Douglas Cruickshank 2015-01-14 06:31:03
Lions in Uganda take a back seat to no one when it comes to service. One of the numerous things Westerners don’t know about Africa is that many Africans devote a considerable amount of time and effort to helping their fellow citizens. Indeed, some of the most significant charitable work being done on the vast continent is performed by Africans. Not surprisingly, many of those doing that work are Lions. Lions clubs are abundant and active throughout much of Africa, and on a recent visit to Uganda I met with several club members to learn about their service projects. I lived in Uganda as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer from 2009 to 2012. I fell in love with the country and its people and now return there for extended visits whenever possible. On this most recent trip I sought out several club presidents in various parts of the country, talked with them about their clubs’ activities and on one uplifting afternoon accompanied Lions and Leos during a visit to an important project they support in the bucolic town of Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria. Uganda is a small country–roughly the size of the state of Oregon–with a huge population, about 35 million. It’s located in East Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world–the average woman has 6.6 children. More than half of its people are younger than 15. Needless to say, the pressure on the country's dramatically gorgeous environment and animals is intense, as is producing adequate food to keep its rapidly growing population fed. Health care, education and caring for orphans and other vulnerable children are serious challenges, to put it mildly. For the last quarter century Uganda has been relatively stable politically, with a growing middle class. Yoweri Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986, shortly after he overthrew President Milton Obote. (The notorious Idi Amin, the Ugandan leader Westerners are most familiar with, was driven out of the country in 1979; Obote was president both before and after Amin.) Considered a key country in the region by the United States and other western governments, Uganda receives substantial foreign aid. The nation gets nearly $500 million annually from the United States alone, mostly for HIV/AIDS programs, though that figure is likely to drop because of the anti-gay law that passed in early 2014. The country’s profile rose recently with the election last summer of Sam Kahamba Kutesa, a lawyer and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Ugandan Cabinet, to the post of president of the United Nations. *** I’m not the first U.S. visitor to note that Kampala is vaguely similar to San Francisco, where I live when I’m not in Uganda. Well, it’s built on a series of hills, but I suppose the similarity stops there. San Francisco is a pleased-withitself, quasi-European mini-metropolis. Kampala is a classic, crazy, megalopolis-in-the-making of the developing world. The population of Kampala is about 1.2 million; San Francisco counts 800,000. But both have huge commuter populations that live in the sprawl of outlying suburbs and smaller towns they’ve gobbled up as they’ve grown, so the area’s real population is far larger than the official number. In the center of Kampala, if there is such a place, is the Africana Hotel. Among the many conferences, concerts and other events that take place there, it’s the meeting place for several of the city’s Lions clubs. Late one equatorial afternoon, I meet Hilda Kahindi, sitting at a table in the gardens of the Africana. Kahindi is the president of the Kampala Cosmopolitan Lions Club. The club was founded in 2003 and has 29 members; she’s been president since 2007. I ask her what motivated her to get involved with Lions. She says she first learned of the club and its activities through her uncle and aunt, who were both members and often took Hilda along with them to Lions’ events. At one such event, volunteer doctors recruited by Lions performed cataract operations. The experience moved her deeply. “I was inspired,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘I must join a club which makes it possible for me to put a smile on someone’s face.’” Kahindi is typical of the Uganda Lions and Leos I talked with: energetic, optimistic, looking to a better future and willing to roll up their sleeves to make it happen. It’s a description that can be applied to the majority of Africans I met during the years I lived there and still run into when I visit. It differs markedly from the view of Africa and Africans one often gets from Western media. The Lions club that Kahindi presides over is involved in an array of service projects. These include tree planting (they’ve planted more than 1,000 in Kampala alone), road safety (they give day-glo safety jackets to the city’s bodaboda—motorcycle taxi drivers), distribution of sanitary supplies to teenage girls, aerobics class fundraisers and blood drives for the terrific CORSU Rehabilitation Hospital near Entebbe. The club also provides a children’s home with clothes, school fees and food. All the support for the projects comes from donations by individual members or is raised by Lions through direct solicitations. Just before leaving I ask Kahindi what the club needs most. “School books,” she tells me. “Books for the kids, to help educate them.” A couple days later, Kakinda Michael drops by my apartment in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb. Kakinda is a busy guy, but he pays me a short visit to brief me on the activities of the very active Kampala New Century Lions Club of which he is the president. The club was founded in 2006 and is largely made up of doctors and other young medical professionals, and their spouses. There are currently 16 members, but Kakinda, 32, expects the young club to grow fast. He is a doctor himself, a public health specialist. A Lion since 2000, he was a Leo while in medical school, as were many of his friends. “The first year we were in college, we joined the Leos,” he tells me, “then the second year we turned into Lions.” One of Kampala New Century’s most ambitious ongoing projects is the annual health camp, held in different parts of the country each year. “What we do,” Kakinda explains, “is mobilize health workers–most of our friends are doctors. Then we go to the big companies and get them to donate medicines. We pay for our own transport and partner with the local Lions club, which usually takes care of our lodging and food. We also do HIV/AIDS counseling and testing. And river blindness is another illness we treat. We have an upcoming sight campaign planned, focused on river blindness.” Kakinda tells me that club activities are underwritten largely by member donations. A fee of 30,000 Uganda shillings (about $11.50) is collected from each member every month. When possible Kampala New Century partners with other clubs in the city. Looking to the future, Kakinda wants the club to initiate a sanitation program, involving building latrines in residential areas. They also plan to start a vaccination program that will serve different districts throughout the country. Kakinda works for the Ministry of Health, so the club and the Ministry often collaborate on health projects. Radio call-in shows are another way that the health-centric club reaches out to the communities with health advice. As I did with Hilda Kahindi, I ask Kakinda what motivates him, what inspires him to serve. “I think we have to give back,” he tells me. “I look at it this way: We are lucky to be where we are. It’s sheer luck. We are lucky that our grandparents and parents went to school, so then we went to school. It had nothing to do with being better than other kids. We were in the right place at the right time, in the right environment. Eventually, you really have to give back.” Not long after meeting with Kakinda, I travel to the southwest Uganda and the busy town of Kabale where I visit with Alex Banya, president of the Kabale Lions Club. Banya tells me he owns the town’s private Brainstorm High School, but club activities go beyond education projects. The club’s 28 members “oversee a tree planting program, and we are involved in health,” Banya tells me. “We have a signature project here, a hospital that was constructed by Lions. We also do fundraising. We normally hold radio talk shows, especially when we have someone who has a problem and needs assistance. We work with these corporate companies, like banks, and we get their support. Recently we had someone with a problem of the heart, and we arranged to help him.” In addition to his own school, Banya and the club support the local Hornby School for the blind. “We typically attract members because they hear of our activities and want to get involved,” Banya continues. A challenge in his community, however, is that many people who want to participate in service projects simply don’t have the money to do so. Kabale Lions try to accommodate everyone who wants to help. “We encourage members to pay in installments to make it more affordable,” Banya explains, “not the whole lump sum at once.” The membership fee is 200,000 shillings per year ($77), plus a 5,000 per month activities fee (less than $2). Still, Banya tells me, “Some fail to get the money. You see, in this place the people are not rich, they are poor! But we tell them you don’t need to be rich, you can give your time.” The Kampala Central Lions Club is the largest club in Uganda with 108 members. Nearly half, 46, are women. The club is growing rapidly. The energetic Dans Naturinda is president. He joined the club in 2005 and took on the presidency a few months ago. “When I came in,” he tells me, “I was resourceful in fundraising, so they wanted me to head things up.” It’s clear he enjoys the challenge and he’s good at it. “Our first priority is health issues,” he tells me. “We organize a big annual medical camp. We raise money, pick a needy place elsewhere in the country and go there with a team of doctors and ourselves as volunteers. We treat anything and everything from kids to people who need minor surgery. At the last camp, we did 45 hernia operations and 36 cataract surgeries. We served 2,804 patients during that single campaign. We also do immunizations.” One of the club’s most dramatic successes came earlier this year at a medical camp. Kampala Central Lions took doctors, nurses and its medical and surgical camp to the remote, rural district of Kamuli. Many people were attended to. One of the club’s most important services–distributing sanitary products to girls so that they can continue to stay in school even during menstruation–reached a large number of the area’s young women. Then, on the camp’s second day, a member named Lion Florence learned of a disabled woman in the local health center who was enduring an especially long, difficult labor. She required a Cesarean section, though the center was not equipped to perform the procedure. She was at high risk, as was her baby, and the only place that could treat her properly was a long, rough drive away. Lion Florence alerted one of the camp’s doctors, Dr. Kisekka Rockie, to the dire situation and the young mother-to-be was brought to the surgery theater. As soon as the woman arrived, Rockie began the Cesarean, and in a mere half hour the baby was delivered. It was named after Naturinda and Rockie. Later, in an article in the club’s glossy magazine, Naturanida said, “We have heard of numerous women dying in labor in rural areas, and I am sure that if it was not because of the Lions’ presence here today this woman would have added to the statistics. Lions do miracles, and I have no doubt that this is one of those miracles that we will always remember.” Rockie, it should be noted, joined the Kampala Central Lions Club soon after this hopeful event occurred. The funding for the great things being done by Naturinda’s club comes from its members but also fundraisers such as a marathon. And when Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Parliament, visited the club, she was so impressed she personally contributed a million shillings ($385). “Now we are planning to have a focal point for all our activities,” Naturinda tells me as we are saying goodbye. “We’ve bought a large piece of land to build a multipurpose health and youth center. It’s already designed, and we have construction estimates. That is our main project for next year: raising funds to build. We’ll begin with a health and eye care unit, then expand from there.” Given Kampala Central’s impressive history of service, this new project seems destined for success. As my visit with the Lions of Uganda was nearing its end, I didn’t think I could be any more impressed than I already was. Then I met a couple of young women in the beach town of Entebbe, about a 45-minute drive from Kampala. The women’s names are Rebecca Nankumbi and Kimera Remmie Suzan, and it’s no overstatement to say they are doing amazing work. Nankumbi is president of the 23-member Entebbe Lions Club and also adviser to the Entebbe Secondary School Leos. She’s been a teacher at the school for five years, and when I asked to see the project she’s most proud of she immediately mentioned Kimera and her Purpose Babies Home. Kimera, in her early 30s, was working an office job in Entebbe a few years ago when she became aware of how many orphaned and abandoned babies there were in the community, some of whom were HIV positive. It disturbed her, but then it would disturb most people. What makes Kimera exceptional is that she committed herself to doing something about it, and she’s been wildly successful in her efforts. She established the Purpose Babies Home, which now houses and educates (in the case of the older kids) more than 30 children from small babies to age 5 or 6. “I quit my job when I decided to take care of the babies,” Kimera tells me, “and used the money I had saved up to rent this place.” This “place” refers to a pleasant house with large yard and out-buildings not far from Entebbe’s town center. The property also now includes a nicely appointed school with several classrooms. Nankumbi and her Leo students visit the home regularly, bringing food, toys and–most importantly–fun and affection, singing and dancing. I was fortunate to accompany them on one of their visits. Before visiting the babies home, I met Nankumbi at the school where she teaches for a short tour. She showed me the vegetable garden the Leos have started; they sell the vegetables and use the proceeds to buy things for the children at Kimera’s home and for other club activities. Walking across the school grounds, Nankumbi pointed out the large trees that the Lions had planted and the neatly painted sign announcing that the school was home to the Entebbe Lions Club Leos. Nankumbi explains that she was previously involved with the Red Cross, which got her in the habit of doing service and community work, then another teacher in the school got her interested in the Lions. In addition to supporting the babies home, Nankumbi and her Lions and Leos colleagues help with cleanup at the local hospital, as well as volunteering at the Disabled Children’s Home and a local home for the elderly. They get some support from LCIF, but most of what they spend comes from their own resources or donations they solicit. Club membership is 170,000 shillings annually (approximately $65). Having Lions and Leos bring interested friends to meetings helps the club attract new members. Nankumbi tells me that she wants to “increase our focus on empowering the girl child, village children and school dropouts, by working through schools to empower girls.” We drive over to Purpose Babies Home in a sedan and a pickup. The truck carries all the Leos and the gifts for the children; the sedan carries the rest of us. As we drive I think of the extraordinary women I’ve known (and some impressive men too) during the years I’ve spent in Uganda. The coffee cooperative I worked for when I lived in western Uganda was founded by women and its membership is still 85 percent women. They are a fun, hard-working and formidable bunch. Nankumbi and Kimera are no different: They see what needs doing, and they do it. Sounds simple, but it takes enormous resolve, courage and effort. Fortunately, they are up to the task. What’s more, they are great role models for the many girls and young women they come in contact with. Once at the babies home, we pile out of the vehicles and unload the bags of gifts for the children, who are seated in a ragged circle on the large lawn near a brightly painted carousel. We are greeted by Kimera and her young, shy, darling daughter. Before joining the children, Kimera shows us around the home and the school. It’s a modest, tidy place with clean sheets on every bed and a stuffed animal, courtesy of Lions, waiting for each child. The school has numerous hand-drawn educational charts, books and other supplies, though the need to replenish is constant. Food, clothing and shoes are, of course, also in continual demand. Kimera is preternaturally cheerful and relaxed and the kids seem happy, healthy and fun-loving. It is an inspiration to see what Kimera has achieved with her own hard work and a bit of help from Nankumbi, the Leos and Lions. As the Leos pass out the gifts to the children, one of Nankumbi’s fellow teachers drills them in animal sounds, then one of the Leo girls gives the kids a short speech. “Babies, we are so happy to see you today,” she tells them. “We always look forward to being with you and we miss you when we are away. But we always think of you and love you.” It is moving to hear these words come from this teenage girl, and the kids seem to know that she means what she says. I’m impressed, too, to see that male students are just as good and caring with the kids. There are some songs and some dancing and sweets are passed out, then it’s time to go. I thank Kimera for the fine work she’s doing, and she invites me to visit any time I’m in Entebbe. I definitely will as it was the high point of my trip. For their part, Nankumbi and the other Lions will be coming back every couple of weeks or so, continuing to make community service a part of their lives and the lives of all they come in contact with. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction,” Nankumbi says as we are driving away. “I feel touched by these children.”
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