This week's Sunday Long Read is Ariel Levy's spectacular read in the New Yorker about Renee Bach, the woman accused of mass murder in Uganda with her church-funded medical clinic. Hundreds of sick children died in her care, because she had no medical training whatsoever and instead felt she was chosen by God to "help".
In the summer of 2013, Ziria Namutamba heard that there was a missionary health facility a few hours from her village, in southeastern Uganda, where a white doctor was treating children. She decided to go there with her grandson Twalali Kifabi, who was unwell. At three, he weighed as much as an average four-month-old. His head looked massive above his emaciated limbs; his abdomen and feet were swollen like water balloons. All over his tiny body, patches of darkened skin were peeling off. At a rural clinic six months earlier, he had been diagnosed as having malnutrition, but the family couldn’t afford the foods that were recommended. Twalali was his mother’s sixth child, and she was pregnant again—too far along to accompany him to the missionary facility, which was called Serving His Children.
“We were received by a white woman, later known to me as ‘aunt Renee,’ ” Namutamba attested in an affidavit, which she signed with her thumbprint, in 2019. At Serving His Children, Namutamba “saw the same woman inject something on the late Twalali’s head, she connected tubes and wires from baby Twalali to a machine.” Days later, while Namutamba was doing laundry in the clinic’s courtyard, she overheard another woman saying, “What a pity her child has died.” Soon, the person called Aunt Renée “came downstairs holding Twalali’s lifeless body, wrapped in white clothes.”
Twalali was one of more than a hundred babies who died at Serving His Children between 2010 and 2015. The facility began not as a registered health clinic but as the home of Renée Bach—who was not a doctor but a homeschooled missionary, and who had arrived in Uganda at the age of nineteen and started an N.G.O. with money raised through her church in Bedford, Virginia. She’d felt called to Africa to help the needy, and she believed that it was Jesus’ will for her to treat malnourished children. Bach told their stories on a blog that she started. “I hooked the baby up to oxygen and got to work,” she wrote in 2011. “I took her temperature, started an IV, checked her blood sugar, tested for malaria, and looked at her HB count.”
In January, 2019, that blog post was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed against Bach and Serving His Children in Ugandan civil court. The suit, led by a newly founded legal nonprofit called the Women’s Probono Initiative, lists the mothers of Twalali and another baby as plaintiffs, and includes affidavits from former employees of S.H.C. A gardener who worked there for three years asserts that Bach posed as a doctor: “She dressed in a clinical coat, often had a stethoscope around her neck, and on a daily basis I would see her medicating children.” An American nurse who volunteered at S.H.C. states that Bach “felt God would tell her what to do for a child.” A Ugandan driver says that, for eight years, “on average I would drive at least seven to ten dead bodies of children back to their villages each week.”
The story became an international sensation. “How could a young American with no medical training even contemplate caring for critically ill children in a foreign country?” NPR asked last August. The Guardian pointed to a “growing unease about the behavior of so-called ‘white saviors’ in Africa.” A headline in the Atlanta Black Star charged Bach with “ ‘Playing Doctor’ for Years in Uganda.” The local news in Virginia reported that Bach was accused of actions “leading to the deaths of hundreds of children.”
Bach made only one televised appearance in response, on Fox News. Wearing a puffy cream-colored blouse, with her blond hair half up, she was pictured on a split screen with her attorney David Gibbs, who previously led the effort to keep Terri Schiavo on life support, and now runs the National Center for Life and Liberty, a “legal ministry” that advocates for Christian causes. Over the years, Bach said, she had assisted Ugandan doctors and nurses employed by her organization in “emergency settings and in crisis situations,” but had never practiced medicine or “represented myself as a medical professional.” Bach sounded nervous, but she firmly denied the “tough allegation” against her. She had used the first person on her blog as an act of creative license, because a simple narrative appealed to donors; in fact, she’d had a Ugandan medical team by her side at all times. “I was a young American woman boarding a plane to Africa,” she said—inexperienced and idealistic, working on an intractable problem. “My desire to go to Uganda was to help people and to serve.”
Bach blames the Ugandan medical team for the deaths. They blame her. And the story behind it all is both heartbreaking and informative. I'm fond of saying "There's a lesson here for those who choose to learn it" but that's never been more applicable to our current situation in this era of global pandemic: the people who think they know better than the medical experts kill when they are wrong.