Giving Back in Uganda
In July 2019, a team organized by GoServ Global traveled to northern Uganda to help construct a Sukup Steel Building. It was manufactured by Sukup Manufacturing Co. to be used as a school and church at a refugee camp for children who have been separated from their parents while fleeing South Sudan. The building also serves the surrounding community.
I was fortunate to be part of this trip so wanted to share the experience with everyone who might be interested. Because the trip was rather lengthy – 11 days total – I loosely organized this report into categories rather than a day-by-day account of the trip.
Our flight was scheduled to leave Chicago mid-afternoon on Tuesday, July 16. The team was mostly from Iowa, so several of us made plans to carpool to Chicago together – myself, Dayton, Joe, and Bill. We planned to meet in Wellsburg, Iowa (coincidentally where my great-grandparents lived) at 6 a.m.
One factor we had not considered was the amount of luggage we would have with us. In addition to personal luggage, the team had packed tools and other supplies. So instead of taking a car, we had to make a last-minute change to drive in Bill’s farm pickup truck. Which had no air conditioning. In July. From Iowa to Chicago. As Dayton said, we were jumping right into the conditions we would experience in Uganda!
Around Manchester, Iowa, I realized I had forgotten to print the tourist visa required for me to enter Uganda. Fortunately, I was able to email it to Paul Van Gorkum, Executive Director of GSG and fellow member of the mission team, and he printed it for me.
Once we arrived in Chicago, we met up with the rest of the team – two cousins who joined us from Indiana, Enoch and Josh. After a bit of re-arranging of luggage, we were off. Our flight path was Chicago to Amsterdam to Rwanda to Kampala, Uganda. One interesting note: we crossed the equator on the Amsterdam to Rwanda leg of the trip, and crossed it again on the leg to Uganda.
After spending one night in Kampala, we had a six-hour drive to Gulu, the city where we stayed for the rest of the trip. I was surprised at the excellent condition of the infrastructure. During this drive, we passed an interstate overpass under construction.
Our vehicle for the entire week, including this six-hour drive, was a bus borrowed from (I believe) a nunnery in Jinja, Uganda.
The official language of Uganda is English, so nearly everything was written in English and we were able to communicate with nearly everyone.
We spent the first night in a hotel in Kampala. The hotel was surrounded by barbed wire fence. This initially concerned me, but everyone assured me it’s typical and there was no reason for concern. The hotel had great Wi-Fi, and we woke up to a gorgeous sunrise over Lake Victoria.
Our accommodations for the remainder of the trip were a hotel in Gulu, a city which has a population of about 150,000. It had Wi-Fi (spotty at times but worked pretty well), a restaurant, cable TV, and VERY cool air conditioning. The first and last hot shower I was able to take in my room was on our first day there. The other most noticeable difference between this hotel and what you would find in a typical American hotel was a large mosquito net draped around the bed.
We started every day by meeting for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where Pastor Terry Baxter, co-founder of GoServ Global, led a devotional. One verse I jotted down was 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3:
The purpose of this trip was a labor of love, to build the Sukup steel building that the community would use for a church and school.
After breakfast each day, we took the bus to the camp (about a 45-minute drive) to a more rural area near a village called Pawel. The missionary from International Messengers, John Pipes, had established the camp. At the time we were there, the camp included 14 Sukup Safe T Homes®, with plans to construct a total of 39. Some of the Safe T Homes were used for school classrooms and others for dormitory-style housing for the children living there. Three of the homes were for individual use – one for a missionary intern, one for the camp director, and one for a “guest” house.
John had hired a crew of local residents to construct the steel building – 130’ by 60’. There were a few hurdles in the construction. One was that many members of the crew had never seen a building like this. Almost everyone in the village lived in a traditional mud hut with a thatched roof, and many of them had never been to the city. Another issue was the quality of the concrete. They had poured the footings prior to our arrival, and some of them crumbled when the anchor bolts were drilled in. We had a crane to use for one day to lift the steel beams. To the amazement of team member Josh, who works in construction in the U.S., the crane was leaking hydraulic fluid, which our Ugandan workers matter-of-factly collected in a bucket and poured back into the crane.
The new steel building is located adjacent to the refugee camp, and will also serve the wider community. The building they were using at the time was in very poor condition and too small for their needs. The first church service was held in the new building on September 8, 2019.
Those of us on the team who were less inclined towards manual labor (myself, Joanie, and Kaylie), spent time playing with the kids during breaks from school and after school, helped our cook Margaret, and took lots of pictures. I had brought a Frisbee for the kids to play with, and the first kid who tried to throw it immediately hit another kid in the face.
Unsurprisingly, the kids at the camp had limited belongings. They had a few soccer balls and a tire that they pushed around. They pushed each other around in wheelbarrows, and had some crafts. A church had sent some dresses and clothing and dolls with Joanie to distribute to the kids. The team also purchased some bikes in Gulu to provide to the camp. The kids also loved braiding hair and looking at videos on our phones. I didn’t have many kid-centric videos, but they seemed to enjoy some videos of my siblings’ dogs and the Iowa State University marching band at a football game.
There was a schedule posted in one of the school buildings stating when the children would be in class, do chores, do crafts, have meals, and other activities.
One fact we learned was that 50% of the population of Uganda is age 15 or younger. That means that concentrating on education and services for kids is an effective strategy to reach the nation.
For the record, I did try to help with some of the construction, mostly tightening bolts with a wrench called the “Cougar Pro.” However, it was extremely valuable for the local crew members, who had been hired for this job, to gain construction experience, so we tried to let them handle most of the work. We literally thanked God we had Josh and Enoch, who work in construction in the U.S. They really knew what they were doing and provided critical direction to the crew!
The land for the refugee camp had been donated by the assistant chief of the nearby village. We went over there one afternoon – it was just a few minutes’ walk from the construction site. Because the assistant chief had donated the land, John had wisely given him one of the Safe T Homes for his personal use (that is why there will be 39 Safe T Homes in the refugee camp). While we were there, the assistant chief and his wife served us Pepsi and Mountain Dew in glass bottles. I asked him how he liked living in a Safe T Home, and he responded, “I feel very lucky. And happy.”
Other than the assistant chief, everyone in the village lives in traditional mud huts with a thatched roof. One of the local crew members, Lawrence, invited us into his house. I was surprised by two things there: 1) they stored their toothbrushes by sticking them into the roof; and 2) they only picture hanging on the wall was from their wedding, which looked exactly like a modern American wedding. Almost every home also had a small solar panel, about the size of a small tablet, that provided energy to charge cell phones. Lawrence told us the home would last about 8-10 years, with periodic repairs to the roof and exterior.
The only word I can use to describe the landscape we saw on our daily bus ride through rural Africa is “vast.” It was beautiful and seemed endless. One thing I was surprised to see was giant coconut trees. We also saw palm trees, cacti, sunflowers, and corn planted in rows that were somewhat less precise than the rows of corn you see in Iowa.
The weather was fairly temperate. One of the days, the high temperature was only in the mid-70’s. Most days it was in the low to mid 80’s. It was also somewhat humid, but not terrible. During the time we were in Uganda, the temperature hit a heat index of 110 degrees in Iowa! Two of the missionaries at the camp had recently had malaria, and one from our group was diagnosed with it after returning to the U.S.
We took one day off to visit Murchison Falls National Park. The 30,000-acre park was about a 90-minute drive from our hotel. Someone had rented a minivan for us to take to the park. Shortly after entering the park, we were told that there were elephants near the road just ahead. I was very excited to see an elephant in person. To our surprise, the elephant charged at our van. Fortunately, the driver was able to step on the gas and we got away without any damage. I will never forget looking out the van window to see the elephant, with giants tusks, charging straight towards my window! I got my wish to see an elephant in the wild, although it was a bit closer than I had anticipated!
We had planned to start with a boat ride on the Nile River, but we had just missed one of the tour boats leaving. So, we had a very nice breakfast at a nearby lodge with a balcony overlooking the Nile. When we got on the next boat, we saw hippos, lots of birds, and a few crocodiles – including one VERY up close. Part of the tour included seeing Murchison Falls, apparently the narrowest part of the Nile River.
After the boat tour, a tour guide (with an AK-47) drove us in an open-air vehicle to tour the park. We saw giraffes, water buffalo, a large variety of antelopes (including some tiny ones the size of a dog), a variety of birds, and lions. When we found a pack of lions laying under a tree, the driver got fairly close to it and turned off the engine. With the memory of the elephant attack very fresh, combined with the fact that we were in an open-air vehicle, I would have preferred that he kept the engine running! Seeing the animals so close, in the wild, was an incredible experience.
I was not sure what to expect for food, and it was something I was very curious about going into the trip. To kick things off, on the flight to Amsterdam, one of our meals was a cheese and mustard sandwich on wheat bread and water in the same type of packaging as an American pudding cup.
The day we drove from Kampala to Gulu included a few food novelties. I spotted some ketchup-flavored Pringles at a convenience store. For lunch, we experienced Uganda’s version of a “drive-through.” Vendors on the side of the road swarmed our bus, trying to sell skewers of various meats, roasted corn-on-the-cob, and other items. I tried goat meat and some bread that reminded me of Indian naan.
We ate breakfast at the hotel every day. There were some staple items on the breakfast buffet: sausage, breakfast potatoes, juice, instant coffee, pastries, eggs, pancakes, baked beans. I believe we actually had the option of eating baked beans at 100% of our meals in Uganda. The breakfast buffet also had some items that we would consider somewhat unusual for breakfast – pasta and cooked green beans come to mind. I eventually learned that it was important to eat a fairly large, carb-heavy breakfast to absorb the malaria medication taken every morning. Some of the side effects of the medication are that it can cause a nauseous stomach and sensitivity to sun, and it impacts women more strongly. But it also effectively prevented me from getting malaria, so I’m not complaining.
Our lunch was at the camp every day except the day we were on the safari. Margaret was a great cook, considering that she was cooking over two open fires, and she used pieces of cardboard as pot holders. The base of our daily lunch was cooked cabbage, potatoes, white rice, and baked beans. There was usually a protein – pork, beef, or chicken. There was also something called “green vegetable,” and we never heard what it was, exactly.
Dinner was typically at the hotel, and the entrees available were extensive and similar to what you would see in an American restaurant. You could order pizza, pasta, chicken strips, etc. A beverage we enjoyed was a “Stoney,” which was essentially a VERY ginger-y ginger ale served in a glass bottle. We ate a couple of dinners at “The Iron Donkey,” a restaurant in Gulu. On the last night in Gulu, we ate at an Ethiopian restaurant owned by a refugee. Our last meal in Uganda was at a mall on our way back to the airport. The food court was called “Kamundi Food Center,” or KFC. The restaurant there reminded me of a Panera restaurant in the U.S., and I had a delicious latte – the first diary I had since the flight to Amsterdam.