A Pair of Good Hands

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Jane Rachael Ayikoru, a young doctor at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

Meet Jane Rachael Ayikoru, a young doctor at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda , as part of our ongoing series about advancing female scholars in Africa

This article is part of a series exploring the transformation of African women's lives through education.

In the pediatric ward of Mulago Hospital, Makerere University's busy teaching hospital, a group of local Ugandan and visiting Canadian doctors cluster together in a large open area. There are a dozen or so infants lying in cribs, their mothers and other family members attending to them as they await surgery.

The doctors are reviewing case notes for an intensive “surgery camp” that is about to start. The aim of the camp is to put a dent in the formidable case load of this hospital, which gets referrals from across the country and as far away as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is here, in this crowded medical ward, that my year-long assignment begins. My goal is to document the stories of promising female students who have received scholarships provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The women hail from various universities in several African countries.

Jane Rachael Ayikoru, a young doctor currently training in pediatric surgery, steps out of the huddle and leads me to a small office, where she has agreed to spend a few minutes sharing her story. We squat in the threadbare office, the sounds of a chaotic and under-staffed children’s surgery ward bursting through thin walls.

One thing immediately clear is that Rachael occupies a key position in this national hospital. As she explains, this is the only hospital in Uganda where pediatric surgery is performed—and she is one of only a few individuals with the necessary skills and training to do it. She has spent the last three years based at Mulago Hospital while completing her master's degree in pediatric surgery. 

Performing surgery on tiny infant organs and vessels requires immense concentration, precision, and dexterity. So it is perhaps little wonder that Rachael refers often to the shortage of qualified "hands" on deck. “If you were here in the clinic on Wednesday, we see over 18 patients in one day, of which 15 need surgery,” she explains.

Rachael says she thrives on this intense, demanding work. The conditions in the hospital are, however, an acute challenge. “How many pairs of hands do we have that I know?” she asks rhetorically. “One has retired, one is in administration, and then there is the head of the unit."

For Rachael, these chaotic hospital corridors, in which her presence commands a certain level of respect, are a long way from her humble, rural beginnings. When she was in grade school, her father's business failed and he was no longer able to pay her school fees. As a bright and motivated student, she was lucky to receive sponsorship for her education from the bishop of her district. Like so many women interviewed for this project, she applied to Makerere University with no financial support, not knowing where her university fees would come from. 

“I knew the only way out was education. If I got educated, I knew I could do much more than just stay in the village, get married and have children. So apart from the fact that I had God in me, there was that drive. I felt I should get out of this place, I should persist. I don't know how I can describe it, but that's how it was.”

This all-too-brief encounter with Rachael at Mulago Hospital gives me my first view of the ripple effect that can radiate outward from investing in the education of a single individual. Besides offering her intricately skilled and life-saving “hands” to the tiny young lives that pass through this hospital, she has supported the education of her younger siblings, paying their university fees for study in teaching and social work.

She has also become something of a role model in her village. Even as an undergraduate student, she was already being seen as the doctor in the village. “I am the first to become a doctor. I am the first to go to university,” she says. “I can see that more girls are going to school now. Before they would get married young, but now they have been encouraged to go to school.”

As soon as she has more experience under her belt, she says, her dream is to move back “upcountry” to open a new pediatric hospital in rural northern Uganda. She dreams also of using the hospital as a base from which to encourage young women to succeed in school and follow in her footsteps. “I want to be encouraging girls from my village to work hard and focus, to prolong their education and attain something at the end of it,” she says.

Her education and hard work have equipped her for the journey. Her future is in her hands. 

Megan Lindow is an award-winning writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a former Africa Correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Weaving Success: Voices of Change in African Higher Education, the story of a major 10-year initiative investing in African universities.