Bob Maher vividly remembers the fruit trees, the mud huts and the smiling faces of the villagers when he visited Kitakyusa, Uganda, for the first time. Maher saw a lot of things on that trip, but it’s what he didn’t see that changed his life forever.
It was January 2012, and Maher had traveled to Uganda from the United States with his pastor, Father Gerald Musuubire. A past grand knight of Sts. Peter and Paul Council 11475 in Palmyra, Va., Maher had always wanted to see the native animals roaming through the African bush. Father Musuubire, a Knight of Columbus and a native Ugandan, had served in the remote, rural town of Kitakyusa before he became parochial vicar and then pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. When he made one of his biannual trips back home, Maher asked if he could come along.
After spending the day in Kitakyusa, Maher and Father Musuubire returned to Kampala, the capital city. On the way, Maher realized he hadn’t seen a hospital anywhere. He asked Father Musuubire what people did when they got sick. “Unfortunately, in this area, if they get sick, they get better or they die. There’s nothing for them,” Maher remembers the priest replying.
During the 17-hour plane ride home, the words rattled around in Maher’s brain — “They get better or they die.” He felt he had to do something.
Thanks to Maher and the support of his brother Knights in Palmyra, the villagers of Kitakyusa no longer have to face such a dire fate. Within a couple of years, the Knights had constructed a health clinic to provide medical treatment to thousands. And they have continued to meet other basic needs — from clean water to electricity — in the years since.
Father Musuubire didn’t realize the impact the trip to the village would make on his brother Knight, or on the little town he once called home. “I was showing him different things, thinking I’m entertaining him,” said Father Musuubire. “But these things were making a mark on his heart.”
When Maher first told Council 11475 about his dream to open a health facility in Africa, he was greeted with blank stares — but soon enough his fellow Knights embraced the project.
“I said, ‘One way or the other we’re going to build a medical clinic,’” recalled Maher, who since 2011 has served as community director of the Virginia State Council. “The No. 1 principle of the Knights of Columbus is charity and to help people who can’t help themselves. The village of Kitakyusa is really, really poor. So we stepped in as Knights of Columbus to fill a void in that village.”
Council 11475 began fundraising, first with bake sales and dinners, then with a popular parish talent show. In the meantime, Father Musuubire contacted people in Uganda to draw up plans for a medical clinic. The Knights also received help from the Archdiocese of Kampala, where Kitakyusa is located. When Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga heard about their plan, he donated church land for the clinic. In 2013, they broke ground, and then a local crew got to work, building a foundation with hand tools.
“They even make their own bricks,” noted Deacon Peter Coleman, faith director of Council 11475. “They literally have a pit filled with water, and people walk around, churning up the clay. They have a kiln where they fire them. The process is incredible.”
Maher and brother Knight Dave Kimball were present when the St. Francis of Assisi Health Clinic officially opened in 2014. “The archbishop came to me at the end of the dedication,” said Maher. “And he told me, ‘You’ve given them hope where there was none.’”
Every day is different at St. Francis, said Dr. Luminsa Desirie, one of the two doctors on staff. People come in to receive immunizations, prenatal care and treatment for all kinds of diseases and ailments, including snake bites, typhoid and infections.
The clinic “has helped to reduce the mortalities of avoidable diseases, such as malaria,” Desirie said. “It has helped mothers, who have been traversing long distances, to deliver in a safe, hygienic place, which has reduced mothers dying in labor. The cost of treatment is also fair.”
Father Musuubire gets messages almost every week from people saying how grateful they are for the clinic, he said. “They are no longer living in fear, thinking, ‘Tomorrow if I get sick, where will I get the transport to get to the major hospital? Where will I get the means to do this and that?’ It is really a nice facility that has made these people feel at peace,” he said. “It’s a blessing to the people how children have been saved, how people who have been suffering from various diseases have been helped to heal.”
Building a medical facility that serves thousands of people was a huge accomplishment. But the Knights weren’t finished. Medical personnel who came to work at St. Francis had no place to stay.
“We found out that the people who were providing medical services were living inside a room inside the medical clinic,” said Deacon Coleman. “We thought, ‘Well, we gotta do something about that.’” So in 2017, the council funded a dormitory next to the clinic with five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a kitchen and a sitting room.
Getting clean water was another problem. The clinic relied on huge rain barrels to catch water, while many villagers collected and boiled water from the nearby swamp. The Knights contracted local workers to dig a well and put a tap near the main road so the whole village could access it.
At the start, the clinic was powered by solar panels as utility lines stopped 3.5 kilometers away from the village. But the panels kept needing to be upgraded, and it was clear the clinic needed a stronger and more reliable power source. So the Knights also contracted with the local electric company to bring utility poles into town, providing power to the clinic, the rectory, the school and anyone who lives along the power line and can afford to tap in.
“It started with a clinic,” said Father Musuubire, who is now pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Tappahannock, Va. “It’s one thing that led to another and to another and to another.”
Once it had power, the clinic could expand and use more powerful medical devices, such as an ultrasound machine. Maher found a way to get them one. “The Knights of Columbus puts ultrasound machines in so many pregnancy centers. I would talk to people around the state and say, ‘Look, please ask one of these centers, when you donate a new machine, if they’ll give us their old one back,’” he said.
One day, Maher got a call from a Knight in Fredericksburg, saying he had a machine for the clinic. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which had donated medical supplies in the past, also donated a vital signs monitor. The Knights shipped both machines to Kitakyusa, and they arrived two and half months later.
“The medical staff and villagers sent us a video thanking us for everything,” said Maher. “The smiles on their faces are priceless.”
With electricity and diagnostic equipment, the clinic was soon upgraded to a health center by the Ugandan Ministry of Health. All told, Council 11475 has provided more than $125,000 to complete the various Kitakyusa projects with funds raised largely through the two church communities in Sts. Peter and Paul Parish.
Still, the Knights aren’t done yet. They hope to build a wall around the facility for greater privacy and security, said Deacon Coleman.
“We demonstrate unity, charity and fraternity here at home in Palmyra, in our community,” Coleman said. “But we also can demonstrate it to people we don’t even know. We’re part of a very, very large world. And we’re connected a lot more closely than you would think.”
Maher and the other Palmyra Knights haven’t been able to visit Kitakyusa since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But before that, Maher would visit every year. “I would walk up the street and people would be coming out of the bush because they would see me,” he said. “The health center would come into view, and now the living quarters also. I would look out and shake my head and say, ‘I just can’t believe we did it.’”
ZOEY MARAIST is a reporter for the Arlington Catholic Herald.
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