An American missionary is being sued in Ugandan civil court after severely malnourished children allegedly died while under her care at an unlicensed treatment centre.
Renee Bach, originally from Virginia, founded her organization ‘Serving His Children’ (SHC) in June of 2009 in Jinja, Uganda, to “help serve those suffering from severe and moderate acute malnutrition,” according to the organization’s Facebook page.
Ugandan civil court filings claim that Bach was directly supervising medical care for these extremely ill children, often performing procedures such as blood transfusions herself, in an unlicensed facility and with no medical training or experience
Primah Kwagala, a Ugandan civil rights lawyer and the attorney pursuing the case against Bach, told CTVNews.ca in an email that she heard of Bach and her centre last year when a colleague approached her to “consider the case.”
Kwagala said that she had never heard about the centre prior to her investigation, but was aware that “villagers in her surroundings thought that she [Bach] was a health worker and [her] home a registered facility where they would go for services.”
Neither were true, but the façade of legitimacy allegedly allowed Bach to operate her centre as she saw fit and without government supervision -- except for a brief period of time in 2014, the SHC centre was unlicensed as a medical facility and Bach had never been a health worker, according to NPR.
Kwagala filed the civil suit on behalf of two mothers who had children die while under Bach’s care, but says “many wanted to come forward.” It is alleged that 105 children died between 2010 and 2015 while under Bach’s care, but activists claim the mortality rate is higher.
It was only due to a lack of resources that the suit was not a class action, Kwagala said.
Bach is “accused of running a facility that was not registered by authorities in Uganda, administering specialized treatments and medication without training and licensure, misleading the public away from public health facilities and consequently violating human rights, including the right to life, to health, freedom from discrimination on the basis of race and social economic status as well as abuse of dignity of vulnerable children and mothers,” Kwagala said.
Bach, who is no longer living in Uganda, released a statement through her lawyer that claims the civil lawsuit Kwagala filed is “entirely without merit.”
Bach is being represented by David Gibbs III, attorney for the National Center for Life and Liberty, a U.S. fundamentalist Christian organization that “serves to protect and defend the Bible-based values upon which our nation was founded,” according to its website.
“As Ms. Bach worked alongside Ugandan medical professionals, she learned skills to help provide assistance as necessary…she never represented herself as a doctor or nurse,” the statement says.
Bach said in an interview with NPR that any medical procedures she was a part of were either “at the direction of” or “under direct supervision” of a Ugandan medical professional.
Bach’s statement also claims that one of the two children named in the civil lawsuit was never treated at her centre, and the other was treated while Bach was not in the country.
The claims are echoed on the SHC Facebook photo gallery, in an effort to stop “reputational terrorists” from attacking Bach, according to the statement.
Kwagala says that her filings, including “emails from Bach to the board of SHC apologizing for engaging in medical practice,” sworn evidence from former employees and volunteers, colleagues and church members, are all evidence contradicting Bach’s claims.
Kwagala showed CTVNews.ca two letters written to the board and church elders involved in SHC, detailing the “concerns about the medical work being done at our center and Renee’s personal involvement” dating from 2015 -- the same year a former volunteer at Bach’s centre filed a report with the Ugandan police, who subsequently shut down the centre while they investigated.
The SHC centre has since reopened in a different district and in direct partnership with the Ugandan government -- but with Bach no longer involved with the medical care.
Kwagala says that the legal ramifications Bach could face if she loses the civil suit include paying damages and having the court “making declarations to stop her from involving medical practice.”
Activists say that the Bach case is a window into a much larger problem -- that of white aid workers doing more harm than good, often in the name of missionary work, in developing countries.
In a series of messages to CTVNews.ca, “No White Saviors,” a “female lead advocacy group made up of predominantly Ugandan women” aimed at “decolonizing missions and development work," said it had been trying to bring Bach to justice “for years.”
“For too long foreign nationals, mainly white people, have gone into Black and Brown communities in the name of charity or mission work,” the group’s website says. It alleges that Bach’s case is an example of the “white savior complex,” when Westerners travel to poorer countries to deliver aid even when they do not have the expertise or training to do so, potentially doing more harm than good.
Two members of No White Saviors were born and raised in Jinja, and the group says they were exposed to Bach and SHC through their work in the NGO sector and local community.
“When you combine a largely colonized (mentally) people who believe whiteness to be superior with white saviorism, there is a lot of reckless, harmful behavior that gets normalized,” the group said.
But the group says for anything to change, there has to be an understanding of the “systems that allow for the white savior dynamic to exist in the first place,” such as the “issue of unequal distribution of power, access and resource,” and “the global system of racism and white supremacy.”
“It is a global problem of the inherent belief in white intentions, innocence and morality,” the group says. “Going into other countries, many [of] which have been formerly colonized, there is an implicit and unlearned trust that white people are there to do good, to help and they are qualified to do it.”
“White supremacy needs to be named and confronted for any of this to change,” they said.
Bach’s next hearing in the civil suit is scheduled for January 21, 2020 in Jinja.