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How Dr Ndyanabangi touched millions with advocacy work

Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, the erstwhile principal medical officer in charge of mental health and substance abuse at the ministry of Health, is remembered as the force behind the Tobacco Control Act 2015 that regulates tobacco consumption and supply of its products. She died on August 26, aged 62.  Moses Mugalu looks back at her extraordinary life and career.

A medical doctor by profession, she was best known for her various roles in the Health ministry, an avid campaigner and also a research author. She was outspoken, a fierce critic and found a new life as a marriage counselor, mentor and children’s rights advocate out of personal experience.

It was at a two-day HIV/Aids conference in 2013 at Hotel Africana that I got to know Dr Ndyanabangi. The meeting, which attracted dozens of stakeholders, was deliberating on how to encourage the public to test for HIV/Aids.

Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi (RIP)

Ndyanabangi was among the panelists and when her time came, she wondered how organisers for such a key element in the fight against HIV/Aids could overlook holding a testing camp on the sidelines. “Practice what you preach,” she said amid a few uneasy faces.   

The following day, with a team of testers and equipment assembled, nearly one third of the previous day’s attendees failed to show up.

Around that time, Ndyanabangi had cut a niche as a plain-speaking panelist on NTV’s Let’s Talk show that focused on grooming and parenthood. Oftentimes, Ndyanabangi spoke openly about the need to teach children sex education at an early age. From the way she spoke, it was easy to mistake her for being a feminist yet she didn’t really support that line.

In fact, Ndyanabangi’s life outside of television greatly involved mentoring people, especially couples.  At All Saints cathedral, Ndyanabangi was one of the most conspicuous figures. She onetime headed the Mothers Union, a grouping of married women and rose to attain the rank of lay canon, the highest a non-cleric can achieve in the Anglican church.

Her crying call to have the the Tobacco Control bill enacted into law further propelled her in the limelight at a time when few could dare challenge the influence of British American Tobacco.

Ndyanabangi was firm in her campaign and in a 2014 interview with The Observer, she talked of how several key stakeholders had been bribed to frustrate the law.

Her fight was not about words; Ndyanabangi backed up her stance with evidence from research. She co-authored two research papers Practices related to tobacco sale, promotion and protection from tobacco smoke exposure in restaurants and bars in Kampala before implementation of the Tobacco Control Act 2015 as well as Tobacco use and associated factors among adults in Uganda: Findings from a nationwide survey.

In the end, however, Ndyanabangi triumphed in 2015 when parliament passed it into law and its subsequent enforcement in 2017. Yet Ndyanabangi never took to plaudits but instead moved on to protect the rights of the mentally ill.

At the time of her death, she was pushing for the Mental Health Bill and had also drafted an alcohol policy. On a personal note, she was one of those few people who were just a call away if one needed information. She was a media favourite, even in her last few months when she was down with cancer.

WHO WAS NDYANABANGI?

  • Born to Musa and Zipora Zaramba Ndyanabangi of Kabale in 1956, Ndyanabangi attended Hornby High primary school, Bweranyangi Girls SS and Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga. She studied human medicine at Makerere University and had a master’s degree in Public Health.
  • She worked at Mulago and Butabika hospitals as a medical officer, senior medical officer, and child health and mental health at the health ministry.
  • Ndyanabangi succumbed to cancer on August 25 at Mulago hospital. Incidentally, she requested government to save the expenses of flying her abroad and instead preferred to be treated at Mulago by her colleagues.
  • She is survived by husband, Dr Nathan Ndyanabangi, and three children Kevin Twebaze, Dr Victoria Kobusingye and Justine Tuhairwebyona.
  • Beyond her medical work, Ndyanabangi was a lay canon and once served as the Kampala diocese diocesan president of Mothers Unions.

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