Tabu loosens grip on bottle, steadies it on stethoscope

Dr Geoffrey Tabu (centre) with his mother Rosemary Benter Akinyi and father Hilary Odama Ozua after graduating with a Masters of Medicine in Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) at Makerere University’s 73rd graduation ceremony in Kampala on Monday. PHOTOS/COURTESY/ Jacobs Odongo Seaman

What you need to know:

  • For 18 years, Dr Geoffrey Tabu’s addiction had reduced him to a sickening drunkenness of passing out on the roadsides.
  • However, as Jacobs Odongo Seaman writes, his opening up on his past addiction is a pointer that he has turned a curve in his life now. 

Tabu is a name and a lot more. In Lugbara, it means problems. Among the Hindu, it is a given name for girls that means excellence.

The gods of names must have fought a bloody battle in Dr Geoffrey Tabu’s soul. For nearly 20 years, one god was determined to reduce Tabu to a heap of problems. It drove him into a devastating alcohol addiction.

The other god saw only a flawed genius in Tabu. It was determined to make him overcome the addiction that had reduced him to a sickening drunkenness of passing out on the roadside in Wandegeya and Makerere-Kavulu in Kampala with the regularity of a night watchman on duty.

The god of excellence won the battle.

Dr Tabu was a lone graduand of Masters of Medicine in Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) at Makerere University’s 73rd graduation ceremony on Monday.

Ms Rosemary Benter Akinyi stood by her son’s right hand in his graduation photo. She must have been thinking of how she never lost faith in him. To his left, Mr Hilary Odama Ozua was probably saying “you’re truly my son”.

Mother and father had seen their first born, who excelled in almost everything, take the wrong turn in life – straight and deep into a bottle. The ensuing battle with alcohol had only one outcome: a thorough defeat.

“It was a difficult time for the whole family, although we did our best to always be there and to support him,” Ms Lilian Anguparu reflected of her elder brother.

Ms Anguparu was studying Food Science and Nutrition at Makerere at the same time Tabu was being picked up on the streets in Wandegeya in the mornings having drunk enough to flood a typical Kampala suburb.
On April 25, 2005, Makerere went to polls to pick a guild president. At Mitchell Hall, the students locked themselves inside way past polling time. Tabu was one of those manning the gate.

“Eh Seaman, you’re here? We’re going to vote until Maurice Kibalya wins,” he told this writer.
It wasn’t the rigging that shocked, it was his state. He did not look even half of the extremely brilliant student he was in O-Level in Kakira.

The Tabu here reeked of alcohol. No, he was alcohol itself. The bottle had taken its toll on his body. Patches on his forehead were revealing enough.

Reflecting on his experience, Tabu spoke of the time he drank to stupor and blacked out in Wandegeya near the traffic lights at 7am. He was picked up by police and driven home to his uncle’s place in Gayaza, Wakiso District.

David Kidega, who was studying nursing at the same time as Tabu, recalls the time his old friend from Kakira Secondary School had to write his exams with a fractured arm.

“He had sustained a fracture while out ‘programming,’” Kidega, now a a public health specialist, said, using the slang for going to drink in dingy alleys.

The story behind that fracture was deep. Tabu says he had woken up in a makeshift police cell in Kalerwe in the midst of marijuana-smoking goons.

“They beat me up and made me clean poop with my trousers. I later escaped in only underwear around 7am, only to be chased by a baton-wielding police officer, who kept swinging it with relentless abandon,” he recalls.

“I was forced to swim across sewage-filled Nakivubo Channel to ‘safety’. I later found out I had incurred a fracture on my right tibia. I wore a long cast for eight weeks and had exams in the next two weeks.”

Finding his stethoscope
Dr Tabu was born on March 2, 1983, in a remote western Kenyan village of Marachi in Busia District to Ms Akinyi and Mr Ozua.

Dr Tabu (left) with after conducting surgery to relieve airway obstruction in a child with sleep apnea due to adenoids at a facility in Kampala early this year. PHOTO/JACOBS SEAMAN ODONGO

His mother, a retired midwife and HIV counsellor, is from Ugenya in Siaya county in Kenya. His father is from Uringua village, Ajiraku Parish, Bileafe Sub-county in Terego District.

Mr Ozua, now a retired secondary teacher of Mathematics and Physics, was mobile. His children studied wherever he was deployed. From starting his primary education in Kenya, Tabu would spend two years at Lugazi East where he completed his primary education before joining Busoga College Mwiri.

He lasted only one month at the hill. Off they went to Aria Secondary School in Terego District, where he completed Senior One, only to return to Jinja in 1997.

He joined Kakira Secondary School – where Mr Ozua taught – in Senior Two in 1998.
Tabu’s brilliance came naturally. He never seemed to make an effort. It was rare to find him studying with dedication. Even during night preps, it was like he came in as a necessity rather than the need to study.

As he topped his class, his only sister among seven siblings, Anguparu, was excelling in hers, a class back. A younger brother, Davis Anguyo, would also join the school later with his performance a proof that Mr Ozua’s genes were special.

Tabu scored distinctions in all but Commerce and Literature in English in his Uganda Certificate of Education in 2000.

Then Mr Ozua decided to enroll his son at a school in which he was not teaching.

Tabu joined St Mary’s College Kisubi (SMACK) for his A-Level. And that is where the bottle came into his life even as he went on to score an “A” in Chemistry and Biology and a “B” in Physics and French to qualify for Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at Makerere University.

“I had a cultural shock when I joined SMACK and thought drinking would give me clout. It later became a habit that haunted me for a good 18 years,” says Dr Tabu, who is married to Pamela Alisiru, with whom they have five children. 

“I’ve been in and out of rehab until 2019 when I was faced with the possibility of being discontinued from my Master’s programme.”

The addiction woes are evident in his academic performance. From an A-lister, Tabu concedes he became an average student. His undergraduate transcript tells much of the story.

“It also delayed me as I spent six years instead of five for my undergrad, and one-and-a-half years instead of one for internship,” he says.

Alcohol being a bad master, Dr Tabu says he developed conflicts with family members, work colleagues and was on the brink of being sanctioned severally.

“I kept pushing on and my skills kept me relevant. I might not have had stellar results in undergrad, but my patients appreciate my work,” he says.

At Monday’s graduation, he was the lone graduand in his discipline. For company, he slipped into his colleagues from the orthopaedic section.

Incidentally, orthopaedic surgery was his medical dream but Tabu never lives for himself. In school, he would drop everything to respond to a student in need of picking his brain.

The decision to specialise in ENT was from such a call for him to render that particular service to his ancestral area.

“I was approached by the administration of Arua Regional Referral Hospital to apply for ENT since the region last had an ENT surgeon 15 years ago,” he says.

“However, I came to love ENT the more I could change the quality of life of children.”

For his Master’s thesis, he researched on the prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea and validation of OSA-5 questionnaire among children aged 2 to 7 with severe adenotonsillar hypertrophy.

“In summary, there are children who stop breathing during sleep and this condition can be caused by enlarged adenoids and tonsils,” he explains.

Children with the condition arouse from sleep several times to restore breathing, thereby affecting sleep quality.

“When we operate them and remove these swellings, their breathing improves and so does their sleep quality,” he adds.

Humble to a fault, Dr Tabu’s choices hardly surprise. He has almost been reduced to a relief service provider, choosing to work in remote areas.

From Kamwenge in the current Kitagwenda District 2011, he moved to Yumbe Hospital for three years until 2014 when Arua called on his ENT services.

“I find Kampala to be fast-paced and there were blatant gaps in human resources for health in upcountry areas,” says the doctor who supplements his ENT engagements with farming.

He was into piggery and onions but has since ventured into poultry. He supplies 1,000 broiler chicks every two weeks and intends to expand to 2,000 chicks and later venture into layers.

After oscillating between born-again and the bottle for nearly 20 years, is the demon completely exorcised now?

Dr Tabu’s opening up on his past addiction is a pointer that he has turned a curve in his life now. His sister answers the relapse question best.

“It was a long battle for him and I guess relapse is out of the question. He made a decision to stop and we know he has stopped abuse of alcohol,” Ms Anguparu says.

The hand that for 18 years held onto the bottle has now steadied its grip on the stethoscope.