‘Charlotte Ninsiima was not sick, but she was pregnant’

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

  • That many die just because they are pregnant must be the biggest failing of our health system.

She is staring down at us. Almost mocking us, daring us even. She is beautiful, sharing with us in death, her signature smile that friends describe as, ‘infectious and capable of melting any heart’. That smile, we are told, was as infectious as her laughter. 

Charlotte Ninsiima Adupu is yet another bright light gone out too soon, too young, in less than a year of her marriage to Julius Adupu. It is difficult to describe the grief and the mood at church. We are gathered on the September 8 at the Church of Resurrection, Bugolobi. We are told to celebrate the life of Ninsiima, not mourn. Friends and family gathered unified by pain and the really senseless loss of life. 

Even as we pretend that we are celebrating, the ‘praise God’ sounds hollow. The truth of our celebration is in the chocked-up voices, the sighs of the people she spoke to hours in the day of her death, the free-flowing tears, the questions of the faithful, and the doubts of us ordinary mortals.

As James Tumusime, her uncle, described Ninsiima ’s last conversation with him, hours before she transitioned, I couldn’t help wondering, what are we not getting right? Why did Ninsiima ’s visits to the antenatal clinic not pick up any signs that she could be in danger? How can she just collapse and die within hours? How did the heath system fail her? Or do we just accept, as the pastor said, that this was her calendar and nothing could have changed that?

Charlotte Ninsiima and husband Julius Adupu on their wedding day in 2022. Expectant mother Ninsiima died two weeks before giving birth after she suffered from pulmonary edema which caused failure of blood oxygenation, leading to her death on September 7, 2023, according to postmortem. PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY 

When Tumusime called on Thursday evening and announced that he had very bad news, I did not imagine what. Then he dropped it, ‘my daughter has died.’ I said ‘wait, what do you mean your daughter has died? Was she sick?’

Silly questions we ask sometimes. ‘Oh no, she was not sick, but she was pregnant. I do not know what happened. I spoke to her earlier today and she was fine. I am going to hospital to find out what happened.’ 

I remember sitting down as the weight of that statement sunk in – ‘she was not sick but she was pregnant’. As if being pregnant automatically marked her for death. As a prospective mother, nothing shatters your world more than to hear such a statement. I could not sleep. My mind wondered about, thinking of her husband. I wondered if her child had been saved since she was two weeks shy of her due date, according to Tumusime.

Sadly, I was at the same church just a few months ago, when we sat there and another young woman, our niece Eva stared down at us with an infectious smile, as the tears found their way out of our eye balls. Promising and enterprising, Eva had developed high blood pressure and within hours of making it to Mulago Women’s hospital had gone. Just like just that. Her baby was saved, for which we are grateful. But Charlotte lost her baby, sadly. Double tragedy.

Earlier in the day, before heading to this vigil, I read a story in the New Vision, highlighting findings from the Uganda Demographic Health Survey report of 2022, about the gains that the Ministry of Health had made in reducing maternal mortality ratio and pregnancy related deaths.

From 366 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006 to 189 in 2022 while pregnancy related mortality dropped from 368 deaths per 100, 000 to 228 in the same period.

Health minister Jane Ruth Aceng must be happy with that progress and remind us about how much the government has done to keep women alive. Why is that not even comforting?

As Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Health ministry publicist, stood there, barely finding words to describe Ninsiima  and his loss, I can see why the reduction is not comforting, because when someone you know is part of that 189, it is not funny.

Sharing the podium with friends from Daily Monitor, many of them in different spaces now, all at a loss, they too had many questions through their broken voices and tears.

Up there, Ainebyoona was just a friend. And maybe, something about how he speaks about the numbers will change whenever he remembers Ninsiima . Ultimately, each name in those numbers, is a friend, a daughter, sister, wife, aunt, colleague, mentor and mother to someone.

That many die just because they are pregnant, must be the biggest failing of our health system.

A doctor explained what happened, that Ninsiima ’s heart failed, leading to fluids in her lungs (my lay interpretation). So, maybe she did not suspect she was in danger, but regular medical visits to hospital during pregnancy is precisely to allow qualified people do the suspecting for them.

We lost an amazing young woman, full of dreams, valued by her employers and a devoted loving and hardworking wife, a daughter to be proud of. May Ninsiima and many others not die in vain.

We must double our efforts to reduce those numbers completely. Rest with the angels Ninsiima just as you were an angel to many children.

Emilly Maractho (PhD) is an academic and a senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University. [email protected]