Dinner benefits children, women in rural Uganda

They fell in love in Alberta, and he took her back to meet his family in Uganda. She found the country delightful but afflicted with poverty, ignorance and maternal mortality.

"We've got to do something about this," she said.

A decade later, Michael Mugerwa and Nicole Van Seters have made their home in Ashland — and run a thriving school and clinic serving five villages in Uganda. They're staging a benefit dinner, catered by Amuse, to raise a "good chunk" of the center's $37,000 annual budget.

It mostly goes to teachers with students in preschool through fifth grade, as well as clinic nurses who focus on prenatal care, midwifery, immunizations, HIV outreach, nutrition, malaria and other basic health care.

"Everyone looks healthier and bigger now, 10 years later," says Mugerwa, as he packs the couple's kids, Nassali and Eliana, off to school. "We're giving back to the community in a real way, without any layers of government in between."

Especially successful is the Goat Program, where the school cares for a herd of goats and gives a female goat to each child upon graduation. The children then raise and sell new goat kids to pay for education.

The village runs coffee and tea gardens, asking poor villagers to donate work in exchange for health services, which are $1 a visit.

"We started with free services, but people don't appreciate free, so we started charging," says Mugerwa, the son of a Cambridge-educated lawyer. He grew up in the village.

The health and education programs are further stabilized by cultural and eco-tourism, where travelers volunteer in the programs, get to know villagers, donate their services in teaching, the arts, gardening or health care — and experience a culture that normal tourists never see, says Van Seters. Such travelers stay in comfortable quarters, donate money and may do side-trips on safaris.

"When you volunteer, you see things in a totally different way. You meet families. You get a taste of rural Africa," says Van Seters. "Most tourists go on safaris and drive through villages without seeing anything. Here, you can do tribal dance and drumming, and learn basket weaving and medicinal herbs."

At the heart of health care in the village of Banda-Kyandaaza is women's maternal and sexual care — contraception, tubal ligation, early removal of breast and cervical cancer and, above all, safe delivery of babies.

Checking United Nations statistics on his iPhone, Mugerwa reports maternal deaths in Uganda at 310 per 100,000, compared to 21 per 100,000 in the U.S.

Tubal ligations are important, says Van Seters, as families with more than three children become impossible to feed — and if the mother dies, the family disintegrates and the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.

"It's the women who hold the family together; a father can't do it. It's a real tragedy if she dies," says Van Seters.

The website of the nonprofit project, Buiga Sunrise, is www.buiga-sunrise.org. The dinner is at the home of friend Lisa Giannini in Ashland. Register for the dinner at bsunrise@me.com. Tickets are $60.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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