|Andrew W. Griffin|
Talking about their recent trip to Uganda are (l-r): Damon Webster, Prof. Cheryl Wattley, Nazareth Haysbert and Courtney Ernston.
By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report, editor
Posted: August 19, 2011
NORMAN, Okla. – With only a matter of days to get ready,
dozens of volunteers from Oklahoma – 70 in all – agreed to go to the African
nations of Uganda and offer their assistance and expertise in helping Sister Rosemary Nyrumbe and those living and working at her school in a small city in the north of that country.
Four from that group – University of Oklahoma law students Courtney Ernston, Nazareth Haysbert, Damon Webster and OU Law Prof. Cheryl Wattley – spoke to (this magazine) recently at a restaurant here in Norman, sharing their thoughts and recounting experiences they had over a week’s time in Gulu, Uganda.
The non-profit Pros For Africa group, founded by Oklahoma City attorney and philanthropist Reggie Whitten, initially flew into the Ugandan city of Entebbe before taking the five hour bus journey north to Gulu, not far from the border of Sudan.
It was in early March when Whitten, who first went to Uganda in 2002, along with OU College of Law Dean Joe Harroz announced the school and PFA would collaborate on a week-long trip to Uganda. The excitement was palpable, noted the adventurous gorup.
The crew of people coming from Oklahoma and a few other places included everyone from professional athletes like Adrian Peterson, Tommie Harris and Roy Williams to many doctors, engineers, attorneys and nurses. People with skills – from law to medical care to media attention - wanting to help a nation torn by war, famine and brutality against innocents.
“Just a variety of people,” Wattley said of the selfless group.
And the OU Law School community has really stepped up, the
Nazareth Haysbert and Courtney Ernston reminisce
Haysbert, who had traveled to Uganda just weeks earlier, was amazed at having another opportunity to return and help. He said Reggie Whitten thought of him when he quickly organized the March trip over the Spring Break holiday.
And did Whitten have trouble getting people to agree to go to Uganda?
“Nobody said ‘no,’” Haysbert said with a grin.
Ernston added that when the Dean of Students called her asking her to go – she had been to Africa before – she said, “Yep, I’ll go,” adding, “I was hooked.”
Wattley said she was struck by the ease of travel. How everyone from wealthy professional athletes and the top person at Best Buy to the struggling student were all getting along and traveling in coach together. There were no barriers, she said.
“That really set a tone for me,” Wattley said.
It was in the community of Gulu, Uganda, in the northern part of the country, where they would spend the next seven days, each person taking on a different set of tasks in order to help the local people.
In describing Gulu, Ernston said it was “desolate and pretty basic” but that they were greeted warmly by the local people and by Sister Rosemary who runs St. Monica’s School.
Northern Uganda has been devastated by fighting and skirmishes involving the murderous and oddly apocalyptic group the Lord’s Resistance Army. Many people have been tortured or killed by members of this group and the Gulu area was a an LRA stronghold, the PFA members told us.
During some intense fighting, up to 800 children were protected in the confines of St. Monica’s, which is really a walled fortress near a prison.
Before coming to Uganda, Wattley said, “I did not appreciate the impact of the LRA.” She also said that as a result of the unrest that went on for years, “you see armed soldiers on every street corner,” a sight that made her and others a little nervous.
Damon Webster – Water Sanitation
Damon Webster, an Illinois native, is studying environmental engineering at OU and has spent time working on water wells in Cambodia and has a passion for assisting with water sanitation in developing countries.
The Water4 Foundation, which helped provide water to “at-risk, impoverished areas throughout the world,” according to their website, was on hand to help with the wells Webster worked on.
The others volunteers noted how Webster, a friendly, burly fellow, was extremely popular with the local children.
“They loved playing with Damon,” Wattley said.
“Their favorite toy is a tire,” Webster said. “The play with it and have a great time.”
Webster said the children responded positively to the attention he gave and the others gave to them.
“These kids don’t get a lot of TLC,” Webster said.
He also said he tested local water wells and noted that excess amounts of fluoride are a problem in the Gulu area and that dental fluorosis causes pitting and other problems for the people who drink local well water.
They were also struck by the work ethic. Webster described it as part of the “African labor society” where laborers work from “when you can see until you can’t see.” And simply keeping a pace like that was difficult for some of the Pros For Africa members.
Webster, who was planning a return trip to the tropical environs of rural Cambodia, said he has already talked to Whitten about returning to Uganda in August.
“I’d love to go,” he said, an earnestness in his voice.
Cheryl Wattley – Jackfruit trees and hearing aids
One group, Wattley said, planted jackfruit trees. They were offered samples of this curious fruit so the PFA members could get a sense of what it was like.
Interestingly, the group explained that hearing loss was real problem in rural Africa. Ernston explained one of her duties while with Sister Rosemary was to clean massive wax buildup in people’s ears. She even had to remove a beetle that had lodged itself in one victim’s ear.
Starkey Hearing Foundation, the hearing aid company, also provided hearing aids for the villagers and Wattley explained the joy she had when she was taught how to put the hearing aids on people. Ultimately, they would fit hearing aids for over 800 people.
Wattley was a little unsure at first but when she fitted a hearing aid onto a 7-year old boy who had never heard himself before. “I saw his eyes light up … it was awesome,” she said. “To make a sound that they didn’t know they could make. The sound was ‘ma’ like ‘mama.’”
Seeing the difference her simple act of kindness had a deep impact on the OU law professor.
“It ranks up there with the joy I experienced having my kids,” Wattley said, beaming.
Of course the medical treatments and the handing out of medicines was key. Everything from anti-malarials to antibiotics to ibuprofen were handed out during the week.
“We don’t want this to be just an annual field trip,” Wattley said. “It’s about how do we make it sustainable.”
And as an added update, Sister Rosemary is making a trip to New York City next month in hopes of spreading the word about Pros for Africa and their efforts back in Uganda. She was in Norman, speaking at the Center for Social Justice at OU last February sharing her stories about working with rape victims back in her area of Central Africa. She has been named a CNN Hero for her work with these often-forgotten rape victims. She helps empower these broken women by teaching them new skills to help them and their children.
For more information about Pros for Africa and Sister Rosemary's return trip to the U.S. in September go to www.prosforafrica.com.
Copyright 2011 West Marie Media