It started with a humble Indiegogo call for donations towards her medical bills. I was still struggling between the PayPal and the debit card and wondering why there are only a few people contributing. I started reading online stories and realized that there was a long time between then and now. It seemed to me that the battle is over and the funds are needed to cater for accumulated bills for palliative care.
Then the carwash PR hijack turned up. I wondered what could have changed? How is she going to be saved when we pronounced her dead several times already? And why a whole well-to-do TV Station has to organize a carwash fundraiser when all it takes is to put her on the flight to Nairobi immediately, if help and surviving adrenal cancer stage four is possible?
She started there, together with them. She brought the English. She brought the accuracy and fairness and dignity in reporting. She set standards, not by her beauty because she was not our typical African beauty on the outside. She set standards by her professionalism, style, poise, correctness – everything that she was, every day, on our TV screens.
Then she was gone for a while, then stories of sickness started trickling in. I did not personally know her but on hearing she is a cancer patient, I felt sad because I saw my own sister disintegrating over a couple of years and I understood how hard it must be for Rose, her family and friends to see her suffer.
I did what I could do – called on NTV to stop the fundraiser and write a cheque. I did this thinking of the urgency of a cancer condition of someone in Intensive Care Unit and why her friends at NTV can’t simply push for evacuation and fundraise later, as much as they want? I asked NTV to give her life.
I opened the can of worms.
The reaction of NTV was strange – we are proceeding with a carwash, you are de-campaigning us, what have you done to help…
I simply thought that action is required now. Not after fundraisers and sponsorship deals, as I sent the following tweet:
Where it came from: I knew the rate-card, roughly. I click that NTV news is the highest-viewership programme and 30sec ads used to be around 1m. I knew that in television, you always capitalize on what good programs you have and I could estimate 12 to 15 30-second slots around the News as a norm. If I was to look for ultimate publicity for any brand, they would be sponsoring NTV news in whichever form or shape: logo on screen, squeezeback, logo on weather screen, ticker line, anything…
My mind was shouting one simple thing: why degrade her to a fun fundraiser circus at this point in time when you believe you can save her life with a mere 100 million? She used to make you daily income of 10-20 million for her two news programs over a period of four years. Why can’t you see that sometimes we need to be bigger than small? Whether she was still an employee or not, didn’t matter to me. For a name like hers, NTV should have pulled out the chequebook.
Reactions to my tweet were pretty one-sided. People I connect with on Twitter appreciated that I asked aloud what others were whispering. But in my ignorance, I pressed for reaction from NTV and I got it – I was portrayed as a heartless bitch de-campaigning their otherwise brilliant fundraiser PR stint.
When faced with what one thinks is immense stupidity, lack of tact, lack of style and so many other negative things, one tends to keep quiet. So I did. I retweeted a few enthusiastic carwash invitations on Saturday and I just felt for Rose. That her destiny is in the buckets, sponges and quickly printed t-shirts with her photo. That sponsors have brought in banners to prove they also have heart. That she must be wishing for a better and more dignified way to get over to Nairobi, to her former employer sister company hospital, in her former employer sister company med-evac aircraft, for some relief and some help that is unconditional and not attached to cost of sponsorship or barter-trade.
So the carwash happened. Amidst those thoughts of how unfair life is. How you give your best years to something that in turn forgets you quickly when you need their help. How Twitter goes abuzz with helpful souls when we need to show face. How the girl must be feeling if she isn’t well, if she is in ICU. How her face now pops up on selfies, posted to social media by duckfaces in tight leggings and platform heels. I was simply sad. But I kept quiet. I let the circus go on.
I felt awkward that Saturday. I wasn’t there for Rose. I didn’t know her but I wasn’t there for her all the same. I had shut up in order to let NTV have a peaceful PR event, have their joy of helping, contributing, driving for results where every bucket of soapy water counts.
I questioned the dignity of the event and how it correlates to the dignity of someone on her death bed. I wanted to understand why is it that I’m the only one who thinks she should have been helped then, when it became known that she’s sick. Why was all this time lost? Why wait to come out and help if you really mean to help? Why?
It’s her family who didn’t want publicity. But of course, they didn’t want publicity! They wanted assistance, care, peace, love for their daughter, not a PR event for her healing. At the end, they succumbed to pressures of a lame PR machinery that should have known better, much better.
On Sunday, she was gone. I woke up to a solemn Easter Sunday, went to the beach and lit a few candles in the sand for the departed souls of people I care for: for my dad, my sister, my lover and for Rose. Those four bee wax candles, blessed in Orthodox Church, carried to Uganda for sad moments like this, shone little light on my emotions that connected to the universe in a light, grey morning drizzle. I knew she was gone. Later, it was simply confirmed. Our society had lost her.
This society where we accept to be treated by nurses and have confidence in being doused with drips and quinine, outdated drugs that no other country uses, expensive medical treatments where one has to bribe for everything, including to be given a chance to pay for the drugs one needs, bribe to give birth, to have an x-ray, to have a wound stitched… I can go on for a long time about what is wrong with health system but what is essentially wrong with Ugandans is that we don’t ask any questions, we are just led like sheep to the pasture and fed whatever and we don’t even know how to care for ourselves… Yet we expect the government to care for us.
But Rose is not a political topic, even though it seems she was one of us, one who strangely waited for her condition to get worse and worse in order to admit she is unwell, one who did not know how to look for help until she arrived back to Uganda and was taken seriously ill, operated and never recovered.
But her passing, with all its emotions and energy, should at least start something or give us a hopeful promise. There is an opportunity for Rose to flower forever, even in the hearts and minds of those who never met her and those who are yet to be born. This is the opportunity I hope our society will not miss. It is time we make promises to ourselves and our unborn generations.
There should be no company in Uganda that will not volunteer maximum support for their staff, especially staff who were the pillars of the business, whether former or current.
There should be no month in a year that Ugandan business acumen fails to make donation towards general healthcare, where at least 70% will be spent on treatment and 30% on grassroots communication.
There should be no person, however young or old, who does not understand basic symptoms of illness and what to do in case of an illness.
There should be no waiting room in any of our private clinics without a poster that says you can pay for your own tests but also pay in advance for someone who can’t afford.
There should be no day that any one of us walks to meet another being on the street without calling ‘good morning, how are you?’
We must stop being individuals; we must start being humans. We must look at each other with love, care and need to connect and communicate in a respectful and open, truthful manner. We must pledge that another human being’s wellbeing is as important as ours.
We must teach facts and skills. We must broaden the narrow horizons of many. We must remember that we are all mortal and that any one of us can fall sick any time. We must never forget the energy of togetherness that Rose thought us exists. It is high time we join hands to do something about our own future and health is a good place to start, how do we move ahead from this solemn and sad place?
In situations like this, even those with big feet should make small steps. There are no giant leaps, solutions will not come at once. What I want for Rosemary Nankabirwa is that she is not forgotten (as she already is – Ugandan social and conventional media has zero buzz about her now). I want her to give us guidance on how to do the right thing, how to create something sustainable for cancer testing and treatment in Uganda. The rest is in our hands.