Seated in a circle of men, women, and children at the base of a sprawling fig tree in the remote Ugandan village of Oduworo, Rotary members Steve and Vicky Wallace ask 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.
The journey that led Steve and Vicky to Oduworo began with a polio immunization trip to northern Nigeria in 2005. The Wallaces–members of the Rotary Club of Lake Elsinore, California, and Rotary Foundation Major Donors–had rarely traveled outside the United States, but the experience 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.
“We knew we were going to downsize our lives,” explains Steve, past governor of Rotary District 5330, “and do humanitarian service from then on.”
Two years later, the district’s 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.
After seeing five other potential project sites in four countries, the couple traveled to Oduworo, where the need was great.
The villagers 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. The nearest potable water source was 2 miles away on foot.
They had no farming tools and no livestock. The village still had not recovered from devastating raids of the past decades, after which 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.”
Tapping into local knowledge
“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,” says Steve. “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 Rotary members on local needs.
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 Rotary Club of Kampala-West has provided critical support. Club members have worked with District 5330 to obtain Rotary Foundation grants for water and sanitation projects, including one to repair nine broken borehole wells and to provide vocational training to villagers so they could construct water tanks.
The Wallaces return to Oduworo every year. In 2009 when they arrived with Howison and his wife, Barbara, and Rotary members Gerry and Paula Porter, over 1,500 people 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 under way: “You didn’t bring us a fish,” he told them with a broad smile. “You brought us a fishing line. We thank you.”
This story originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of The Rotarian