff less than it should, she pointed it out advocating for their rights to issues like better pay. It is no wonder that she is the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the National Medical Council.

Traits of one headed for big things
She has developed a reputation among her peers as a person not easily intimidated. One, Dr Charles Kiggundu, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, believes she has the profession at heart, is energetic and focused. And indeed she does, as she was among the founding members of the association she now heads.

“While I was working in Butabika, I got together with other women doctors and formed an association- the Uganda Medical Association, and I was its publicity secretary. In 1997, I was elected the vice president of the association and a year later, I became president. I stayed on for five terms, four of them unopposed,” she narrates. “I stepped down in 2005 because I had been appointed by the President to be on the Global Fund commission of inquiry. But in 2010, doctors came together and elected me again so that I could advocate for better conditions for public medical personnel.”

But it was not just the doctors in Uganda who noticed her spark. Almost 50 national medical associations worldwide elected her, unopposed, president of the World Medical Association (WMA), starting her work in October 2013. “I was actually surprised. I’m still overwhelmed by their support,” she reacted to the election. Even overwhelmed, she knew exactly what she wanted to do during her term of office. To “focus on ensuring that the WMA becomes more relevant to poor countries by addressing issues that affect the national medical associations and the health of people in such countries.”

What it means to women
Dr Mungherera takes pride in what she describes as her greatest professional achievement, for what it means for Uganda, esepcially the women. “In the medical profession, my achievement shows that women can not only be doctors who can make a difference but that they can also be leaders in the medical profession, not only locally but also at the international level,” she says,” I also didn’t imagine that one day I would lead in my profession, internationally at that. I mean, I have always been a leader. I was a prefect at Gayaza High School, was in charge of the choir, but I did not see myself here. It really shows that the sky is indeed the limit.”

But even before her presidency, she was already an inspiration to many. Talking to aspiring doctors specialising in mental health at Makerere University’s College of Health Sciences, the name Dr Mungherera comes up often as a person they look up to. And it is not only those aspiring, but also those who are already practising.

“She is an inspiration to those of us who have followed in her footsteps and admire her diligence,” Dr Noeline Nakasujja, a psychiatrist at Mulago Hospital says.

Her inspiration
So where does this phenomenal woman get her inspiration from?
“I learnt a lot from my parents because I saw how they did their work. My mother worked for YWCA and several projects, in fact she received an award from Namibian President, Sam Nujoma, for her work with Freedom from Hunger. My father worked for the culture ministry and did a lot of development work for the community. I saw them doing a lot of voluntary work and this inspired me to work for the good of the people.

“I am also a Rotarian, a member of the Rotary Club of Kampala West. A big chunk of my passion is rotary because rotary has a vision to transform leaders into effective leaders and to me that is something good. Rotary has inspired me a lot,” she says.

Dr Mungherera wants to be remembered as someone who transformed the medical profession in Uganda. On how she would want to be quoted for years to come, she says, “Women in Uganda can have a place in the leadership of the medical profession, not just in Uganda but also internationally.” Given that she is the first African woman to head the WMA; this is a quote we can believe.

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Fact file
Born: October 25, 1957.
• She originally hails from Butaleja and is married to Richard Mushanga. She comes from a famil;y of six children, four of them medical doctors and her parents are still alive.
Education:
• Nakasero Primary School 1963.
• Gayaza High School 1970.
• Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery from Makerere University’s Faculty of Medicine 1982.
• Post graduate diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the University of London’s School of Tropical Medical and Hygiene 1984.
• Masters of Medicine in Psychiatry from Makerere University 1992.
Employment
• Worked as Psychiatrist at Butabika in 1984-2003. Hospital and was in charge of the hospital forensic psychiatric services. Taught clinical forensic psychiatry to undergraduate medical students and psychiatric clinical officers. Developed the Forensic Psychiatry course for post graduate doctors specialising in Psychiatry.
• Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation 1998- 2001.
• As a part time consultant, developed and ran mental health services for Sudanese refugees in Adjumani, Moyo and Arua districts of Northern Uganda. Included mental health training of psychiatric nurses and counselors. Subsequently collaborated with local and Ministry of Health officials to integrate the service into the national service.
• Senior Consultant Psychiatrist Mulago Hospital 2003- present day.
• Head of the clinical psychiatric services of the Hospital. These are outpatient and inpatient services which include consultation psychiatric liaison services to other departments in the Hospital.

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