FROM AUTOPSIES TO LION ATTACKS
Born in Limbe, Nyasaland, which was later renamed Malawi.
Samuel was the oldest child of Valla Bhima, an Indian Gujurati man who was a blacksmith on the railways, and Tulaba Nkasa from the Yao tribe. His parents gave him the middle name Valla, after the place in which he was born. He was the oldest child of 5.
He never knew the exact date of his birth so he randomly chose June 15th as his birthday for his passport. He was always known as Sam.
He initially went to a Mission school. The staff were extremely brutal and one day he ran away from school in tears. When his mother heard his complaints she immediately withdrew him from the school.
At his secondary school in Blantyre he witnessed an untrained medical assistant treat another pupil’s injured leg and decided medicine was to be his chosen profession. But opportunities were limited in Nyasaland. People who were black were banned from universities.
Upon leaving school, Sam went to Makerere University in Uganda, to study medicine on a scholarship.
When he qualified in 1953, he returned to Nyasaland to practice as a government-employed medical assistant. Despite being fully qualified he was not initially allowed to operate as a doctor. At the bottom of his application, somebody had written that he was, “a lesser form of life.”
Law in Nyasaland forbade any black doctor or nurse from treating a white patient. He remembered extreme prejudice including patients screaming at him to get out of their ward.
And he was paid significantly less than the white, British doctors.
Sam left Blantyre to run the district hospital at Ntcheu, single-handedly. It was a poor, rural area. As the only doctor in the hospital, he did everything, “from autopsies to lion attacks.”
He was at the time, the only black doctor working in the country. One day a white woman was bought into his hospital. She was suffering complications from childbirth. Sam saved both her life and that of the baby. His standing with the local white community went up.
Conditions were extremely basic and he had to improvise, making his own medical instruments. But he realised how many women were dying in childbirth or of complications from their pregnancy. Men were not supposed to be involved in childbirth – that was left to unqualified ‘birth attendants’. Sam ignored this and built trust with local women.
He did get married and had a son called George, but the marriage ended in a quick divorce.
He took a year out, going to Dublin to train in obstetrics and gynaecology. He went to the Rotunda Maternity Hospital.
When he returned to Nyasaland, he was the only specialist in this area of medicine in the whole country. He was determined to improve the health of women in his homeland.
Nyasaland became independent in 1964, changing its name to Malawi. The first president was Dr Hastings Banda (himself a qualified doctor).
Banda took an immediate dislike to Sam, due to his friendship with a rival politician. Sam had treated the opposition leader Henry Chipembere for his diabetes, whilst he was in hiding from Banda’s troops. He provided him with the necessary Insulin. He believed it was his duty to help anybody who was sick and put medicine above politics.
Banda (who quickly became a tyrant once he got to power) also made it clear he hated other educated black people.
Sam was warned his life was in danger. He was immediately smuggled out of the country, with the assistance of the British Governor General Sir Glyn Smallwood Jones. Effectively he was exiled.
He went to the United Kingdom. There he worked in various hospitals (Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire and Marston Green in Solihull), and became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). He was the first Malawian admitted to the college.
Whilst at Marston Green he met eminent doctors Catherine and Reginald Hamlin. They were very impressed with his work and invited him to join them in their hospital in Ethiopia.
He moved to Ethiopia, where he was trained further in gynaecological surgery by the Hamlins, specialising in repairing vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), a common cause of death during childbirth for mothers in Southern Africa.
Then he returned to Malawi, allowed back into the country.
For three years (1970-73), Sam worked a Senior Consultant at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. There he successfully treated over 150 cases of VVF, saving the women’s lives. But he was exhausted.
He applied for retirement from government service and asked for permission to go into private practice.
But Hastings Banda turned on him again. He sent Sam a letter accepting Sam’s resignation, “with immediate effect”. It also said, “If you are old and tired…GET OUT!” It was signed ‘President for Life’.
Sam was once again forced to flee. He fled once more to the UK. Exiled again.
He got various jobs working in hospitals in Sussex and built a reputation for his surgical excellence in dealing with very complex cases.
He also married Joan Baldwin in 1975 and had three daughters, Samantha, Anita and Maliza.
Whilst in England he regularly suffered prejudice. He was always really hurt if a patient refused to be treated by him due to his skin colour. He never complained though – and would only challenge racism if the victim was somebody else, never himself.
He was also frustrated that his medical qualifications, being from abroad, were regarded as lesser than British doctors, and that he was never paid the same as his British equivalents.
However, in 1984 he was recognised for his work by being made a fellow of the RCOG.
In 1994, after 30 years in power, Hastings Banda was removed, and Malwai became a truly democratic country. He returned ‘home’, now aged 70 – and continued his medical work.
He worked there for 7 years, transforming women’s health care in Malawi, but he became increasingly frustrated by low pay and corruption and longed for a return to Britain.
He finally came back to the UK in 2001 and retired as a practising doctor, although he became undergraduate sub-dean at King’s College Medical School in London.
He fought all his life against prejudice of any kind.
He said he had an 85% success rate with VVF and had helped 6,000 women to give birth safely and successfully.
His final retirement was aged 89 and then he devoted himself to his passion for vegetable growing.
RIP – Return Irritates President