A Bridge to Kayenje
bridge can be made of many things. Steel. Wood.
Stone. Or compassion.
The bridge that now stretches 9,000 miles across
an ocean and a continent joins St. Paul’s Parish
in Jacksonville Beach to a remote village in
Uganda, Africa. It is a bridge made of faith,
determination and sacrifice. It is a structure
forged in love and built in tribute to one
priest’s remarkable life journey.
It began as a simple conversation after dinner.
Dr. Norberto Benitez, a pediatrician, and his
wife, Anna, a registered nurse, invited their
parish priest, Father Lawrence Mulinda to
dinner. As the plates were cleared away and the
coffee was poured, Anna and Norberto asked
Father Lawrence about life in his village in
Father Lawrence described a place as he calls
it, “on the edge of civilization.” His village,
Kayenje, lies in the remote mountains of
southwest Uganda, two hours from the capital
city of Kampala, and one hour from the closest
paved road. In his country, 50 percent of the
inhabitants are under the age of 15 and the
average mortality rate for adults is 43. The
people of his village till a rust red soil to
produce the crops on which they subsist. The
farms lie far apart and the community comes
together for school, and to gather water. There
is no electricity and the closest water source
is a muddy stream.
Listening to Father Lawrence talk about the
daily ritual of gathering water, Norberto first
seized on the idea of building a well that would
give the villagers access to clean water. Father
Lawrence replied that because of the mountainous
terrain, a well might not be possible, but other
things were needed. Both the church and the
school he had attended were crumbling and in
desperate need of repair. Renovating these,
Father Lawrence said, could help quench another
kind of thirst - the thirst for dignity and
“We will help.” Norberto declared.
“No, no, no!” Anna silently protested.
After all, she thought, what do we know of
Uganda? How can we promise to help build a
church or school in a village a continent away?
church and school building in the
village of Kayenje, home to Father
Lawrence Mulinda, were crumbling and
badly in need of repair. Funds collected
by the parishioners of St. Paul’s
renovated the two buildings.
is a cherished resource in Uganda. Here
Bill Love, a St. Paul Parishioner, is
exuberant as are two local men over
While Norberto had never traveled to Africa, he
did have experience volunteering in other
countries. The previous year, as a member of
MIMA, he had journeyed to Bolivia to provide
pediatric care to the poverty-stricken Indians.
MIMA Foundation is a private nonprofit,
non-denominational organization founded in 1996
by a group of South Florida Physicians and
nurses. Its name is derived from the Spanish
word mimar, which means, “to care for.”
Norberto and Anna decided to visit Father
Lawrence during his annual trip back to Kayenje
to see about the possibility of planning a
future MIMA mission there and to get started on
the renovations and drilling a well.
But first, there were funds to raise.
With the blessing and support of St. Paul’s
Pastor, Father Bill Kelly, the “Friends of
Kayenje” was born. The parish hosted a special
Uganda night, hoping to raise $4,000 to $5,000.
They netted more than $25,000, thanks in part to
an anonymous donor who wrote a check for
$10,000. The children of St. Paul’s school
adopted church items, raising money to purchase
windows and pews. The parish effort expanded
into a community effort as students in Stephanie
Carroll’s fifth grade class at Rawlings Middle
School in Ponte Vedra Beach sold bottled water
with Ugandan facts on the label during their
field day. They collected $1,400 toward the
purchase of well equipment. All told, the
“Friends of Kayenje” raised more than $42,000.
In July 2006, Norberto and Anna left for Uganda
accompanied by St. Paul parishioners Willette
Shaeffer, a dentist, Carole Autenzio, a
photographer, and Bill Love, the unofficial
“well master.” For the first few days, using a
hotel in Kampala as their base, the group
visited hospitals around the capital.
Uganda has been called the “Pearl of Africa” for
its breathtaking mountains, shimmering lakes and
stunning natural scenery. It is a beauty that
contrasts starkly with the heart-breaking
poverty of a country where the average annual
income is less than $400. Yet, in the midst of
this scarcity, Norberto and Anna were surprised
to discover an abundance of hospitality and
“The people of Uganda are amazing,” Anna
recalls, “Everywhere we went, from the smallest
house to the bishop’s residence, the people
would invite us to eat with them and to share
summer, the school children of Kayenje
showed their affection for their
hometown priest Father Lawrence Mulinda
upon his arrival with his American
Perhaps the largest outpouring of affection came
the day the group visited Father Lawrence’s
village of Kayenje. The students from the school
were so excited they surrounded their car so
that it had to stop - a sea of children in blue
shirts clapping to greet them.
In Kayenje, the group was able to see the
progress that had been made on the church and
school by the local workers. The team did manage
to successfully dig a well outside the village
of Lugazi, the altitude in Kayenje made it
impossible to dig a well there. Now they plan to
purchase large tanks to collect rainwater off
the roofs of the new buildings. They also want
to build chairs and desks for the new school,
and even more importantly, three simple homes
for teachers to attract better educators to the
With these small steps, a cleaner water supply,
a better school, better teachers, a church one
can feel safe in and proud of - the dignity of
the village grows and so does their hope for the
To contribute, write to: Friends of Kayenje, c/o
MIMA, 320 First Street North #810, Jacksonville
Beach, FL 32250.