- SECOND LEASE ON LIFE. Flavia Nampiima, 30, was attacked with acid on the night of October 6, 2009, on her way home from school. After undergoing treatment including surgery, Nampiima, did not let the scars from the attack define her life. She opens up to Esther Oluka on restoring her life after the attack.
On October 6, 2009 night, Flavia Nampiima had just returned home from university when she noticed a suspicious short human figure in trousers roaming their compound at about 8pm. Their house, in Ntinda had an enclosure without a gate. Nampiima, then a second year evening student of Guidance and Counselling at Kyambogo University used to commute. The second born of four siblings used to live with her family.
The fateful night
That night, after noticing the suspicious man, she walked past him to the compound. Coincidentally, Nampiima heard footsteps behind her and on turning to her left, a liquid was splashed on her face. It was mainly on top of her head, left side of the face, neck, chest and arms. Nampiima failed to recognise the man who poured the content on her because he had covered his face with a cap and bandana. He then fled.
“I did not feel anything until about three minutes later. The liquid caused me a burning sensation,” she relates, adding, “It was quite difficult for me to tell that it was acid. I imagined that something hot had been poured on my body.”
She ran around the compound shouting for help. In the process, she threw away her school bag, removed her shoes, vest and sweater.
She remained in her skirt that she pulled up to the chest to cover her breasts. Since there was no one home that day, Nampiima rushed to a nearby shop to ask for help. Her body was swollen.
“I could barely talk. I was mostly crying while walking around aimlessly,” she says.
As Nampiima stood helplessly outside the shop, a crowd started gathering around her, and, she heard some people making different suggestions on how to help her.
“One of those people in the crowd was a man from the neighbourhood who knew me and my family. He happened to park his car near the shop that night. Another was a landlady known in the neighbourhood told the man and her two sons who are my friends to take me to hospital,” she relates.
Coincidentally, her mother arrived at the scene and tried to get hold of Nampiima’s father on phone. She later followed them to the hospital in a different car.
From Kadic to Mulago hospital
She was first rushed to Kadic hospital, Bucket (now UMC Victoria hospital) where they were immediately referred to Mulago hospital.
“All this time, I had not received any first aid, and, the acid was continuing to burn my skin,” she says.
Upon reaching Mulago hospital, a team of doctors who received Nampiima asked why water was not poured on her body as a form of first aid.
“This is acid. You people should have first poured on her cold water before bringing her here,” Nampiima heard one of the doctors saying.
Immediately, the doctors rushed Nampiima to a bathroom, removed her remaining clothes and continuously poured water on her body for more than 30 minutes.
Afterwards, they got her out, applied some powdery-stuff over her wounds and she slept off. That marked Nampiima’s eight-month stay at Mulago hospital.
The eight months at Mulago hospital
Without a doubt, it was tough being at hospital for all this time.
“For starters, the doctors had to change my bandages twice every week. These bandages had to be peeled off from my burnt skin. God! That was always painful. Sometimes, I would want to object, but, the thing was if the bandages were not removed, they would become a breeding ground for bacteria which would eventually produce a bad smell,” she says.
Bathing was another painful ordeal.
“Blood would always escape from my skin,” she says.
Then, there were the surgeries that were performed from time to time to repair her skin. Nampiima found these as well very painful.
Besides physical pain, staying at the hospital also took an emotional toll on her.
“Imagine having to make friends, and, some of them die, while others get discharged leaving you behind in the hospital. This was painful for me as well,” she says.
During Nampiima’s hospital stay, her mother was her caretaker. She quit her business as a shoe dealer in order to look after her daughter. Her father, a mechanic, remained the breadwinner of the family.
Finances for the treatment
At the time, treatment for burn victims at Mulago hospital was availed for patients free of charge. This is because funders were sponsoring costs for burn victims.
“I received bandages and medication free of charge. The surgeries did not require payment as well,” Nampiima says.
Also, Nampiima received financial support from the Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda (ASFU), which is dedicated towards raising awareness and prevention of acid attacks in the country.
“My family, therefore, did not need to worry about medical bills. We mostly catered for feeding expenses,” she says.
Returning to school
Nampiima was discharged after begging the doctors to release her.
“I got tired of hospital and pleaded with them to let me go home. They accepted, but, advised that I continue going back for reviews and more surgeries,” she says.
She returned to their family home in Ntinda, the same one where the attack happened.
“It was traumatising to go back and stay in this place. But my family had no choice. This was our home and there was nothing we could do,” she says, adding, “We all continued living in fear and only relied on God’s protection.”
With support from both family members and friends, Nampiima was able to return to school in August 2010. She went back to Kyambogo University to continue with her course as an evening student commuting from home to school.
“I went straight to second year where I had stopped when the attack happened. I found new classmates as my former ones had advanced to year three,” she says.
This time because of her injuries, sometimes her father or a trusted motorcyclist rider (boda boda) man dropped and picked her up from school.
On some other occasions, friends took over the responsibility.
Studying after the attack was not easy though.
“There were days I wished the ground would swallow me up, especially when other students at the university and people on the streets would stare at me. Their looks frightened and caused me anxiety,” she says.
Some of the coping mechanisms Nampiima adopted included wearing wigs and long sleeved blouses that covered her scars. On some days, she would keep to herself in order not to attract any kind of unnecessary attention from fellow students.
Picking up the pieces
One day, having realised enough was enough, Nampiima sought help from the university counsellor who advised her to try and live the life she had before the attack.
“I remember her asking me what interests I had before the acid attack, and, I responded dancing, spending time with friends and watching movies,” she says.
Nampiima heeded the advice and slowly tried getting back on her feet. “I began watching movies more often, from home, and resumed my dancing classes. I mostly enjoy salsa (a popular form of dance that originated from Cuba),” she says.
Life after school
In 2012, she finally graduated from the university. Thereafter, she got work as a shop assistant and as a counsellor at Kyambogo University.
Today, she works as a counsellor and administrator at Bless a Child Foundation that provides care and support services to children suffering from cancer. She joined the foundation in March.
“I love my job because I get to serve and support children battling a terrible disease, something that reminds me of my own journey.
My employers are commendable men who look beyond my scars. They value me for my skill and hard work and continue to push me. They neither pity nor do me favours but support and empower me something most acid survivors never get from the corporate world. This is because it is hard to find companies hiring people who are like me,” Nampiima says.
Besides dancing and her work, Nampiima also loves swimming and going to church. Last month, she was asked to participate in the Malengo Hot Pink Catwalk Charity Show that saw models with disabilities strut the runway at Victoria Mall in Entebbe.
“I was asked to take part in the show and represent other acid survivors. I was scared, since it was the time, but, at the same time, it was an honour,” she says.
A few weeks after walking for the show, Nampiima was gifted with great news after getting appointed as an ambassador for the Malengo Foundation, a youth-led organisation set up to propagate the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals. Nampiima is single.
“I am not dating at the moment. It’s not because I feel sorry for myself. I have not just met the right person. I hope that I will eventually meet someone,” she says. ‘
She has been in relationships before but, they did not work out. Nonetheless, she is happy and confident.
Following her attack, neither the perpetrator of Nampiima’s acid attack was found nor were any arrests made by police.
“Since my parents had to take care of my siblings and I, it was too much to keep dealing with the police who required money more than budgeted for, yet, we did not have any proof of who the attacker was. So we concentrated on what we could handle. The case never made it to court,” she says.
Nampiima wishes that government could regulate acid use by coming up with strong laws and policies. And for the perpetrators of the acid attacks, she hopes they never get bail, but life sentences in jail. In addition, she wishes the attackers could pay all the victims’ medical bills.
“The victims have to foot most of the bills because organisations such as the acid survivor’s organisations that used to help have run out of funds,” she says.
She credits God, her family and friends for the support and making her journey manageable
“The perpetrators of the crime often start by stalking the victim before finding a suitable time of the acid. Most times, the acid is poured during late hours when the victim is alone.
Once the acid is poured, it has tendencies of penetrating into the skin and burning it severely. Once this happens, it is important to administer first aid. Undress the victim and pour water onto the affected area continuously for at least 20 minutes.
Afterwards, wrap a sheet around the person (to protect their decency), and rush them to hospital to receive treatment.
As the victim continues to heal from the attack, it is important they are surrounded by loved ones who re-assure them everything is going to be okay. Part of the healing process should also include counselling.”
Dr Ben Khingi, consultant surgeon at mulago hospital, plastic surgery and burn units