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Children in a village in Jinja district, eastern Uganda

Ugandan mothers want justice for their children who died in care of an unlicensed American health worker

Rosebell Kagumire
By Rosebell Kagumire in Kampala, Uganda

In 2013 Gimbo Zubeda a woman from Namutumba, the eastern district of Uganda was told by public health workers that her three-year old son Twalali Kifabi suffered from malnutrition. They advised she starts him on a nutritious diet which Zubeda could not afford. So when a woman approached her in July that year and told her of a feeding program in another district of Jinja, Zubeda took a leap of faith. Pregnant at the time, she asked her mother to take Twalali.

Three days later, a phone call came through announcing her son’s death. Later the vehicle from the center brought Twalali’s body back to the village and the representatives left Zubeda 50,000 Uganda shillings ($14) and no explanation.

“I had questions as to what killed my child. I needed explanations but none was given to me by the women who came with the body,”  Zubeda narrates in a sworn affidavit in a case before the High Court in Jinja.

Four years later in 2017, Kakai Annet from Buikwe district was persuaded her child suffered malnutrition and ended up at the same feeding center for a day where her son was tended to out of her sight. Kakai’s son Elijah Kabagambe was later driven to a public health center where he didn’t get any treatment or explanation. Days after this trip the child died.

courtesy Primah Kwagala
Kakai Annet, who lost her son Elijah, after attending the Serving His Children

Now these two women have sued Renee Bach  and her religious non-governmental organization, Serving His Children for running an unlicensed facility where she personally passed herself off as a doctor and was involved in various medical procedures on children.

Bach first came to Uganda in 2007 to volunteer at an orphanage at the age of 18 with just a high school education then set up Serving His Children as an NGO in her home state of Virginia in the United States.  She later moved back to Uganda in 2009 serving as president of the not for-profit.

In Uganda she also registered as an NGO that would work “in the fields of promoting evangelism, provide welfare for the needy.” But between 2010- 2015, Bach, now 30, admitted about hundreds of severely malnourished children, 105 of them died at her facility in Masese, Jinja.

Uganda reduced its under-five mortality by more than half, from 151 deaths per 1,000 live births to 64 deaths between 2001- 2016, although malnutrition continues to be a challenge according to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey.  And children whose mothers have had no education and are poor like the ones that came to Bach’s centre, remain majorly affected by malnutrition. But Bach did not always wait  for them to come to her as Ashley Laverty,  a former volunteer at the organization says in a sworn affidavit.

“She would look for the most critically ill children and convince their mothers to “run away” with them, and come to her center so they could be treated from there instead of the government hospitals,” states Laverty.

In 2015 district health authorities finally responded to community complaints to close the centre but Bach then secured a partnership with a public health centre in another district of Mayuge where the Serving His Children signpost is seen now.

There were no investigations or arrests even when her photos showed Bach involved in procedures like blood transfusion and administering IVs.

Screenshot
A screenshot of Bach’s “The Angels of Africa” blog used as evidence in the lawsuit

Her “The Angels of Africa” blog entries now form a big part of evidence where she would publish photos of severely ill children, their medical information with no permission followed by her stories of triumph. She was often the hero in the posts aimed at her financiers: mostly fellow American evangelicals. According to the US Internal Revenue Service ( IRS) tax forms, the NGO’s total revenue for 2015 was around $750,000 entirely raised from donors.

Primah Kwagala a Kampala-based lawyer who grew up in Jinja town now represents the women.  “I knew the context so we moved as fast as we could. We are talking about illiterate women. If you are a white woman speaking English, wearing telescopes around the center and workers addressed her as “musawo” meaning doctor in the local language [Lusoga], they will assume you are one,” says Kwagala.

The lawyer says Bach’s misconduct went on for far too long partly due to the status of women and children at the receiving end of these medical experiments.

“She targeted women for whom a lot of violence is already normalized and many lack the language to describe the violations as they happen. They can’t write, they can’t read. They would never understand the health system. These are several layers of marginalization.”

Primah Kwagala
Primah Kwagala, brought the case on behalf of the mothers

The exploitation of vulnerable, uneducated women in Uganda’s health system is something Kwagala has tackled over the last decade leading strategic litigation to expand health rights especially maternal health rights.  

Whether it is taking on big hospitals that violate rights of expectant mothers or schools that deny education to pregnant teens, she has been at the forefront of the fight for health rights.

Kwagala undertook her undergraduate law degree at Uganda’s oldest university, Makerere,  and holds a Master’s of Law in Sexual Reproductive rights in Africa from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. In 2012, she was selected as human rights fellow at the Institute for the study of Human Rights at Columbia University in New York.

Privileged

In June, Bach and her attorney David Gibbs III for the first time publicly addressed the claims on Fox News  and as expected the news report opened with “a Christian missionary is fighting to clear her name” and it wasn’t about the lives of Ugandan children.  “I have assisted our medical teams in emergency settings and in crisis situations but I have never practiced medicine and I have never adorned or put on any sort of uniform, a white coat. It is a tough allegation,” Bach says in the interview.

Screen shot
A screen shot of Renee Bach Fox News interview

Among the many families, lawyers could only file with two women as complainants because parents were never given admission forms or death certificates as required by regulations. What stands out is the fact that Zubeda’s son Twalali’s naked body, hooked to all sorts of tubes in a photo was still on Bach’s fundraising posts in 2018.

“This is years after the child had died. We showed the post to the mother for verification, she just broke down. What is more undignified than to use a child who died in your care and you have never told the mother what happened?” she says.

The Ugandan lawyers contend “the actions of Reene Bach and SHC reflect those of a White Savior Industrial Complex.” They explain this as the belief that any white person irrespective of their academic status or training and economic standing can offer aid to poor black people.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” was coined by a Teju Cole, the Nigerian- American writer in response to the 2012 Kony video by an American charity – Invisible Children. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Uganda and many countries in the Global South continue to grapple with Western schemes that center their mystery “love” for children while dispossessing communities of any remaining power to fight back. These missionary and other “saving” projects are often rooted in old and new white supremacy narratives about Africa and can have indelible consequences for poor women like Zubeda and Kakai.

Such projects specifically target populations whom state systems have already betrayed, this provides a “safe zone” to test their unqualified ideas without being challenged.

Whether it is a self-proclaimed American missionary spewing a barrage of racist insults to hotel staff or a German national on charges of sexual abuse and child trafficking, this phenomenon calls for more questioning and systems of accountability.  Last year the story in Liberia of More Than Me and its American founder Katie Meyler and the sexual violence enabled and supported against young girls was another eye opener.

“This [Serving His Children] case illustrates several truths we must confront as Africans; we haven’t managed to break from the colonized mindset that “white is right. We are still excavating history looking to rediscover our agency and pride as a people,” says TMS Ruge, a development aid critic. “We still think we aren’t in control of our development and destiny. White saviors, who have spent their lives being drilled about their supremacy, exploit this and the development power imbalance.”

This privilege still filters through even when Bach’s attorney defend her.

“It is very sad when a missionary or humanitarian or any individual from the United States or any other developed nation wants to go to a third world and help somewhere like in Uganda where Renee and Serving His Children have done and they come under these attack with really no way to defend yourself effectively,” says Bach’s attorney Gibbs III in the Fox News interview.

Quartz reached out to Gibbs at the National Center for Life and Liberty ahead of publication but he had not responded ahead of publication.

“Bach used her privilege as a white woman and as a fundamentalist conservative Christian to prey on the desperation so common among Ugandans, particularly mothers,” says Asia Russell, executive director of Health GAP in Uganda which supports health access advocacy in the country. “Dangerous quacks such as Bach thrive in this environment. Unfortunately this case is not isolated. The ministry of health has an obligation to regulate the health sector.”

Her clients are seeking a declaration of discrimination based on race and social status among other violations like right to life, health, dignity and freedom from psychological torture.

“This is where we want court to declare discrimination based on social status and race. I am black, I am poor, I am a woman and illiterate that is how you took advantage,” Kwagala says questioning shouldn’t just stop at Bach. “We have to start questioning aid and the systems that keep an African woman in such a place and race is a factor.”

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