When the Observer Stories Saved Lives, Gave Hope

Without The Observer newspaper, David Muhwezi would probably still be limping around Kisiita village in Bugangaizi, Kibaale district, in agony and destitution.

Or, even worse, the boy, now 17, would perhaps have succumbed to a disease whose symptoms had turned him into a pariah to relatives and other members of his community. Muhwezi’s fortunes changed for the better on a sunny day in January 2011, when I spotted him limping from his hiding place towards a crowd attending President Museveni’s campaign rally. He had heard that ‘big people’ were coming to his village and had come out of hiding to seek help from them, or anyone.

My brief at the time was to cover Museveni’s countrywide campaign tour. However, the sight of a boy practically rotting alive, his skin peeling off to expose raw wounds that oozed pus, and whose smell sent everyone scampering off nose-in-hand, was too touching to ignore. When Muhwezi approached soldiers belonging to the president’s protection detail, the UPDF Special Forces Command, to beg for food, even the military personnel could not stomach the pungent smell from the boy.

Wherever he turned, villagers shielded their children from Muhwezi for fear that they could contract the disease that had turned his flaky skin white. He constantly shooed off the flies following him everywhere he went. Yet the ailment that Muhwezi suffered from, which I later learnt was an auto-immune disease called Pemphigus, is not even contagious. It was just that the damage it inflicted on the boy’s skin was devastating enough to shock everyone who saw him.

Struck by Muhwezi’s condition, I took down personal information from him and neighbours. I learnt that he lived in an abandoned house in the village, where he fed like a dog, slept like a pig and lived on his own like a leper – away from the rest of humanity.

Good samaritans:

When the story of his condition was published on February 7, 2011, it seemed to me just another story of the plight of a Ugandan child. However, my managing editor, James Tumusiime, thought otherwise. And so did many Observer readers. Within days, hundreds of people had sent emails inquiring how they could help Muhwezi.

Material support for Muhwezi came from local companies and individuals from within Ugandan and as far as the USA and Britain. I went back to Kibaale searching for him and drove him to Kampala, where he received treatment at several top medical facilities. In addition, Africa Renewal ministries agreed to host the boy at their children’s home, Bethany House. In May 2011, Muhwezi got a home, a mother (Betty), father (Jimmy), brothers and sisters with whom he lives to this day.

In an interview last week, Betty enthused about the transformation that Muhwezi has undergone over the last three years.

“He is now in P4 and he is performing well. He especially likes repairing electronics and prefers to go to a technical institute to learn mechanics but I thought he is still young. At least he should study until Senior Four. He likes helping around at home and engages well with his brothers and sisters,” Betty says.

Muhwezi is just one of many individuals whose fortunes have been changed by articles in The Observer over the last 10 years. That transformation has largely been down to the generous response of readers. In another instance, when reporter Felix Eupal was sent to write an obituary about Billy Kaye, he met a devastated Damalie Muwonge, who had just got engaged to the 28-year-old a month before his untimely death.

Muwonge was in shock because Kaye had been in fine health. But one evening, he complained of chest pain which progressed into difficulty in breathing before he collapsed. In two days, Kaye was pronounced dead.

Doctors said Kaye died from pulmonary embolism, a condition where a blood clot blocks the main artery of the lungs, causing difficulty in breathing and eventually shutting down the heart. At the vigil, Damalie was inconsolable. Eupal captured her grief in his obituary and, consequently, helped Damalie find help.

“When the story ran, an organisation which deals with trauma and counselling contacted me. They offered free counselling to Damalie to relieve her of the pain and traumatising experience she was going through after losing her fianceacute,” Eupal says.

Limping stories:

In another case, political reporter Sulaiman Kakaire was reporting about the jigger epidemic in the Busoga sub-region when he met young James Bageya limping to school. Kakaire found that like Bageya, many pupils of Buwolomera primary school in Iganga district, had been attacked by the flea, causing many of them to report late to school because they could not walk fast enough.

“When the story ran, an NGO contacted me. They went to the school and treated all the children who had jiggers. They also educated their parents about basic sanitation to avoid re-infection. They also offered to pay school fees for the children who had been affected by the jiggers,” says Kakaire.

Another instance where a story in The Observer resulted in readers helping a victim was the crackdown on Muslim clerics operating Islamic religious schools, popularly known as Madarasas. Security operatives claimed the madrasas aid and abet terrorism. Kakaire, reporting that story too, highlighted the case of Sheikh Musa Ntulume, who was arrested after conducting Friday (Juma) prayers in Lugazi.

Ntulume was held in police custody without legal representation for days. However, a lawyer contacted Kakaire after a story on his plight was published and offered free legal services to Ntulume. In the same vein, I cannot forget the satisfaction in Benon Herbert Oluka’s voice when, mid-way through an editorial meeting last month, he asked to be excused.

“I am sorry but I have to step out to go and receive a wheelchair for Fred Male,” he announced.

Oluka had written about Male, a car-accident victim from Mukono town, who had suffered five fractures in his two legs. Neither the police nor the car owner had offered help more than a month after the accident. It was Observer readers who came to his rescue.

Besides the cash donations that helped him resume treatment, Male also received a donation of a wheelchair worth Shs 800,000 from CoRSU hospital and Mulago hospital. As a journalist, when I pick my pen and take down the first words from a source, I can never know the impact those words are likely to have on the readers. The results, as in the cases above, are often humbling and inspiring in the same breath.

Source : The Observer

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