'Seeing villagers alive and well after being close to death is very fulfilling'
Dr Rory Wilson tells Una Brankin why he, wife Denise and their young son swapped Northern Ireland for an extraordinary life in Uganda
Ta Ta Gideon misses fish suppers but enjoys the odd packet of Tayto Cheese & Onion flown into his African home from home. And as he’s a local hero, he gets special treats, such as steamed savoury bananas with peanut sauce, a Ugandan speciality.
The strange name is an affectionate form of address given to Dr Rory Wilson in Kiwoko, where he has lived for the last nine years. Meaning “father of Gideon”, it refers to his five year-old son, who was born in the Christian hospital run by the Bangor-born medic.
“Hey whitey!” is also called out, from behind the bushes, as he walks to the shops from his chalet in in the notoriously corrupt central African country.
“I’m Dr Rory to most but I’m also known as Ta Ta Gideon, because you are defined by your children in Uganda, and I get ‘Mazungu’, the equivalent of white man or whitey,” says the 43-year-old. “I’m also a bit of a local celebrity, a ‘Big Man’, as they say, so I get special treatment at dinner, which is mostly vegetarian. Ugandan folk only have meat at Christmas and Easter, but we have fresh mangoes off the trees every day, and avocado."
Rory was back in Bangor recently for his annual six-week break with his son and his wife Denise, a paediatric nurse. Gideon Mugisha Wilson celebrated his fifth birthday with his Northern Ireland friends three weeks ago - the first time he ever saw snow - with a bouncy castle party in the back garden of his parents' house in Bangor. He has another set of pals in Kiwoko, a group which once included Bashir, a boy with Aids, who became Gideon's closest companion.
Bashir was born with the disease from his mother, and was rejected by his father because of it, so the Wilsons took him in.
"Bashir was a very young lad brought into the ward very sick - morose and withdrawn," says Rory. "He had an aunt but no-one wanted him. At the start, I'd ask him a question and get a mute response, but then we began to have laughs and a good time.
"He was motivated to learn English so he could talk to me more fluently, and I got him into an apprenticeship as a bike repairer. He and Gideon became best friends and he became a lot better over the next three and a half years, medically and within himself."
But the child's health began to deteriorate when he reached 14.
"I came home from work one day last Christmas and it was Gideon who told me Bashir had died," Rory recalls. "His reaction was really quite amazing - he said, 'At least Bashir would now be in heaven and would be happier because he wouldn't be sick any more' - which is true."
While Aids remains a serious health threat in Uganda, the Kiwoko hospital death rate has fallen from 15% in 2004 to 2.8% in 2014. Rory took over in 2006, after leaving general practice to study for a diploma at the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Health.
A deeply religious man, he is a Church Mission Society, Ireland partner of the Ballyholme Church of Ireland parish.
But while the townspeople are receptive to the Wilsons' Christian message, they're still in thrall to voodoo.
"Many Ugandans would call themselves Christians but the strength of superstitions and the lure of the witch doctor is still very powerful," Rory explains. "Even among those who attend church, many will also still attend ancestor shrines and witch doctors for healing and guidance. There is much fear and abuse associated with those practices.
"It is important for us to encourage people to trust in God the healer and provider, by teaching the truths of the Bible and applying it realistically to daily life."
The local witch doctor cannot perform the medical miracles that have brought the death rate down so dramatically at the 250-bed Kiwoko Hospital. The chief superintendent believes that prayer can also heal, pointing to the case of a dying teenager with a rare blood disorder, which was resistant to all forms of treatment.
Rory says: "I had tried everything possible to help this patient. At our morning staff worship, one of the nurses was sharing about trusting in God and praying persistently for problems. I prayed for this young lad many times in the next few days and saw what, quite simply, was a miraculous recovery.
"A few times a year I see him - he's now taller than me - and I'm reminded of God's clear intervention for this young man. We do believe that God wants us to be working for Him in Kiwoko at this time."
Rory and Denise work closely together at the hospital, founded in 1988 by another Bangor GP, Dr Ian Clarke. The couple met through Denise's work for Fields of Life, an Irish-based organisation working mostly to build schools in Uganda.
She and Rory grew close when she led a team from Coleraine to Kiwoko to help build nurses accommodation. Afterwards, Denise was transferred to Kampala and the couple married a year later at Luwero Cathedral in Uganda.
"Weddings are rather grand affairs in Uganda - we had over 300 at our reception, outdoors," says Rory.
"Gideon was born 18 months later, so Uganda is home to him. When we went back to Bangor the first time after he was born, he cried every time we went out because he wasn't used to the cold. I'm the sort who would have gone round in shorts in Northern Ireland and I was happy with the weather when I went to Tibet in the past. I've adapted to the heat in Uganda but, in the beginning, it was 36 degrees and you'd be melted in the bed in the mornings."
The family live in the hospital compound. The current staff of more than 400 includes biomedical engineer Paul Baker and his wife Tania, also from Bangor, and Dr Raymond Givan, from Ballymena.
Living so close to the hospital blurs distinctions between life and work.
"My commute to work is 30 seconds which means I am around home more than I might be if I was still working as a GP in Bangor," says Rory. "However, the commute from work to home is also 30 seconds, so our home life is often interrupted with clinical and administrative emergencies.
"But all three of us enjoy working together as part of the Kiwoko Community - Gideon even answers the phone at times and can let the nurses know which ward I can be found on. Our lives are much more closely entwined than many couples would experience at home.
"There is little opportunity for a Saturday away with the boys, walking in the mountains, or for Denise to spend an afternoon at the hairdressers, so we must be much more deeply reliant on each other than if we were living here.
"We probably are a much tighter family unit than if we were in Northern Ireland.
"There are few outside activities for us to be involved with - no Squirrels or swimming club for Gideon, or coffee shops for Denise, or parks in which we can have picnics. So, we probably do many more things together, making our own locations for picnics and coming up with our own activities for Gideon and his friends.
"While not able to do it yet, Gideon knows from observation how to milk a cow and prepare a chicken for dinner. He knows to keep away from snakes and hairy caterpillars, and how to catch mudfish and spy antelope or monkeys in the bushes."
Kiwoko Hospital is run on £1,125,000 a year, a tiny fraction of the budget of our local health trusts here, which covers the treatment of 50,000 outpatients and 7,000 inpatients; 3,000 operations and the delivery of up to 3,000 babies.
Healthcare is paid for by Ugandans. As most patients in Kiwoko are poor subsistence farmers, their ability to pay is limited, hence the hospital's constant need for additional financial support.
On top of medical care, the hospital also runs outreach programmes to help improve children's health, focusing on immunisations, clean water, sanitation and use of mosquito nets.
Rory explains: "We cry about the health service here but the Ugandans are so grateful, and the way they cope with hardship is very inspiring - they're very friendly and they joke a lot. English is spoken a lot here but I've learned the main local language, so I can communicate better.
"I can ask in reasonable detail about someone's bowel habit and the colour of their stools, or whether there is blood in their spit, but it isn't always a great conversation starter in the bus.
"Seriously, though, I get great satisfaction from treating people and seeing them get better. In Kiwoko, we have some seriously unwell patients.
"Seeing them alive and well in due course at the village market, compared to how close they were to death some weeks earlier, is very fulfilling.
"It is wonderful to share with them the cure for the spiritual sickness which all of us suffer from. Of course, just as medical treatments should not be forced on people against their wishes, so this sharing about Jesus must be done with sensitivity and without a hint of coercion."
Running a hospital in Africa
- Not all Kiwoko Hospital volunteers are Christian but “they do all need to be comfortable working within our Christian ethos,” Rory explains
- Accommodation comprises simple chalets. “Four walls, water and electricity — when it’s available. As the national supply in insufficient for the whole country, it’s goes off for part of the day in. We have a fella from Bangor here who has managed to stabilise our supply to keep the medical equipment and X-ray machines going — he stuck in extra cables,” says Rory
- Food is provided by the hospital canteen. In additional to the temporary seasonal volunteers, Rory currently requires a senior business manager to oversee financial and administration, short-term doctors, and a teacher for Gideon, who’s starting primary two
- For anyone wanting to give financial support or sign up for prayer newsletters, Dr Wilson and his team can be contacted though their website www.kiwokohospital.org or Facebook
- Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Dr Wilson directly at firstname.lastname@example.org