When you enter the clinic, the outside light fills the front lobby, reflecting off the smooth cement floors. You tread carefully on the slick surface, made finer from years of patients and medical officers traversing the hallways.
The light bends around the corner into a dark corridor. Peering through, you see patients moving through the darkened hallway, the feet of hospital beds lining both sides of the room on the opposite end of the corridor. Windows open throughout the space, it smells more like the fresh, warm outside air and less like a sterile, fluorescent hospital.
Past the rows of hospital beds is a small room. Moving about the room in her white coat is Monicah Nakabugo, our resident nutritionist. If she ever sits during the day, it must not be for long. After an hour with her in this small room, it seemed a constant rotation of mothers and their young children came through her door, occupying the two beds in her office or watching her intently as she taught proper nutritional care.
She carries herself with confidence and kindness. Her warm smile is calming and reassuring to her patients. Her steady energy is boundless. There is work to be done, and she will keep at it until she is satisfied.
She is a picture of strength, joy and tenacity, but above all else – faith. When I think about Monicah, I’m reminded of the bible verse Philippians 4:13, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Medical work can be overwhelming, exhausting and defeating. In the face of trials, Monicah draws her strength from her reliance on God.
I had the joy of sitting down with Monicah to hear some of her story – twice. Once in Kyangwali Health Center in Uganda and once over a video call. Here is her story, in her own words, of how her faith in God led her on a different journey than she could have ever expected.
Lauren Odderstol: Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Monicah. I remember sitting down with you in Uganda for your interview, and one thing that stood out in particular is your faith. Can you tell me – how did your faith take root in your life?
Monicah Nakabugo: I’ve had a lot of challenges as I was growing up especially with my faith. You know, the way I expected life to be is not how it turned out to be. But my father and mother always reminded me that prayer breaks boundaries – breaks barriers, can even move mountains. So, with all the challenges I’ve faced in life even up to date, I would say by now of age, I no longer fight any battle. The only way I fight a battle is get on my knees and pray. And this was taught to me by mom and dad.
When I began that journey, I was really a young girl. But, I’ve been told several times from people I’ve met and who have seen my faith. In my family, I have many to look up to. I have a grandmother who is a nun. Because of her kindness, I was looking up to her to become a nun. When it came to primary 2, my auntie who also is a nun, really motivated me and she gave me courage that I should serve God. That was in primary 2 when I discovered that my passion to be a nun was really that strong.
I believe that gave me strength to stay with my faith up to date. I’ve had challenges, but those three years of studying, because I was taught to pray, by primary (4 to 11 years old) – I was able to pray on my own.
We used to have many prayers as a family. I came from I would not say poor and not rich background, but we were really struggling as children. But my father would tell me every morning and every evening, let me help you to pray. So that encouraged me every single day. Through that, I got to know that prayers move mountains. That whatever I face in life, whatever challenge I get, I need to kneel down and pray.
Everyone sees me smile and they think I don’t have trouble, I don’t have worries. But this smile comes just because I kneel down and pray to God.
LO: How did you go from planning to be a nun to becoming a nutritionist for Medical Teams?
MN: Uganda is kind of different in what you want to be in the future. One percent of people become what they want to be. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a nun as well as a nurse. But, then I realized that being a doctor is better than being a nurse.
When I filled in those courses after my A levels, I didn’t know what nutrition was. I filled in six courses, nutrition was my third – and I was given nutrition. I talked it through with family friends, professors, but I was really still not understanding. After one year of studying, that was when I fell in love with the course, and I’m like, “Yes, I’m in the right place.” As I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor, but I had these questions.
But deep down in my heart, I wanted to be a nun to serve God. Growing up, that was the life I knew that the only way to serve God was becoming a nun. So, I insisted after graduation that I wanted to be a nun. I sat home for two years struggling, working for three weeks, sitting home, I was desperate. Then, I had to sit down and really talk to God. And I’m like, “God. Put meaning to my life. Is it really being a nun?” But I remember telling Him, “I only want to serve You.” Then, I got home, got a job with Medical Teams. It was a miracle. Because I had given up. I had been for many interviews.
So, with time, I was praying and I was like, “God, take lead in my life. Whatever comes my way, as long as it is coming from you, I’m not shaken.”
So, that’s how I ended up in nutrition. And yeah, right now I’m not married, I have no children, but I’m not considering being a nun. Because right now I’m happy where I am. I’m doing what I want.
Whenever my faith is shaken, I wake up on a Sunday, I go into church, before mass begins, we have the prayer. My prayer I say every time I enter church is, “God, I came here to recharge. And I don’t want to go back home way I came. Especially with my faith.”
I’ve prayed, I’ve worked, I’ve had doubts of me being a nun and serving God. But I’m happy where I am – I’m serving God as I wanted when I was a young child, yet I thought I would only serve God when I’m a nun.
I told my God that I want to be one day recognized to serve you through my work.
When I got to know that being a nun is at 1%, I told God, “I believe where I am, wherever you take me, I will serve you. I will put smiles on people faces.” So, this is my prayer. And I feel like I am fulfilling it.
I have challenges as I care for these malnourished children. Some come in, I do my best, and they die. It is really unfortunate. But, whenever I lose a child, I sit back and I’m like, “Is my God satisfied with what I did?” Before I even write any report. Then, you know that it’s just a voice that is going to come within you, then I’m like, “Am I satisfied with myself that I did my best for this child, though the child is gone?” I ask myself those questions every time.
LO: Your faith is amazing. Thank you for sharing about that. This must be really challenging work for you at times, I can imagine. Especially when you do lose a child.
MN: Yes, it is very challenging. Last year, I received a blow. I got a child around seven years old. I did my best to save this child. I would even not eat – I would sit by this baby until 8 p.m. because I report to work at 8 a.m. Then, I would disappear. Monday, we made it. Tuesday, we made it. But unfortunately, Wednesday we didn’t make it.
I had just gone to serve a clinic to attend to mothers who had come to our clinic before. When I went back to my inpatient therapeutic care ward, I didn’t go straight there. I went to go monitor my child. Then, one of the mothers came and told me, “Nurse, the child has died.” I froze. I asked her, “What child? Is it your child?” She said “No, not mine, but the other woman’s.” I was with a nurse and a support staff, they saw me freeze. Then, the mother came to me crying. She was really crying. I looked at her with tears in my eyes. But, before a tear dropped, she knelt down and told me, “Nurse, thank you for the struggle. I’ve seen your work. I’ve seen you struggle to see that my baby survives. Thank you for that good work. But I think she has not made it, but I’m happy – I’ve seen your efforts to see my child survive.”
I looked at this woman who had lost her baby, really, to thank me for what I have done to serve her baby. My colleagues were like, “Monicah, can you please go home and rest?” I was like, “No, I still have a child I’m supposed to take care of. Let me first just serve this child.”
When I was home, I was like, “Yeah, I did my best.” How? This was a woman who saw me every hour monitor her child to see that her baby survived. Then, in her I saw in her tears that I had done my best to see that her child survives.
LO: Wow. That’s heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing. You do such great work, Monicah, and I am speaking for everyone at Medical Teams when I say, “Thank you.” I’m so glad you’re on the team. Is there anything else you would like to share?
MN: For you to be persistent, resilient in prayer and strong, you have to ask God for three things: faith, hope and trust in Him. I know in life it can get really challenging when you feel like, “I don’t have faith in the God that I have to pray to.” But whenever I am down, at least I pray for those three things every day. And I’ve seen it work because I’ve been down in faith. But when I pray for God to grow my faith, trust and hope in Him, it has really helped me to overcome everything in life.
Nutritionist, Kyangwali Health Center
I hope you are as encouraged by Monicah and her faith as I am. We are so honored to have such a talented, selfless and faithful person on the team at Medical Teams. Monicah, thank you for sharing your beautiful story and your faith with all of us. You encourage us to see that we can serve God wherever we are, with whatever we have.
Medical Teams Producer, Storyteller & Photographer
Read David’s Story one of the many patients Monicah has helped with nutrition.