Hospital Serves Victims of Obstetric Fistula in Uganda

In a village in eastern Uganda, a new, red-roofed hospital now stands alongside family farms. Most of the patients are young women and girls, victims of obstetric fistula, a debilitating injury that occurs while giving birth, often resulting in stillbirth and leaving women incontinent. This special hospital is the first of its kind in East Africa and only the third in Africa—and it was designed in part by Sharon Alitema, BArch ’19.

Alitema has long been drawn to how architecture and technology can improve lives. With this project in her homeland, she brought that idea to fruition before even earning her diploma.

A native of Kampala, Alitema works for BCRA, an architecture firm in Tacoma. As a member of the multifamily residential team, she designs townhomes, multifamily apartments, and senior housing.

Her fascination with design stems from her youth. A curious child, Alitema was nicknamed “the engineer” by her parents because of her penchant for fixing appliances around the house.

As a high schooler, her love for science and technology drew Alitema to architecture. She knew of the University of Oregon through family friends and chose to study architecture here after receiving the International Cultural Service Program scholarship, which funded her tuition, and also the John and Joy Haines Scholarship and Kenneth S. Ghent Scholarship.

During her sophomore year, Alitema took Environmental Control Systems, a class taught by architecture professor Alison Kwok that changed her perspective on the field.

She learned about the relationship between people, buildings, and the environment, including impacts of the built environment on health, environmental quality, and energy efficiency. She was taught sustainable design practices that address those issues.

“This class inspired me to think outside the box and to consider the influence and impact that we as designers can make on being the change this world needs,” Alitema says. “I learned that nature can inspire great design.”

During the spring of 2016, Alitema met Alice Emasu, founder of Terrewode, a Ugandan organization that supports women suffering from obstetric fistulas, and Bonnie Ruder, founder of Terrewode Women’s Fund, a Eugene-based nonprofit that supports Terrewode.

Sharon Alitema helped to provide surgeries in August for Ugandan women injured while giving birth.

Approximately 114,000 Ugandan women suffer from fistula, with 1,900 new cases each year. The condition can cause kidney disease, miscarriage, and lifetime disability, and due to lack of understanding about the condition, many women with fistula are ostracized from their community. 

Emasu and Ruder were designing a hospital and rehabilitation center for affected women and Alitema joined the design team. She consulted with the project’s engineers and offered ideas to improve energy efficiency and reduce costs while creating an environment that enhances healing.

Funding was secured in 2017 and construction started soon after in Soroti, a district in eastern Uganda. The hospital opened last August and doctors began performing surgeries immediately.

“We were so lucky to have Sharon’s assistance on this project,” Ruder says. “She thought about the patient’s perspective in utilizing the hospital grounds, which had been overlooked by the other architects. She also encouraged us to incorporate natural lighting while simultaneously guarding against heat from the African sun.”

Helping with the hospital’s design was “an honor and opportunity I hold so dear to my heart,” Alitema says. “This project was important to me because the skills and knowledge that I acquired . . . enabled me to set a precedent in my home community, where I hope to continue to have a great impact.”

Abby Keep, an international studies major and member of the class of 2020, is a staff writer for University Communications.

Photo of hospital patients by Lynne Dobson for Terrewode Women’s Fund.