Cases of over 100 deaths raises emotions and questions
Kampala, Uganda | JULIAN SABIITI | A civil case in the High Court in Jinja involving an American woman who took in malnourished babies with promises of feeding them into recovery is raising emotions – and questions – after many of them died.
Renee Bach was an 18-year old teenager from Bedford County, Virginia, USA when she first came to Uganda as a volunteer at an orphanage. By 2009, when she was 20, she had already set up her own NGO, Serving His Children.
By 2010 Bach was admitting severely malnourished children at her center, then based in Masese, a suburb of Jinja town in eastern Uganda.
The centre, which had received a health license as an out-patient operation, was by 2014 running a small medical clinic and inpatient program equipped to house 16 children. Between 2010 and 2015, SHC admitted hundreds of severely malnourished children.
Exact information is scanty but reports indicate that Bach took in about 900 babies over a 20 year period, and about 200 of them died.
Bach, who is now 30 and back in Bedford, is being sued by Women’s Pro Bono Initiative, an organization that promotes women’s human rights and two mothers, who allegedly lost their children under her care.
Bach is not talking to local media, but she told the American news channel NPR that the publicity over the suit has already made it untenable for her to remain in Uganda.
“I get death threats all the time,” she told NPR in a report published on Aug.09.
In the interview with NPR, Bach says taking in the children felt to her like a calling from God.
“It was a very, very profound feeling and experience. It’s kind of hard to even describe in words,” she says. “Like there was something that I was supposed to do.”
But one mother who lost her child has a message for Bach: “My son – Elijah Benjamin would be two (2) years old today had he been alive. I delivered him at Jinja Hospital on 21st January, 2017. I feel his life was snatched from my arms by the actions of Ms. Renee Bach. I hope the court can give me Justice”. That was in January this year .
Primah Kwagala, the lawyer pursuing the case on behalf of the alleged victims also has a question for Bach: Imagine, she says, what would happen if a 20-something Ugandan woman had gone to the U.S. and set up an equivalent arrangement to treat impoverished American children.
“She would have been prosecuted. She would have been behind bars,” says Kwagala, “In the U.S., I don’t think she would have lasted two hours.”
That is why, Kwagala says, the families of the dead children deserve justice.
White savior complex?
Bach got most of the children from Nalufenya Children’s Hospital in Jinja. She allegedly told them to leave the hospital to her center before they completed their doses.
“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 Ashley Laverty, a former volunteer at SHC, in a sworn affidavit.
Olana says Bach took these children to her center and treated them, doing such things as Intravenous (IV) Cannulation and even blood transfusion.
One boy, Masai, on whom Bach did surgery has lost use of the arm that was “operated on” and is even suspected to have some mental issues, says Olana.
A group behind the suit against Bach has set up a blog called “No white Saviours”.One of the bloggers, Kelsey Nielsen who is also American, says she had the same white savior complex when she first arrived in Uganda and saw Renee at work.
Nielsen writes: “I watched in awe of young women, who moved halfway across the world at the age of 18 with no experience, no college education. They were starting organisations and adopting children. How amazing? If they could do it; why not me? So I did. But, she says, she is now wiser.
She now adds: “One of the hardest but most important lessons I have learned over the last 8 years has been that good intentions are not good enough. No matter how well-meaning I have been or continue to be, the impact of my actions on the community I claim to be helping far outweighs my goodwill”.
The creators of the “No White Saviors” blog say it offers women who had no means to speak, a chance to tell their stories. Communities raised funds to make the blog possible. The civil lawsuit filed against Bach is a result of this movement.
One of the bloggers; Olivia Alaso says before creating the blog, they had tried taking evidence against Bach to Jinja Police and even to the American Embassy but nothing was done. The blog was created to spread awareness and advocacy.
Joyce Olana, a social worker who worked with Bach confirms the lack of action. She says Bach was carrying out medical procedures on the children despite having no training. Olana says that visiting doctors advised Bach against some actions, but Bach would tell them that she had consulted with her doctors in America and they approved her interventions.
She says the issue was often discussed; both in her presence and in her absence.
Olana says, initially, Bach made blocked attempt by her and others from contacting the SHC board of directors in America about the issue. When they finally did, they discovered that it was made up of Bach’s close friends and family. Lauri Bach, the U.S Director of SHC, is Bach’s mother.
When volunteers and employees would write to the board about these concerns, rather than holding Renee accountable, the board would find a way to get rid of anyone who was seen as “critical of Renee’s calling from God, say former volunteers and staff of SHC, according to Olivia Alaso and Kelsey Nielsen.
Social workers Jackie and Joyce were eye witnesses of Bach’s operation. The two social workers were later “let go” as Bach said that she was downsizing.
In their termination letters, they were asked not to disclose the goings on of the clinic. SHC has Guide star’s 2018 “Seal of Transparency” on its website, indicating that the organization is open about its work and finances. That makes the demand for non-disclosure suspicious according to them.