My Ebola Story: I disowned relatives, but caught the virus

Sumayiya Nalubowa, an Ebola survivor from Mubende District. PHOTO | BARBRA NALWEYISO       

What you need to know:

  • On January 11, the country declared an end to an Ebola virus outbreak that had emerged almost four months earlier and claimed the lives of 55 people. In this 15th instalment of our series, we bring to you the intriguing story of Ms Nalubowa who disowned her relatives after they tested positive for Ebola for fear of stigma. She later caught the virus, escaped from hospital, but survived it. 

Sumayiya Nalubowa, a 30-year-old resident of Kaweeri Village in East Division, Mubende Municipality, and an Ebola virus survivor, says she contracted the disease from her three-year-old young brother Shakim Kavuma.

Kavuma was living with his mother Annet Nampenjja in Ngabano–Madudu. Nampenjja is a stepmother of Nalubowa.

Nalubowa says her little brother fell sick with a strange disease in September 2022. The boy was at first taken to a traditional healer in Madudu by his mother who claimed the boy was bleeding from the mouth because of witchcraft. The healer said the boy’s tongue had to be cut to stop the bleeding.

“The boy’s tongue was cut at the bottom and he immediately stopped bleeding; however after some time, the boy’s condition worsened and he was taken to Mubende Hospital,” she says.

When Kavuma was admitted to Mubende Hospital, her stepmother called asking her to help and provide support and care since she (Nalubowa) stayed near the hospital.

Kavuma was diagnosed with malaria and was put on oxygen. At that time, the announcement of an Ebola outbreak had not been made.

After spending two days in the hospital, Nampenjja also fell sick and was admitted to the women’s ward.

“At that time, I had stopped returning to my home in Kaweeri to see my family and only focused on caring for my little brother in the children’s ward. My father, Ismail Kavuma, was also taking care of my stepmother in the women’s ward,” she says.

On the third day at the hospital, her 12-year-old sister Zaina Nakalyango was also brought to the hospital bleeding from the nose and mouth. Nalubowa now had two patients to care for. Her focus now changed to her sister who was in a critical condition and was vomiting blood.

While at the hospital, she says they started hearing rumours that there was a new disease spreading through the area, which made people bleed through their nose and mouth. Some samples were taken from people who had died after presenting symptoms similar to those associated with Ebola to establish what the problem could be.

“On September 19, Ebola rumours spread across the hospital and people started staring and pointing at us, whispering, but I ignored them because I had no idea of what was transpiring. The nurses stopped attending to my sister and brother,” she says.

Nalubowa narrates that all the health workers who used to work on the patients started avoiding them. They would stand far away and direct her to do all sorts of work health workers were supposed to do.

What hurt her was that even the nurses who knew how dangerous the matter was did not alert her. They just shunned going near them. It was only later in the day that a female doctor came and told her not to touch either patient again without using gloves.

“I was scared at times and started hiding from my sister. She could call my name, yearning for water. At times, I could throw a bottle of water toward her, and avoid going near her. I would hide from her because I didn’t want her to see and call me and then I refuse to go; it would have broken her heart,” she says.

Throughout the interview, Nalubowa breaks down in tears.

On September 20, the Ministry of Health declared an Ebola outbreak in Mubende. The health workers then started moving from ward to ward and selecting patients with signs such as those of Ebola. Nalubowa’s siblings were isolated.

Seeing health workers covered in coveralls, something she had never seen before, scared her to the marrow. So she left the ward.

However, some people had seen her and known the patients she was taking care of and pointed that out. But she said she didn’t know the patients they were taking off.

“When Ebola was declared, I was so scared because my patients were the first suspects. A doctor called me asking for information about the three patients I was in touch with, my little brother, sister and step-mother, but I denied them.

“I remember I told the doctor that I only knew the husband of the lady and provided him with the contact information of my father. I then walked back straight to my home in deep fear and explained everything to my husband. He took our son to our nearby neighbours since I had become a key suspect,” she says.

The tests on the three people returned positive on September 22. They were then transferred to the Ebola treatment unit. That very day Nalubowa’s father fell sick, but he didn’t reveal to the health workers how he was feeling.

On September 23, her sister Nakalyango passed away, but Nalubowa kept the news of her sister’s death to herself. She did not let her neighbours know because she feared they could suspect her.

“My sister was buried the following day on Saturday by a safe and dignified burial team. The body was brought late in the evening and buried at around 8pm, but we were not allowed to attend the burial or even come near,” she says.

After her sister’s burial, her father’s condition worsened; however, he refused to accept that he had Ebola and the health workers were forced to go along with police to evacuate him.

A few days after, Nalubowa’s father tested positive for Ebola, she also fell sick. She went to a clinic in Kaweeri for treatment; however despite the efforts made to help her and changes in the treatment she did not get better.

Noticing that there was no change in her condition, Nalubowa was taken to Mubende Hospital and admitted to the emergency ward where all Ebola suspects were isolated.

“I was given a dose of treatment which made me feel better. Later in the day, one of the men asked me whether I was an Ebola patient or suspect because that place was designated for Ebola suspects, but I told him that I was not,” she says.

Escape mission

In the morning she sneaked out of the ward and planned how to escape from the hospital. She decided to wait for darkness to fall.

“I picked my bag and moved out of the hospital slowly. I walked straight home and did not use a boda boda thinking that I may be traced. Unfortunately after reaching home, I got worse and I was forced to go back to the clinic where I had got treatment at first,” she reveals.

Nalubowa later left the clinic and went to a hospital nearby.  She asked the team at the hospital whether they could do all types of tests, including that of Ebola, but they told her that they could not test for Ebola. They also told her that they didn’t believe there was Ebola and that the government and health officials were doing all that because they wanted financial support from various countries.

While there, she tested positive for malaria. She was given treatment and returned home the following day.

That evening, her condition worsened and her husband took her back to Mubende Hospital. She was admitted again in the emergency room designated for Ebola suspects. She discovered that they had started searching for her.

Her sample and that of others were collected and taken for testing. Two days later, the results were back.

“A doctor came into the ward covered in overalls and read out my name. Because of the fear, I did not reply, but the doctor kept on shouting my name and finally I responded in a low voice. He started convincing me to go to another room because they wanted space in the room I was in. 

‘‘I then heard the doctor speaking to a nurse, telling her: ‘She tested positive for Ebola and we want her away from her colleagues, she might infect them.’”

She asked the doctor if it was true she had Ebola as he [doctor] was alleging, but the doctor said no and that they only wanted to shift all the patients who came on Thursday starting with her. Nalubowa says she accepted to do what he asked, but started planning to escape again.

“On the very day I was taken to the Ebola treatment unit, I still had some energy because of the treatment I had received. As I had done during my first escape, I waited till night to execute my plan, but I was caught before reaching the hospital gate and taken back,” she reveals.

During her second day in the unit, her condition worsened and all the serious symptoms presented.

“I started vomiting blood. I had diarrhoea, and was bleeding from my nose. I started urinating dark thick urine, yellow in color and lost my appetite. That’s when my understanding stopped and I went into a coma,” she says.

Nalubowa says she regained her consciousness after four days. By that time, most of the patients thought she was dead.

At the beginning, the patients would be required to wear polythene bags to manage the diarrhea, but as the condition improved they were given adult pampers.

Five people were infected with Ebola virus disease from Nalubowa’s family, and one person died.


When asked why she did not want to go to the hospital to get help, and why she kept trying to escape, Nalubowa says she was afraid to be told that she actually had Ebola.

She worried that if she had it, she would not recover and felt it was better not to know. There were also allegations that Ebola was not real, so sometimes she was not sure what to believe.

Nalubowa adds that the information she heard on radio and TV, as well as the way the public perceived the information made her fear being admitted.

She was discharged from Mubende Hospital after recovering, but faced a lot of stigma.

At one point, the village committee surrounded her home ordering her to go back to the hospital saying she still had the virus and might infect the village. That really traumatised her.

Nalubowa, however, still feels body pain whenever she does any heavy work. She claims that the Ebola survivors’ clinic is not helping them as they thought it should, saying that even when one falls sick, they are referred to the general hospital.

“I once fell sick and made a call to the survivors’ clinic updating them on my condition, but I was told that it was not my day to visit the clinic. However, they asked me to go if I could. It was 9am when I got there, but it got to 6pm without being attended to yet the healthcare workers were around,” she says.

She wonders if her name was removed from the list because she last visited the clinic in November last year and has not received a call to go for a check, and yet “you are only meant to visit when the nurses call you according to their time table’’. 

Nalubowa, however, applauds the health workers who cared for them, providing treatment, keeping them clean, washing their clothes, and bathing them. She is grateful to have her life back.

ABOUT ebola

      It is a deadly virus with initial symptoms which can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat. Subsequent stages can include vomiting, diarrhoea and - in some cases - both internal and external bleeding, known as haemorrhaging. The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks. Symptoms of Ebola can sometimes be confused with other illnesses such as malaria and typhoid.