The first heroes of Uganda’s ‘Pandemic Hall of Honour’

Wednesday May 20 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Covid-19 pandemic, as of the time of writing, has not yet killed any Ugandans here at home, although some have died in “outside countries.”

However, in the last three months, it has probably disrupted lives in ways that HIV/Aids, which by 1996 was estimated to have killed 400,000-450,000 Ugandans, and wiped out about 50 per cent of adults in some parts of the country, didn’t do at the height of its long terror.

Pandemics have altered many things, and HIV/Aids in particular, led to a reorganisation of politics and national priorities in Uganda, that allowed private-state collaboration to deal with a crisis in ways that we will unlikely see for a long time to come.

These health crises forced us to find compassion for what previously were considered the “other”, and to bend down and pick up the weak. And, perhaps at the highest level, sacrifice for a cause that was certain death for some, without the gamble that they would survive and harvest glory, riches, or power from it.

While there are many inspiring stories going back to the heroic medical innovations from King Kabelega’s court in Bunyoro during his rule between 1870 to 1899, and Uganda’s and East Africa’s battles with sleeping sickness, transmitted by tse-tse fly for the first 70 years of the 1900s, we shall jump to 1986 where the reckoning with HIV/Aids fully started.

We shall celebrate a few good men and women, dead and alive, who deserve places in a Ugandan Pandemic Heroes Hall of Honour, if one was ever built. The list is long and space limited, so only a handful will be listed. And, also, we shall not name the Covid-19 heroes and heroines – yet.


Noerine is a physiotherapist, and in 1987 when we didn’t have an answer to HIV/Aids, her husband died of the disease. Noerine refused to fold. She chose to go into the trenches, forming The Aids Support Organization” (Taso). She and Taso became the most influential non-state actor and NGO in Uganda, and possibly Africa, of the 1990s.
Thank you Noerine, you taught us to fight.

Was a virtuoso musician, and the first prominent Ugandan and, globally the second celebrity, to publicly reveal he was HIV-positive.

His pain and end became a very publicly shared experience. Philly died in December 1989. He gave HIV/Aids a human face, and moved mountains against the stigma. Thank you, Philly, for teaching us courage and overcoming prejudice.

Kawuma was a bishop ahead of his time, nearly enlightened to a fault. At a time when the religious establishment shunned HIV/Aids patients as sinners, he invited Philly Lutaaya to sing with the choir in one of the most memorable moments of those difficult times. Because of him, we didn’t have to ask again the meaning of “In My Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2).

Was a physician and supervisor of St Mary’s Hospital, Lacor, in Gulu, when the north was still a place from hell, ravaged by a brutal insurgency by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and an equally brutal response by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).

At the beginning of October 2000, Ebola broke out in the Acholi region. Matthew refused to cut and run. Daily, he put himself in danger’s way as he led a brave battle against the virus. He won the battle, but lost the war.

He died of the disease on December 5, 2000. Matthew gave us the sacrifice worthy of closing Uganda’s 20th century, a hero who fell in a war theatre, whose weapon wasn’t a gun, but a stethoscope. Thank you, Matthew, for your humanity.

Born in Kasese, Samuel died in Monrovia, Liberia, on July 1, 2014. He was at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. With Liberia devastated by two civil wars, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was recruiting doctors to support Liberia’s collapsed health-care system.

Mutoro signed up for a surgery position at Redemption Hospital in a Monrovia suburb. It’s believed Samuel was infected after volunteering to treat a nurse with Ebola at his hospital during the West African Ebola outbreak.

The Lancet reported: “A few weeks after his death, during celebrations marking Liberia’s July 26 independence anniversary, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf singled Mutoro out for praise for “his collaborative and selfless service to the Liberian people.”

Samuel was one of several Ugandans who have died during or after responding to a medical crisis somewhere in Africa. Like them, he represented the idea of the Pearl of Africa, ever breaking out of landlocked fate with a grander world vision, at its most glorious.

Thank you, Samuel, for service to Mother Africa. You were the best of what we can be.

Mr Onyango-Obb is a journalist, writer, and curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and
publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.