OUT OF AFRICA: Carbon County's Jeremiah Stettler shares his memories of humanitarian efforts in Uganda
Jeremiah Stettler did not consider himself rich, neither as a reporter for the Sun Advocate years ago, nor as a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune now. That was before he spent two weeks in Uganda earlier this month. His modest lifestyle now seems lavish in comparison.
"I suspected I'd see poverty, but I didn't expect the gravity of what I saw," he said in an interview at the Sun Advocate Tuesday. He saw people living in mud huts without running water, no latrines, no electricity. Sometimes the water they lugged back home was drawn from a turbid spring shared by cows and goats.
"It was shocking to see what they took for granted," he declared.
The Tribune sent Stettler to the equatorial African country to document the work of people who had gone there to make a difference, a group called Engineers Without Borders. Of particular interest was the fact that this was to be the first trip to Uganda by A.J. Walker, a wounded survivor of the Trolley Square tragedy.
Stettler said that Walker had been struggling to recover from the trauma of that night - he saw his own father shot dead - and that the young man saw the humanitarian effort as a way to put the past behind him. "He told me, 'Here's how I'm going to move on,'" Stettler recalled.
Moving on meant closing an airplane door on the frigid weather of Salt Lake and opening it to the tropical heat and humidity at Entebbe Airport. Stettler admitted to being nervous from the time he accepted the assignment until the plane landed at Entebbe.
"I knew that Uganda was not very stable because the Lord's Resistance Army [an insurgent movement ranked as a terrorist outfit by the State Department] was still active. I thought I was gonna find myself in a lingering combat zone," he stated. The LRA has been known to kill off people in remote villages simply to steal cows and chickens. However, they are most active in the north, near the border with Sudan, and Stettler and his group stayed in the south.As it turned out, he did not feel threatened by terrorists - unless one counts Ugandan drivers in that category.
He said he made it a point to keep his elbows inside the car door along the streets of Entebbe and other cities because drivers didn't pay much attention to traffic lanes. A road designed as a two lanes would often accommodate three or more lanes of traffic. That led to some hair's-breadth misses with vehicles in opposing lanes.
It was not unusual to see a delivery truck stop in the middle of a street and simply park there as carriers took parcels to a delivery point, sometimes several blocks away. "They do things differently there," he quipped.
Outside the cities, the lush green palm trees and tropical plants contrast with the red dirt. The dirt is the same color as the rocks in the Red Narrows of Spanish Fork Canyon, Stetter said.
Outside the cities the landscape was pretty but deceptive, because this was where the absolute poverty became apparent.
Villages were not clusters of homes but widely spaced huts made of hand-pressed bricks. A teacher in one village was delighted to take Stettler to see his home. "It was a mud and stick building about eight feet in diameter. Inside you could see holes in the roof where termites had eaten the grass," the reporter recalled.
The teacher had a small brass lock on the door's hasp. It was just for show because anyone who wanted to break in could have pushed through the wall easily.
"But he was smiling. He was satisfied with it," Stettler said.
The schools he encountered were no better than the homes - wood planks or mud bricks for walls, grass or corrugated metal for roofs. No lights inside. No latrines outside.
It was in one of these schools that the engineers - and A. J. Walker - showed they could make a difference. The engineers had to jury-rig supports for solar panels they had brought with them. Walker's job was to wire the panels to the light bulbs - five-watt bulbs - inside.
"When the lights went on in the school, the lights went on in his eyes," Stettler grinned. Walker began talking of plans to return. There is so much left to be done, fighting poverty, HIV, malaria and the other ills that afflict the people.
One of the big problems facing the country is water. Instead of just quenching thirst, the water supply is often contaminated with diseases like cholera and dysentery. The cows and goats mentioned earlier don't just drink out of the water holes, Stettler said. They often relieve themselves in or near the water.
The reporter said he encountered an LDS missionary group that was working to improve the water supply. At one previously contaminated spring, he saw that it had been piped and the area protected from animal intrusion.
It may seem like a small achievement, and Stettler himself had asked questions about the frustration he thought the missionaries and engineers must feel. "It didn't look like they had made a dent in what had to be done," he said.
The reply he got was that satisfaction is a matter of scale. It may be impossible for a band of volunteers to turn around an entire nation, but if you measure progress one village at a time, you'll see that the effort pays off.