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KAMPALA, UGANDA – This country is one of contrasts. Red-dirt roads cross lush- green landscapes. People familiar with war smile easily and greet you genuinely. Beauty meets ugliness, plenty meets want, and life meets death here. Uganda may be, as Winston Churchill said, the Pearl of Africa. But, if so, it’s a tarnished jewel.
It’s said that Idi Amin’s reign of terror piled Ugandan bodies so high that they were dumped in the Nile, where even the hungry crocodiles couldn’t keep up. Hundreds of thousands more died in a civil war that followed. Decades later, the impact lingers, especially in the north, where children are forced into guerrilla warfare and atrocities I won’t mention. Then AIDS.
A strong public campaign emphasizing abstinence until marriage, just as much as condom use, has cut Uganda’s HIV rate from almost one in three, to about one in 15. That’s a model for the rest of AIDS-ravaged Africa. Still, orphans, perhaps as many as 1.5 million in this country of 25 million, are everywhere.
Such is this untamed country. And, after barely unpacking our bags in Yemen, I’m here with the two women in my life — Jean, and our four-month-old daughter, Elizabeth – – to help shoot a promo video for Save the Mothers, a program being birthed to deal with another problem: women dying during child delivery. Uganda’s maternal death rate is more than 100 times that of Canada’s. More orphans.
To launch at Uganda Christian University in two years, Save the Mothers is a masters program in public health leadership. Jean’s brainchild is based on the premise that if Ugandan professionals, including non-medical people — politicians, lawyers, journalists – – were trained in maternal mortality issues, they can build the social infrastructure needed to solve the crisis. It’s a more enduring solution than just offering more medics or clinics.
Thanks to producers from Crossroads Communications in Burlington, who filmed at Hamilton’s St. Joseph’s Hospital before bringing the cameras here, the video will help promote this vision. Jean realistically calls the long-term work “a spit in the ocean.” But there’s reason for optimism.
For one, unlike some other struggling countries, Ugandans are open about their problems and willing to work for change. You see an improved capital, Kampala, for example, partly because industrious Ugandans were willing to take economic medicine prescribed by international aid groups such as the World Bank.
On a more esoteric level, I also think of certain footprints we walk in. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Lucille Teasdale, a charismatic Order of Canada recipient, watch Dr. Lucille: The Lucille Teasdale Story, a noteworthy Canadian movie that chronicles her career. Originally from Montreal, Dr. Lucille worked more than 30 years in Uganda with her Italian husband, Dr. Piero Corti.
The movie shows how they survived the Amin era, and turned a bush clinic into a successful 500-bed hospital, one that still operates. Dr. Lucille died in 1996 of complications from AIDS, contracted years earlier in surgery from sharp bone fragments. But not before giving countless Ugandans dignity when they needed it most.
I feel a particular bond to the story because, when it first aired, I used it as a first move to date Jean. At the time, all I knew of my charming, new doctor friend was that she had already worked short-term in Uganda, and that she had a resemblance to the attractive Marina Orsini, the actress who played Dr. Lucille.
Three short years later, here we are, a young family (Lucille and Piero had one daughter also), making plans for Uganda to be our future overseas base. Some might call such a trick of the universe serendipity or synchronicity. Either that, or the hand of a personal God, one who does more than just watch our lives quietly from a distance.
That’s not to say that Jean’s future will ever be compared with that of a Canadian hero like Dr. Lucille. But who wouldn’t feel fortunate to stand on the shoulders of such giants who have gone before us? Now let’s see how the rest of this story unfolds.