Medicine and music: UCU student from Nigeria seeks nexus

By Jimmy Siyasa
(2nd of four May 2022 stories related to theology and medicine studies)

As a young girl, Dorcas Chizaram Okeke was thin and weak – a common face at the school sick-bay.  At times, she wrote her promotional examinations while receiving intravenous treatment. She had “self-pity.” This early personal condition and two incidents spurred her on to become a health care expert.

The two instances were:  1) her relationship with a malaria-suffering schoolmate, who would later drop out because she was taking frequent sick leave; and 2) another schoolmate who died after a long struggle with leukemia.

These early health encounters contributed to the decision of Chizaram, of Nigeria, to pursue a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the Uganda Christian University (UCU) School of Medicine (SoM).

“Some diseases are curable,” the first-year student said. “Sometimes doctors just observe a patient and are able to tell what is wrong and then treat it. I wanted to be able to do that someday. Whenever I see someone facing a problem that I am unable to help them solve, I feel so bad.”

Chizaram’s lifelong ambition is to set up a large wellness center, where patients or clients can access rehabilitation services with an unusual twist – music therapy.

When she joined UCU in 2019, Chizaram underwent pre-year, which is a yearlong, mandatory orientation/ assimilation University program for non-Ugandan students. During that period, she undertook a short course in para-counseling, for which she attained a certificate. She believes with this skill, she is able to help her peers who suffer mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety and addiction.

Chizaram, one of the 60 entry-year medical students, sees UCU as the best place to receive a quality education. The low number of classmates allows closer lecturer attention and builds a stronger community among peers who encourage each other to participate in the twice-weekly community worship.

On this March Day and following community worship, she expressed appreciation for the newly assigned pastor at the Mengo (Kampala) hospital campus. Chizaram, a worship choir member, upholds the institution’s strong focus on both the spiritual and intellectual formation of students with the music twist.

“I was attracted to UCU because of its Christian moral foundation,” she said. “I think that is partly why I have never heard of UCU students rioting…you study when you are peaceful, without fear of waking up one day to damaged or lost property from a student strike.”

Further influence to come to UCU came through two of her older siblings who studied at UCU. One of them, Shalom Okeke graduated cum laude.

For Chizaram, music and Christian expression of spirituality go hand in hand. As with most youth in the age of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), she enjoys pulsating rhythms, and melodies move her spirit. She likes to “dance for the lord” while the bassist grooves. She likes the soft pads of the piano, and not silence, to accompany meditation. Her preference for music-infused worship may partly be attributed to her evangelical and musical family background, having been born to a Nigerian Anglican Bishop, Rt. Rev. Henry Okeke, the Bishop of Ideato, one of the Dioceses under the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion.

Chizaram says there is something about charismatic congregational worship that “pulls the heavens down” for her. On a bad day, she said, “I listen to music and feel emotional relief.”

As a non-Ugandan student studying in Uganda, over 2,400 miles away from her home country, Chizaram is grateful that through music ministry, she easily made/met her first friends in Uganda. Shortly after enrolling at UCU for the pre-year, she joined a university choir called Mustard Seed Worship Team (MSWT). Here, she found her ideal “worship environment” with vocals, drums, guitars, keyboards, and more. She participated in MSWT band activities, including presenting at community worship, university graduation, and Sunday service, among others.

After completing the pre-year at Mukono, she moved in September 2021 to the SoM academic and training site – rich with career learning, but devoid of the rich music and sound equipment/ facilities that the main campus has.

Chizaram yearns for the music she had that first year, noting, “I wish the university could provide music equipment; the one thing that draws young people to fellowship is music.”

Besides the music void, Chizaram loves her university experience. It does not feel foreign because she lives in a Christian community where Ugandans are joined by students from Cameroon, Liberia and Pakistan, among other countries. She hopes to graduate four years from now.

She attended Holy Innocents Juniorate convent in Nigeria, for both ordinary level and High School. An Igbo by tribe, Chizaram hails from Imo State, Nigeria.