Gráinne Harrington in Uganda – blog one
I’ve travelled to the Ugandan capital to profile Dr Ian Clarke, a GP from Armagh who arrived in Uganda at the end of the civil war in the late 80’s as a missionary. He has since founded the country’s leading private hospital, along with a medical insurance company, a medical University, and a pharmaceutical company. These concerns help to fund a medical NGO, which he also runs, and which focuses on HIV and TB prevention, along with providing healthcare for impoverished families in Kampala and beyond. In 2011, he became the first foreigner ever to be elected to public office in Uganda, when he ran for mayor of the Makindye district of Kampala. He now represents about one fifth of the capital’s population, about 400,000 people.
Thursday, June 7th
I’ve taken a hair-raising journey across Kampala on the back of a motorbike taxi, the ubiquitous boda bodas, bouncing across deeply potholed roads, zigzagging through chaotic traffic jams and across several of the city’s filthy slums, to arrive at the Mayor of Makindye’s office in the International Hospital in Kampala.
It’s clear Dr Clarke won’t be arriving any time soon. I’m sitting in the reception area, where one of his adopted Ugandan daughters, Joanne, is taking calls in his absence. “He says he knows you’re here but he’s stuck in a meeting,” she smiles apologetically, and hands me a copy of today’s Daily Monitor. The front page reads “City Pastor Accused of Human Trafficking”.
An hour later, the mayor arrives. Wiry and energetic, he greets me with a wide smile and embrace. His mobile rings constantly, and Clarke always picks up, his strong northern Irish accent undiminished by over twenty years in Africa. “No, we don’t have any bursaries – I don’t think the division has bursaries”…”I’m the wrong person to ask – you have to call Human Resources. You’ll need to send your CV.”. He explains that he operates an open phone line – any of his constituents can call on his mobile. “Isn’t that chaotic?” I ask. “My wife thinks so”, he smiles, “But it’s just my policy. People need to be able to talk to me, but they have to tell me what it’s about – if they say ‘It’s personal’, I know they’re just asking for money…if it’s a community issue, then we can set up a meeting and see what we can do.”
Introductions out of the way, he talks me through his myriad medical, charity and business interests. This takes some time. Clarke, a GP from Armagh who arrived in this country at the end of a brutal civil war in the late 80’s, has gone from being a provincial missionary doctor who ran a clinic under a tree, to a businessman and politician who runs one of the biggest medical conglomerates in East Africa, comprising (amongst others) a medical university, a health insurance company, and pharmaceutical and construction companies, some of which help to fund a number of charities working to alleviate some of the worst health problems in Uganda, mainly HIV and Tuberculosis. This private hospital, not far from his home near the centre of the capital, is the heart of the business. As the country recovered from decades of civil war, Clarke spotted an opening for private healthcare for Uganda’s growing middle class, who were willing to pay for high quality healthcare. He supervised the building to the finest details, boasting that he knows the cost of every floor tile in the place. It’s a calm, well-tended space amid the chaos of the city, with a quiet, sunny terrace restaurant overlooking an orderly lawn and garden.
We jump into his Land Rover to take a trip around some of his constituency. He’s still on the phone, this time to a contractor who has neglected to deliver asphalt to fill some of the gaping potholes for which the city is famous. The contractor is regretting this already. “You’ve been avoiding my calls!” Clarke snaps. His accent seems to get a little stronger. “There’s been nothing but a series of delays, excuses…at the end of the day when you’re supposed to get a full day’s work done, you only get a couple of hours’ work done.” After another series of excuses, the call ends. The delivery won’t happen today either. “It’s like herding chickens”, sighs Clarke.
Keeping some order on the chaos here is an endless task. His constituency includes both some of the wealthiest and poorest parts of this city. He points to the cleaners clearing out the deep storm drains at the side of the road, which he tells me were previously filled with rubbish. “My postgraduate training was in public health – this is all public health – if you get flooding and garbage, it’s the cause of epidemics – you get dysentery, you get cholera.”
We speak about how things have gone in the year that he’s been mayor. “What I’m doing that’s different from how other mayors run their divisions is that I’m much more hands-on. How many garbage trucks have broken down today, how do we get them fixed, have you emptied the toilets in this slum? There’s a lot of lethargy at divisional level…I feel that my job is to work on these issues…whereas other [mayors] have a sort of dissociation, they think that their job is to go and sit in council meetings and play petty politics, that they don’t have a responsibility to ensure that there is service delivery.”