Eight Days in Uganda
In July I traveled to Uganda with Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, who serves with me on the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We were joined by the President and CEO of CRS, Sean Callahan, as well as Marc Tanowitz and Andrew Wisenberg, who were helpful with some very important IT work for CRS, and Claire Raskob, who well represented her family’s foundation. The team of six was a perfect match for the ninety CRS staff, led so capably by Elizabeth Pfifer, the CRS Uganda Country Representative.
Our first day was spent with our CRS staff, getting to know them personally. Eighty out of the ninety were from Uganda. The other ten were CRS personnel from the USA or other parts of the CRS world (we now serve 117 countries). The Uganda country program has expertise in agriculture, health, emergency response for refugees, and support for vulnerable children and youths. The 80/10 ratio of staffing seems to be a good working model. CRS works to build up the local Church by hiring and training those familiar with, and invested in, their country. The staff was highly motivated and appreciated both the Catholic principles upon which CRS is built, and our passion for the sacred mission of CRS as a Church agency.
Our next visit was with our local Church partners: the Catholic Bishops of Uganda. We also visited the leaders of the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau and Caritas Uganda. Meeting the President of the Conference, Archbishop Odama of Gulu, Northern Uganda, as well as the General Secretary, Monsignor Kauta, was a good learning experience for us to know just how important American Catholics have been to the local Church of Uganda. The place in which we met was paid for in part by donations from American Catholics in our Annual Second Collection for Africa. With the help of CRS, the local Church of Uganda is currently in the process of establishing a national Child Protection Policy, modelled on the work the USCCB, to support Catholic structures across Uganda to protect and cherish children.
In 2012, the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau assumed full responsibility for the AIDSRelief Program which had been successfully implemented by CRS for nearly 10 years. We heard many success stories about how the Church was continuing with high quality HIV and AIDS programming. Likewise, the Church’s stellar work in peacemaking and in service for the poor is mostly done by Caritas Uganda, and was well known everywhere, even at the highest office of the land. Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the Prime Minister of Uganda, recalled the great work of Caritas Uganda to deal with freeing and rehabilitating child soldiers in the north, as well as to negotiate a final settlement with The Lord’s Resistance Army.
Our evening of that day was spent with Archbishop Michael August Blume, a Divine Word Missionary, who is the Apostolic Nuncio to Uganda. We spent our time talking about the poor, the refugees, and the good work of the Church in Uganda.
Christianity came to Uganda in 1875. Catholic Missionaries from England and France found receptive local converts, especially among tribal leaders. King Muteesa of Uganda accepted this evangelization, but the following King did not. He ordered the killing of twenty-three Anglicans and twenty-two Catholics between the years 1885 and 1887. These Uganda martyrs stand today as a witness to ecumenism, and to the vibrant fidelity of the Church in Uganda. Today throughout Uganda there are nineteen dioceses, hundreds of hospitals and schools, caritas centers and other ongoing Catholic humanitarian efforts.
The next day involved an early flight to the Kasase Region, in Western Uganda, to see the great work of CRS with local farmers to support the sustainable production of vanilla. Meeting with local county officials and farmers we came to know the value of careful planning to help families move out of poverty. By growing vanilla, alongside other crops such as bananas, coffee, cocoa, and sorghum, a husband and wife could now succeed to build a modest home on their land and even send their children to school. Vanilla was quickly becoming an excellent way to help farmers improve their lives. CRS helped with planting, harvesting, protecting, and opening “fair trade” markets for these farmers. With the help of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Corporation and the local farmers’ cooperative, CRS has made dreams come true.
The following day was spent with mothers and children in Mityana District, just west of Kampala the capital, with a program designed by USAID and carried out by CRS with local social workers and partners. One mother introduced her three teenage daughters; each proudly spoke of their first days in school. After their father had died, their mother needed them to stay home. CRS was able to help their mother with a trade of making small carpets, and each daughter discovered a small trade to help with school fees.
We also met a young mother who showed us a photo of her son. When she delivered him he was terribly deformed. Her husband left her, blaming her for the deformities. With the help of CRS, her son, after a few operations, was much better and, is now able to live with dignity. She now has a small trade making purses, and she has the means to raise her son.
The next day was spent advocating for the poor, refugee and vulnerable children at the highest levels of power in Uganda. We first met with the Prime Minister, Dr. Rugunda, who was very appreciative of the good work of CRS and Caritas Uganda. We then visited with the United States Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah Malac, who was not only receptive but quite affirming and supportive of the work we were doing.
We learned once again that both Church and State can together play positive and complimentary roles in society; our meetings left us with a greater respect for the Government of Uganda, especially how they have accepted over 1 million Sudanese Refugees fleeing conflict in South Sudan, and helped in many ways vulnerable children, youth, and farmers. Our US Government, likewise, through the efforts of international relief monies (USAID) has made a huge difference. We wish every country in the world would do what the US does in generous humanitarian assistance.
The next day we boarded another small eight-passenger plane to the Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement near the South Sudan Border, home to over 272,000 refugees. We were met by CRS staff working there, as well as by two priests, Father Jimmy and Father Francis, both serving the mostly Christian refugees. CRS does careful work with hygiene facilities and practices, home building, water-well drilling, and education for children in the most desolate of places.
Most refugees had arrived there on foot from South Sudan, after a long and dangerous journey, sometimes lasting weeks. CRS is among the most reliable of International NGOs to receive them because of its vast experience with refugees. Our team of twelve will soon become thirty, because of the great need, and the local Church of Uganda has helped in serving as host to CRS workers and refugees alike. Two local pastors, Fathers Felix and David, have supported Fathers Jimmy and Francis, and each has offered the CRS staff a place to live, and a place to work in their parishes.
The Uganda government provides coordination and good policies for refugee work. The most important is the 70/30 rule that requires NGOs such as CRS to apply 30% of their efforts and resources to help the local host community, and 70% to assist the refugees. In this way both those caring, and those being cared for, are lifted up together. CRS has also begun creative ways to engage refugees themselves in the building of homes, latrines, kitchens, as well as with the farming of land, and the development of small trades. I was proud to be Catholic, to be a CRS supporter, and to be an American.
Our final day we celebrated morning Mass in Entebbe near the capital city of Kampala. A full Church, vibrant congregation, swaying choir, lots of children, silence during the consecration, applause as the Host, then as the Chalice were elevated, a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit, priests who were close to the people and vice versa, all made for a perfect ending of a beautiful trip to Uganda.
Those eight days were spent witnessing and sharing in the work of the local and international Church. We felt close to the early missionaries who came to Uganda in the late 1800’s, and whose only hope was to care for others, bring them Jesus Christ and welcome them to the goodness of his Church.