My parents were 16 and 18 years old when they started building our family, and like many of the children I knew in my home country of Uganda, I was born at home. The nearest hospital was over 15 miles away over winding dirt roads. The sixth of seven children, I was born without a breath or a heartbeat, and survived thanks to a brave old lady who had some passed-on knowledge of reviving “silent” newborns.
My story, dramatic though it might seem to Westerners accustomed to hospitals and OBGYNs, is sadly not unique. I remember clearly the first time I became aware of this fact, after witnessing a woman giving birth on the side of the road. That experience, at age 6, planted a seed in my brain, a seed that grew and grew until it blossomed into the beginning of my life’s work.
When I was 19, I began working with my family and local council leaders to identify and train 32 local women in topics like sexual and reproductive health and rights. I would spend my college holidays translating health information from English to the Ugandan language of Lusoga in order to facilitate this training.
In 2012, my family and I decided we need to do more, and began renovating a three-room birthing house. A year later, we broke ground on a seven-room clinic. In 2014, the Suubi “Hope” Health Center opened its doors to the community for the first time. Since then, we’ve delivered 321 babies, vaccinated 1,667 children onsite and offered antenatal care to over 1,640 pregnant women.
This process has taught me a lot about the need for sustainable health policy around the world. But increasingly, I have realized that we would not be nearly as successful without outside help. Around the world, thousands of people have heard about our efforts and have reached out with financial and technical support. International celebrities like French Montana and The Weeknd have also helped amplify our efforts, and French has continued to use his platform to advocate for health care solutions and innovation.
The growth of Suubi has been incredible, and we are so grateful for the many ways we are supported and held by our neighbors--near and far. But at the end of the day, my family shouldn’t have had to build a health center to make sure mothers in our community don’t die from simple complications.
The public pays tax and entrust the government to use our taxes to provide services for the people of Uganda. It is our right as citizens to demand those services be useful and accessible. Sadly, the opposite is happening. Indeed, in the last few years, spending on health care has been reduced and reduced. Three years ago, the National Health Accounts survey revealed that Ugandan government was spending less than a dollar on each citizen’s healthcare per month. This represents only one third of Uganda’s own target amount, and remains far below the international minimum threshold. In a nation where 80% of the population lives in rural areas, it is inevitably the poorest people who suffer the most. We need a better long-term solution for the people of Uganda.
In the meantime, we at the Suubi Center will continue to provide vital services. For us, the biggest question is how we can do this sustainably, so the services will continue even if donations dry up. We don’t want to be like many public health establishments; huge multi-story buildings with few staff and no supplies. So, how will we keep running the operational costs of our clinic for decades to come? In a remote community with no electricity and a poor population, how will households afford high-quality healthcare services? These are quite complex questions to answer. But thanks to the support from Mama Hope, French Montana, and many other people all over the world, we are building our clinic with these issues at the forefront.
I am incredibly lucky to be alive today. But many mothers and children were not so lucky. It is my hope that eventually, through the efforts of advocates and global citizens, no baby’s future will be decided on the side of a dirt road.
Denis Muwanguzi is the Programs Director of Budondo Intercultural Center (parent organization for Suubi Health Center)