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A Bridge to Kayenje

A 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 Uganda.

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 hope.

“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?

  The 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.
  Water is a cherished resource in Uganda. Here Bill Love, a St. Paul Parishioner, is exuberant as are two local men over hitting water!

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 generosity.

“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 their meal.”
  Last summer, the school children of Kayenje showed their affection for their hometown priest Father Lawrence Mulinda upon his arrival with his American parishioners.

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 area.

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 future.

To contribute, write to: Friends of Kayenje, c/o MIMA, 320 First Street North #810, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250.