With his red spring file stuffed with papers, Swaibu Makumbi, commonly known as Sula Mbaya, arrives at the Daily Monitor Masaka bureau offices. We have scheduled an interview to talk about his activism and fighting for patients’ rights for close to 13 years.
When he returns, we sit down and resume the interview. Sensing my keen eye on the file he is carrying, Makumbi is quick to explain, “These are all copies of letters I have written to and received from the hospital authorities and Ministry of Health, pestering them for improved health service delivery at Masaka Regional Referral Hospital, or else I lead a demonstration.”
Such is the life the 56-year-old has lived since 2004 after taking the mantle to advocate better health service in government health facilities upon realising that life is the most valuable thing one needs.
After seeing several patients in queues at different pharmacies in Masaka Town after being sent by doctors at Masaka Regional Referral Hospital to buy drugs, Makumbi started his activism.
“They lined up at different pharmacies, each having a small paper with a list of different drugs they had to buy. I wondered where pharmacies get drugs which our public hospitals could not access,” he says, adding that he quickly called the hospital administrator who told him that certain drugs are not supplied to the hospital because they need special storage facilities such as a fridge which requires reliable power.
“I then wrote to the concerned stake holders to have the hospital connected on the Kasijagirwa barracks grid which never goes off and this was done immediately,” he says.
In 2012, when he discovered that medics extort money from patients as well as mistreating them, he wrote to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, to have all health worker wear name tags.
“I knew this would make it easy for patients to tell which medic has mistreated them or asked for money. Soon, Parliament debated this and took action because of me,” he says in a boastful manner.
Ultra sound scan
Because Masaka Regional Referral Hospital lacked an ultrasound scan machine, doctors would refer patients to private facilities that were sometimes not easy to access and most of all expensive.
“But most of these patients did not have money to even make it to the hospital. Many would sell their household items to get transport and here were the medics sending them away,” he wonders.
He then wrote to the Ministry of Health and attached more than one hundred signatures from patients, warning they would strike if ultrasound scan services were not provided at the hospital. The Health ministry sent two scans.
In 2010, the hospital had suspended provision of food to patients. “The hospital administrator told me Parliament had stopped the programme and I had to petition the Speaker once again and some legislators from Masaka District about the need to provide patients with food.” he says.
“Later, the hospital resumed offering food and whenever I see a patient with a cup of porridge for breakfast and a plate of posho and beans at lunch, I am satisfied,” he adds.
After what he calls a lengthy meditation, he realised that it is from health facilities where life starts, where it saved and where 90 per cent of people end their life journey. “But the big question is what patients find in the hospitals where they go to save their lives.”
He says he felt concerned that life is sometimes lost because of negligence by medical workers, lack of drugs and medical equipment and sometimes extortion. He, therefore, started visiting several health facilities in 2003 to look at their service delivery and pinpoint areas where it was lacking.
“When I bumped into a pregnant mother who a midwife was refusing to treat just because she did not have enough money, I was forced to talk to the hospital administrator who also seemed to support the midwife.
It is from this background that he decided to proclaim himself as the patients’ spokesperson something he say he has done for close to 14 years and vows to die fighting for improved health care.
“The journey has caused threats from those on whose toes I step but I cannot coil up because my life is less important compared to the many that lose life over issues that would otherwise be solved,” he adds.
Forming an organsaition
To further his activism, Makumbi started an organisation in 2014. Dubbed Southern Regional Rights Association, with a slogan ‘Citizens Concerned’ the organisation has offices in different districts to have ears on the ground regarding what is taking place at a number of health facilities.
He says people thank him for fighting for their rights because many are clueless about the fact that they are entitled to healthcare.
He was this year rewarded with a medal during the National Labour Day celebrations held in Sembabule District. “President Museveni told me he would arrange and meet me to help him teach people about patriotism so that more people would be concerned enough to do what I do,” he says.
Appeal to people
Makumbi says since we are all citizens of the same country, everyone should yearn to help those in need. “You do not have to be rich, but have a caring heart. If we had patriotic people in all districts, Uganda would be a better place to live in,” he says.
His appeal to government is to give priority to the security and health sectors because the two are instrumental to the development of the nation.
At a glance
Makumbi was born in Kiryasaka, Kibinge, Bukomansimbi District to Anania Kasibante and Lovince Babirye (RIP) on 18 October 1962
He started school at Bwala Primary in Masaka District, but went back to Kiryasaka after the war where Idi Amin was overthrown in 1977 and joined Lukenke Madarasat School in Misanvu where he completed his Primary Seven.
He says he did not advance with his education as there was no chance to. “An aunt would lock us [me and my siblings] in a car boot for failing to go to school. We felt she was torturing us so we quit school and started agricultural produce business,” he says.
He says he does not regret this because he is doing things many educated people cannot do.”
He is married to Nuriat Nakamya and they have five children.