Children from the Kanapa Primary School near Oduworo, Uganada.
Seated in a circle of men, women, and children at the base of a sprawling fig tree in the remote Ugandan village of Oduworo, Rotarians Steve and Vicky Wallace are asking the villagers about their needs. At least a thousand people have come together at this “meeting tree,” and agree that everyone wants clean water, better food, medical care, and vocational training, especially for the young.
If you were to sit in on this gathering in 2009 and gaze at the healthy, animated villagers, it would be hard to envision the despair, disease, and near starvation they had endured. The Wallaces know about the deprivations in detail. Without the couple’s persistence, ingenuity, and caring, those conditions would still plague the village, a loose assemblage of huts spread over several miles of caked dirt, six hours by car from Kampala.
The journey that led Steve and Vicky to Oduworo began in northern Nigeria. The Wallaces – members of the Rotary Club of Lake Elsinore, Calif., USA, and Rotary Foundation Major Donors – learned about polio eradication work there when they attended the RI Convention in Chicago in 2005. A Nigerian Rotarian, captured on video, described the plight of the disease’s victims in the country. “We’re going,” Vicky declared. The Wallaces had rarely traveled outside the United States, and never to Africa. What they soon experienced as members of a polio immunization team would change their lives. “We were not ready for it in any way,” Vicky recalls. “Polio sufferers crawling in the dirt, children digging through garbage for something to eat.” When they returned to their sunny California suburb, they stayed home for four days and revised their plans for the future.
“At the time,” explains Steve, the 2011-12 governor of District 5330, “I owned a business and was under contract to the Walt Disney Company, building props for the rides at Disneyland. Vicky and I both knew I had to quit. We knew we were going to downsize our lives and do humanitarian service from then on.”
Two years later, in 2007, the District 5330 multiyear project committee asked the Wallaces to get the district involved in an international service effort. There was a single stipulation: They had to choose a village that had never received any outside help.
The Wallaces had never heard of Oduworo. They sent out a slew of emails to Rotarians around the globe, and one response, from the Rotary Club of Kampala-West, offered a compelling description of this village of about 2,500 inhabitants. Kampala-West club member Sam Bwaya assured them that Oduworo needed help but had never received aid from any humanitarian group or government agency. After seeing five other potential project sites in four countries, the couple traveled there. “This was the only village that didn’t have its hand out, asking for money, when we first visited,” Steve remembers. “Even in the face of starvation, one man stepped forward and presented us with a live chicken to thank us for showing up.”
The men, women, and children the Wallaces encountered were sick, malnourished, and so lethargic, Vicky says, “they just sat there all day with their heads in their hands.” Malaria was rampant. The villagers existed on scraps of food and drank from a contaminated water supply – shallow holes with muddy water, which they shared with animals, and where they also washed their laundry and bathed. The nearest potable water source was 2 miles away on foot. They had no farming tools and no livestock. An elder explained that 25 years earlier, a neighboring tribe had raided Oduworo, killed scores of resisting adult villagers, and stolen all the village’s cows. Ten years later, Oduworo was raided again, this time by the Lord’s Resistance Army, for child soldiers. Many people fled, and the village still had not recovered. Anyone who knew how to raise crops either had been killed or had run off. The Wallaces learned that the survivors of Oduworo called their home “the forgotten village.”
With each visit, the couple would learn “another piece of the puzzle. The villagers were extremely cautious, even reluctant to share information about the atrocities of their past,” Steve explains. “Vicky and I were determined to respect and to help preserve the culture of people wherever we went, and to not rush to impose solutions. Our first goal for Oduworo was a fresh water supply, but the elders had to decide on it, not us. In time, I offered a proposal: If they’d dig 10 latrines, we’d provide two boreholes for new wells. The elders met for half a day, then came back and announced, ‘We accept your deal.’”
So began Oduworo’s transformation. With support from Mark Howison, 2007-08 governor of District 5330, the Wallaces helped start a Rotary Community Corps in the village, which has advised the Rotarians on local needs. At one point, the multiyear project committee back home thought to replenish Oduworo’s livestock. But Steve and Vicky stepped in to veto the idea. “If we do that, we’re setting up the village to be raided once again,” Vicky said. “We’ll be putting them in danger.” Clubs in the district have raised about $23,000 for projects in the village. A portion has gone toward agricultural training; villagers have learned how to use farm tools, and 40 people enrolled in an organic farming class last year. “When we arrived in Oduworo,” Steve recalls, “they were digging seed furrows with sticks and twigs.”
Throughout the process, the Kampala-West club has provided critical support. Club members have worked with District 5330 to obtain Rotary Foundation Matching Grants for water and sanitation projects, including one to repair nine nonfunctioning borehole wells and to provide vocational training to villagers so they could construct 120,000-liter water tanks at two schools. Solar lighting has been installed, extending the villagers’ day by three to four hours. Recently, an effort got underway to train villagers to make bio-sand filters, a vital defense against waterborne pathogens. An Ambassadorial Scholar living in Uganda found out that Tex Tychon, of the Rotary Club of Muyenga, built the filters in his backyard in Kampala. Made from concrete containers and filled with rock and sand, each filter is about 4 feet tall and 1 foot square, and poured to harden inside a steel mold. Tychon sold the Rotarians some molds and sent his assistants to Oduworo to teach the villagers how to make the filters.
The Wallaces return to Oduworo every year. In 2009, when they arrived with Howison and his wife, Barbara, and Rotarians Gerry and Paula Porter, over 1,500 villagers turned out to greet them. A party erupted. An elder told the Wallaces that he had never expected to see a celebration in his village. And he had something to say about the numerous villager projects underway: “You didn’t bring us a fish,” he told them with a broad smile. “You brought us a fishing line. We thank you.”
While the revival of a forgotten village might have satisfied the humanitarian inclinations of many Rotarian couples, Oduworo motivated the Wallaces to seek out new challenges. Their latest project has taken them to Nagaland, a state in northeastern India bordering Myanmar. The terrain is so remote and heavily guarded that the couple and their travel partners discovered they were the first Westerners to cross the southern border into Nagaland since World War II. Fierce and chronic tribal warfare has dominated the region, creating a constant state of political unrest and presenting a real danger for foreign visitors.
When an observer points out to the Wallaces that they are adventurous, Vicky laughs: “It’s funny you call us adventurous. Our friends call us stupid.” Now in their 50s, they routinely take on risks far beyond the comfort zone of most of us, and appear to thrive on implementing projects where no other humanitarian has ventured before. Flexibility, they’ve learned, is crucial. On their way to help build hand-dug wells in the Indian state of Manipur, the Wallaces arrived at the airport to discover that the host Rotary club had decided not to participate. Instead of jettisoning their plans, the Wallaces managed to contact a club in neighboring Nagaland. As they were crossing the border, military police with machine guns searched and detained them, and assigned an armed guard to shadow them. The couple entered Nagaland with a permit indicating that they would be visiting a Rotary club there. They met a small group of Rotarians, who told Steve and Vicky that they’d never have been allowed in without “Rotary” on their permit. The club members were initially reluctant to get involved in the water projects in Manipur – “We were asking them to support their tribal enemy’s village without knowing it,” Steve says – but in time they relented. “Not only relented,” Vicky adds. “They helped organize a new Rotary club with their enemies.”
The Wallaces’ goodwill and hands-on approach plays havoc with hardened prejudices and ancient hostilities. For the better part of decade, they’ve pushed no agenda in the places they’ve visited other than living a fulfilling and healthy life. That almost always begins with finding fresh water. Twice a year, for 40 days, the couple tour projects they’ve helped initiate. They’re in service to the villages they assist, but even more so to the ideal that all people, from Uganda to India and beyond, need only have a chance to help themselves through the gift of a hook and not a fish.