Tragedy propels Save the Mothers alum into advocacy for maternal health


By Pauline Luba
In 1984, as Boaz Mbagaya reported back to school, he was not at peace.  His expecting mother was ill, and Mbagaya worried for the worse. That very week that the 18-year-old reported to school, he was called back home. His mother and the unborn baby had died. 

Mbagaya’s mother lost her life to complications she developed during childbirth. That incident left such an indelible mark in the life of Mbagaya that he made an immediate decision to lead the fight against maternal and child mortality. 

“We should do everything in our power to stop mothers from dying,” said Mbagaya, who grew up in a family of 16 children.

Because there were many children, most of them had to support themselves and their father, George Mbagaya, and raise money for their school fees. Boaz Mbagaya supported his father by farming and brewing local gin, which they later sold for fees.

Mbale People’s Hospital, a non-profit facility in eastern Uganda.
Mbale People’s Hospital, a non-profit facility in eastern Uganda.

After secondary school, Mbagaya joined Makerere University in Uganda, to pursue a course in Mental Health and Community Psychology. He pursued the Master in Public Health Leadership (MPHL) under the Save the Mothers program at Uganda Christian University (UCU) — a course that would later provide him the platform to fulfill his earlier passion for healthier expectant mothers. 

With this program, Mbagaya believed he could do something to change the narrative of the high mortality rate, especially in rural Uganda.

“The course helped me see the many challenges that the community faces,” said Mbagaya, who also studied clinical medicine at Mbale College of Health Sciences.

During the MPHL program, students would move to different geographical areas to learn about maternal needs. 

According to the Save the Mothers website, the program offers the Master of Public Health Leadership to working professionals from a wide range of disciplines, and not only the health discipline. Save the Mothers East Africa hosts the MPHL at UCU.

The program started at UCU in 2005, with the aim of training multi-disciplinary professionals and contributing to improving maternal and child health in developing countries. The students pursuing the course study on a part-time basis over two years, completing the modular program with an intensive community outreach project. 

According to the 2022 Uganda Government statistics, the Maternal Mortality Ratio is at 189 per 100,000 live births while the infant mortality stands at 34 per 1,000 live births. Globally, according to the United Nations, by 2020, there were 223 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Upon completing school, Mbagaya started a non-profit facility, the People’s Life Care Foundation, to help him promote and strengthen the health care system in Uganda. That foundation gave birth to Mbale People’s Hospital, a facility located in eastern Uganda. Mbagaya is currently the Managing Director of the facility.

Among the many outpatient and inpatient services provided at the facility is obstetrics and gynecology. Mbagaya also has broken sweat, trying to combat obstetric fistula. According to the United Nations Population Fund, obstetric fistula is a tragic childbirth injury, where a hole develops between the birth canal and the bladder and/or the rectum. It is caused by prolonged, obstructed labor without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. 

The hospital began identifying mothers suffering from obstetric fistula for treatment. Some of the patients would even be transported to the hospital. So far, according to Mbagaya, 14 women have undergone reconstructive surgery and gotten rid of the hole. 

“There was a 51-year-old who finally got help after living with the condition for a long time,” Mbagaya said. He noted that many of the women who got medical relief had lost hope while some had lost their husbands to other people.

Barter trade
According to Mbagaya, whenever his mother got pregnant, she would offer goodies to the midwife, in anticipation for “better attention” when she went to the health facility to give birth. Mbagaya narrates that even when the health personnel visited his mother at home after delivery, she would offer them foodstuffs. It is this gesture, Mbagaya says, that, many years later, pushed him into accepting produce as exchange for services rendered at the Mbale People’s Hospital for those who do not have the money to pay the fees. 

He said he noticed how many people in the community were farmers and had produce, all of which had monetary value. Therefore, he set up a system where people, especially in the event of emergencies, could pay with produce, instead of money, which they didn’t have. As long as people put items that quantify the service they would be receiving, all would be well. This arrangement made Mbagaya popular among the people.  

“I once spent a month only eating the foodstuffs that had been offered to me in exchange for healthcare,” Mbagaya, now age 57, said.

He hopes that one day, one of his four children will also develop interest in medicine and follow in his footsteps, to ensure the legacy of the family, as well as the hospital continues.