22 03 2013

Even in the face of death, all she thought about was work

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By Irene Kiiza-Onyango

Writing this story scares me. It has to be written with utmost accuracy, style and a decent command of the English language.

All because it is a story about an accomplished writer with a PhD in Literature, a tough editor and journalism lecturer, who would have frowned and wearily sighed about a bad story. I will take a chance.

This story is about Dr. Sarah Namulondo, who, until her death this week, was not only a lecturer at Makerere University, but also an associate editor of The Observer, a newspaper where she was one of the founding directors.

Death is normal, but this particular one was quite tragic. It took Namulondo on Sunday, March 17, just two weeks away from her 41st birthday that would have fallen on March 31.

Her death is a blow not only to the media fraternity, but also to the many people she had an impact on professionally or through her generosity. One such person is media consultant Bernard Tabaire, the general secretary of the Africa Centre for Media Excellence.

“I met Sarah when she joined Daily Monitor as a sub-editor in 1997, nearly a year after I had worked as a reporter. We have been friends since, despite our paths diverging in 2004. Once you got behind Sarah’s quiet exterior, you discovered a thoughtful, smart, generous and hardworking woman.

In more familiar company, she was bubbly while all the time remaining considered and measured. She was refined,” he says.

“Sarah and I were the same age, our birthdays falling a couple of months apart. That was always timely excuse for some barbed but friendly banter about further education, career, family and adulthood.

You just had to know Sarah. I am fortunate I did. Go well, dear friend.” Linda Nabusayi, the deputy presidential press secretary, described Namulondo as patriotic.

“Despite travelling around the world and gaining so much knowledge that she could use to get a job abroad, she always came back home and got involved in training our future generations.

Most of our journalists today, especially those who have worked at one point or another in Daily Monitor and The Observer, have been touched and changed by the skills of this extraordinary woman,” she said.

What did she die of?

Events leading to her death reeked of doom, but to many of us, Namulondo was too good to die just like that. It started with severe heartburn, graduating into intense pain and in October, she was diagnosed with gallstones.

At International Hospital Kampala (IHK), her gall bladder was removed by laparoscopy. Many thought she would have had the cheaper option of an open surgery, but Namulondo was a sophisticated patient.

She loved gadgets and fancied new technology. She also wanted a procedure that would offer a quick recovery because she wanted to go back to work. In her words, “I cannot imagine having to go through treating that surgery wound.”

Although the laparoscopy provided some relief, it was temporal. In a matter of days, she was back at IHK with excruciating abdominal pain.

“They say labour pains are incomparable to any pain. I do not know what they feel like, but this is certainly worse than labour,” Namulondo alluded when we visited her.

Other tests were done and one of her kidneys was found to be dilated — the possible cause of the excruciating pain. The doctor decided to stent her kidney, so she was admitted to Kibuli Muslim Hospital, where the procedure was done.

A few days after she was discharged, the pain returned and she was also throwing up. She was rushed to Nakasero Hospital, where the doctors thought her colon could be the problem. But a check was done and it was found to be fine.

The pain persisted, so she went back to Kibuli Muslim Hospital, where the doctors opted for an operation on her appendix. A lot of pus was drained from her stomach. The doctor said the appendix was perforated.

We thought she would recover, but we were wrong. The pain subsided, for a while, but she was vomiting aggressively. It was discovered she had clots in her small intestine. The doctors immediately began on an expedition to clear the clots, warning that it would be a slow process.

But the pain did not completely go away. Indeed, she once sternly told her sister, Mariam Najjuka, to “stop telling people that I am fine. Tell them I am so, so, so sick. They need to know I am not fine.”

When we visited her on March 11, her eyes had turned yellow. She had already received two pints of blood and inside me, I knew it was not anaemia; it had to be jaundice or a worse condition.

On Friday March 15, a new scan indicated that she had a tumour on the liver. The doctor then sought to find out whether the growth was cancerous or not. But by the time the results were released, Namulondo was gone.

We hope the post-mortem examination will help put a picture to what the real cause of Sarah’s death was.

Thoughts about herGHTS ABOUT HER

James Tumusiime, The Observer managing director, described Namulondo’s death as a tragedy. “It is a tragedy to her because she did not live to enjoy her life.

Secondly, it is a tragedy to her family because they relied on her for so much. Thirdly, it is a tragedy for us as an organisation because it is always hard to replace people.”

Namulondo will be remembered most for her self-sacrificing generosity. She paid school fees for many children, including those who were not related to her, bought many babies milk and clothes and always had a gift for everyone around her.

No wonder she had uncontrollable visitors when she was admitted to hospital. At one point, her friend, Charlotte Ntulume, an assistant lecturer at the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University, had to literally force them out of her room.

Namulondo had such a passion for journalism that she made it her business to bring the students she taught at Makerere to The Observer and make sure they improved their writing skills.

Namulondo might have missed many things during her illness, but she must have missed her work more than anything else. “She loved her jobs, both at The Observer and at Makerere,” says The Observer human resource director, Carolyne Nakazibwe.

A crestfallen Nakazibwe said: “I feel that she was at a point in her life where she was going to start living and then she died. I remember how proud she was that she had become a doctor. It took her six years to get the accolade and just two years later, she is dead! Banange Sarah!”

Namulondo was a ferocious human rights’ activist, one of the reasons she picked on the name Nantaba. “I chose that name because I hated the name Namulondo, which means “the throne”. I do not know why I had to be given that name,” she once said during a hot debate in the newsroom about how culture many times demeans women.

Namulondo had told The Observer, when she graduated with a PhD from the University of South Florida: “When women try to claim status as individuals, the cultural expectations act as constant bottlenecks to return them to their prescribed roles as subordinate beings.”

FACT FILE

Born on March 31, 1972 to Mohammed Nalumoso and Christine Namiiro Ssemasaazi (both deceased)

1978: Primary school – Luzira Church of Uganda Primary School

1985 – 1988: O’level — Kololo High School

1989 – 1991: A’level — Old Kampala Senior Secondary School

1995: Bachelor of Arts, Makerere University

1997: Master of Arts —Makerere University

2010: PhD in literature from University of South Florida, in America


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