Mourning Uganda’s Rising Road Fatalities

By Yasin Kakande

On January 15, a deadly accident in Kampala received no coverage in the local media. An ambulance from Gombe Hospital was transporting Mwalimu Mustafa Kanonya, a religious leader in Gombe, to Kibuli Hospital, and was accompanied by six family members. However, the trip was cut short tragically by an accident with a truck at Katwe in Kampala.

At the accident scene, three people were pronounced dead, including Kanonya’s two sons. The remaining survivors, unfortunately, did not survive their injuries. In the ensuing days, the grieving family had to bury yet another member in its graveyard. Kanonya died two days after the accident and during his funeral, reports arrived that his young brother Hajji Asuman Kitaka also had succumbed. As a result, they delayed Kanonya’s funeral as they waited for Kitaka’s body to arrive so there could be a double burial.

One might wonder why this traffic accident deserves media attention. Accidents are routine everywhere as are traffic fatalities. In many countries, governments have done a good deal to minimise the occurrence of such accidents and when they do occur, of assuring the risk of fatalities is lessened. These strategies include public awareness campaigns, safer roads with sufficiently widened lanes, consistent prosecution of reckless traffic violations and a rapid-response functioning ambulance service with well-trained paramedics. All of these measures are lacking in Uganda.

It is still common to find rescuers of accident victims, mostly citizens with no training at all in first aid, pulling out the injured from the wreckage and keeping them at the roadside, as they plead with passers-by to stop and help carry the injured to hospitals. Many people still die on the roads waiting for a Good Samaritan to heed their calls. The government could save many lives if it prioritised access to emergency healthcare services on the roads, a common observation in so many other countries. Emergency responders often should arrive on the scene within 90 seconds or maximum of two to three minutes. Individuals trained in CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), a game-changing measure, have been able to keep a critically injured person alive in the direst life-threatening circumstances.

A 2017 journal article in the Journal of Injury and Violence Research indicated that deaths in road accidents in Uganda occur at a rate of 28.9 per 100,000 population, the sixth highest in the world.The researchers pinpointed various reasons. One focused on transportation conveniences because of their affordability and accessibility, the boda-bodas, in particular. The researchers characterized these motorbikes as a “silent killer.” But, more importantly was the value of quick, close access to trauma care centers.The researchers concluded that “it’s irrefutable that timely pre-hospital care can reduce injury severity reducing the trend of [road] deaths by saving lives, treating injuries efficiently and effectively, preventing infections and injury-related diseases as well as preventing disabilities.”

This particular accident is an emotional event for me personally. Kanonya deputised and later replaced my grandfather Sheikh Hood Kabamba as the imam of the Gombe Mosque in Butamballa.

My last meeting with Kanonya happened about two years ago when I made a stopover at the mosque for the Friday congregational prayers. He surprised me, after noticing me entering the mosque a few minutes before the sermons had begun. He told me I was supposed to go straight to the pulpit to deliver a sermon and lead the prayers. I tried to explain that I was not prepared but he did not take my refusal as a final answer.

After the prayers he stood and explained to the congregation that, at first, I was hesitant to deliver the sermon but he insisted because he knew I needed no preparation, as he had watched how Sheikh Hood prepared me when I was young. He said that as I grow older, my voice reminded him of my grandfather and that it was his honour to let me speak again from the pulpit.

Here in the U.S., I called off from work to mourn with the family and colleagues kept calling asking me about which relative had died. I told them that he was like an uncle and that his grandfather was a brother to my great-grandfather. Some of them couldn’t comprehend my need to step away and mourn for a removed relative who was thousands of miles away. In the U.S., many would only take a leave of bereavement when an immediate family member dies.

However, even now in the U.S., I realize that every bond is important for how it shaped me and strengthened my voice. The accident and those who died have left me in a state of deep grief. As I could not be there, the only respectful way that I could imagine to honor their memory and their legacy was to remove myself temporarily from my daily work routine.kanonya

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