Into Africa – Distributing Wheelchairs in Uganda

February, 2017
Free Wheelchair Mission – My favorite charity…

For me, what could be better than putting wheels under less fortunate people like the many I have encountered in my travels?

I first learned about FWM back in 2003 when it was a two-year old nonprofit, struggling to deliver its first 1,000 wheelchairs; I have been a staunch supporter ever since. For $78.90, the equivalent of an overpriced dinner for two, one can change an unfortunate soul’s life and the lives of his/her family forever. This past summer, Free Wheelchair Mission gave away its one-millionth chair, thanks to the generosity of thousands of donors over the last sixteen years! To learn more about it, click here:

Kat and I donate monthly and have attended numerous fundraisers over the years…and have been gifted, in return, with glimpses of recipients during our travels, going about their lives, sitting in their chairs, from Vietnam to Peru. But the best rewards have been the two distribution trips we have participated in; one to El Salvador in 2012 (read the story our Charlottamiles website) and one to Uganda this past winter.

The trip to Africa is the subject of this blog. To see these people up close, to touch them and be touched by them, to view their despair, to smell their lives, to hear their cries, to observe their pain, is an experience beyond humbling. To be able to lift them off the filthy ground and place their havoc-racked bodies into a wheeled contraption, then witness the transformation on their faces as they realize the freedom they have just received, see their pain be slightly relieved and their dignity slightly restored, is priceless. To see the relief on their family’s faces as they roll their burdens away, back to their cardboard-shack neighborhoods, no longer having to carry a son, daughter, brother, sister, grandparent, gives one a different perspective on things to whine about in our cushy American lives.

Africa is magical and the Ugandan people, captivating. Nowhere have I wanted so much to be friends with someone I just met. Their vibrancy, humor and just plain happiness, is something I find missing in the western world. Being with the Ugandan people was like a journey into the soul of what human”kind” should really be all about.

Kat and I spent just ten days last February with these wonderful people. It took four more getting to and from their small, landlocked country in central Africa. We spent three days assembling 250 wheelchairs and two more gifting them to pre-selected recipients, documenting details of their lives and fine-tuning the chairs to fit their new owner’s specific needs. After these intense days, we unwound at Murchison Falls National Park, viewing amazing African wild animals, sleeping in comfy beds and eating abundant, delicious, tourist food. The contrast to the real Uganda we had been immersed in was not lost on our traveler’s psyche. Tourist attractions never reveal the soul of a country.

We apologize in advance for the blurry, fuzzy photos. Our poor, old, trusty, point-and-shoot camera, which faithfully shot all of the Americas, decided to pack it in on this trip. We’re lucky we got the shots we did to share this incredible experience with you. Enjoy…

After two arduous travel days, we were greeted warmly at the Entebbe Airport by our in-country host’s incredible volunteer teem and were whisked off to our hotel in Ggaba for much-needed rest.
We stayed in Ggaba for two days where we were treated to, not only a heart-felt church service, but also a wonderful native presentation, arranged by our hosts, and performed in the courtyard of their apartment!
As Ned mentioned above, we were overwhelmed by the warmth, kindness and smiles of the Ugandan people.

From Ggaba, we were to travel by van to the town of Iganga, several hours away, where we would assemble and distribute the wheelchairs. Along the way, though, our hosts, led by the fabulous Maureen, offered the chance to visit the SOURCE of the Nile. We were just getting to know the rest of our American team, a family of five (fellow Free Wheelchair Mission donors), and when we all enthusiastically agreed to the side trip, we knew we would be a harmonious group. We arrived at the water’s edge and scampered on to a rustic, rickety little boat for our tour…

The country of Uganda sits partially on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, which is the actual source of the Nile River. The Nile, all 4,258 miles of it, is widely considered to be the longest in the world, flowing north through eleven countries and finally emptying into the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt. Between the geographic and the historical significance of the Nile we all thought that the SOURCE would be a grandiose tourist attraction. Instead, it was an inconspicuous group of thatch-roofed shacks…

…selling a dusty, faded array of locally made crafts. The fellow above was our exuberant, but difficult to understand, boat pilot and guide. And the naked mannequin? She was dis-robed because I bought a lovely dress (not dusty or faded) for my sister!

In spite of the underwhelming appearance, it was a thrill to see, first-hand, the birthplace of the mighty Nile. And the local beer? Ahhhh!

The fun and rest were now over, and our work began. The wheelchairs are made in China and arrive by container ship, individually boxed, but completely unassembled. We seven Americans joined up with the Ugandan team of six and, with perfect unity and coordination, spent two days, sleeves rolled up, assembling 150 chairs…to fulfill 150 dreams of mobility.

Once again, we have to apologize for the photos this time. As Ned said, our Panasonic decided to malfunction badly, causing us to miss many great shots. The photos we did get are edited within an inch of their lives but are still of poor quality. Hopefully, though, you will find the subjects and content as fascinating as we did.
This is Francis Mugwana, a native Ugandan. He and his wife, Adrianne, a Canadian, are the founders of the Father Heart Ministry group in Uganda and were our official trip hosts. Francis was born deformed and has experienced, first-hand, the deep-seated demonization and humiliation of crippled people in countries like his. He has become a strong advocate and champion for the disabled. The Mugwanas employ two full-time people, but most of their team are volunteers. The Father Heart Ministry is Free Wheelchair Mission’s Ugandan distribution partner and is responsible for identifying recipients and arranging the distribution days.

Andrew, on the right is one of Francis’ two full-time employees and was our funny and caring driver for most of our time in Uganda.

The American team (the white people, as we jokingly called ourselves) in the church in Iganga where people would gather to receive their wheelchairs. The assembled chairs are in the background. Lissa and I were allowed to wear shorts for the assembly days, but were strictly told to wear long, well-pressed, conservative skirts for the actual distributions.

Our first assignments on distribution day, were to deliver two wheelchairs to homes of people, who, for some reason were not able to get to the church. The town of Iganga, we were surprised to learn, has a population that is 75% Muslim immigrants, and we were greeted at the first home by a very serious, stoic, Muslim man. The home was obviously very poor, the family’s clothing dirty and tattered, but the dirt on the walkway and courtyard had been meticulously raked in honor and appreciation of our arrival.

In general, we found the Muslims to be much more subdued than others with whom we have worked on other distributions, but Arafat, this ten-year-old recipient was too happy to hide his enthusiasm – as was the rest of the family.

This is fourteen-year-old Mahad…


…and Mahad’s mother who was extremely grateful for no longer having to carry Mahad.

Back at the church, people were gathering…even more than we expected!

The wait was tortuous for some in the scorching heat, while the local politicians were humored and pacified by allowing them to make long, grandiose speeches. Note that many are sitting on the discarded wheelchair boxes. All of these cardboard boxes ended up going to new homes to be repurposed in many ways. What was considered trash to us, was an invaluable resource to these clever, impoverished people.

How can any of us begin to imagine the indignity of being carried, helplessly, everywhere and/or crawling in the filthy dirt like an animal?

And how can we begin to imagine the joy of having a wheelchair of her own, a once impossible dream?

Most of the adults were too proud to have us help them into the chairs. It was agony just to watch, but amazing to witness their courage and strength of will.

We worker-bees were broken into three-people teams, Ned and I working together with a local pastor/translator. Ned fit and adjusted wheelchairs to their new owners while I interviewed the recipients (through the translator) and wrote down their stories, asking questions such as:
“What is your disability?”
“When did it happen?”
“How did it happen?”
“Did you ever dream of, or pray for, a wheelchair?”
“How will it change your life having a wheelchair?”
“Do you go to a church or a mosque?”
“Will you be able to go to school now?”
The stories were heart-breakingly similar; most became deformed and disabled, at around three to eight years old, by either cerebral malaria or by bad polo vaccinations. Nearly all of the disabled and their families had prayed for years for wheelchairs, but sadly, they never really believed they would have one.
Of the sixty to seventy families I eventually interviewed, roughly 80% were Muslim, attending mosques. These people were much more reticent to engage, giving short, unemotional answers to my questions. Some of the men would not even look at me or answer me directly. They would only address the male translator. The distribution we did in El Salvador in 2012 was different to a point that I became distressed, thinking that I was doing something wrong or offensive. Fortunately, I was able to have a quick conversation with Francis’ wife, Adrianne, who told me that was just the Muslim culture and that I was doing fine. I persisted, but, as a highly interactive person myself, continued to find the task emotionally difficult.
Many of the recipients had a tough time expressing how the wheelchairs would change their lives, but a few brought tears to my eyes, saying that now they could sell bananas…or used clothing…or…whatever, on the streets, to make extra money for their families. Some kids would be able to go to school now, but some were just too disabled and could not even speak.
All of the recipients and their families were incredibly grateful in their own way, but for some, the gift was too overwhelming, their pride already too badly bruised to express appreciation. We Americans had brought many bags of clothing to give out, and it was odd to witness how much more excited the people appeared over the used clothes than the wheelchairs. As we were to find out, the Ugandans, in general, dress better than Ned and me (not saying much!). They take pride in their appearance, and dirty, tattered, wrinkled clothes are offensive. The people we served were the poorest in the country, and their grungy, threadbare rags were shamefully embarrassing for them. For new (used) clothing they could, and did, show excitement, but for the wheelchairs, it seemed too big an offering to even comprehend.
It was an intense and exhausting day. We were dirty and, at the same time, both emotionally drained and uplifted. We have seen this level of poverty and filth before, but this time we touched it; we hugged and caressed it and ignored the impending doom of potential disease.
Then, by the end of the distribution day, we faced the biggest distress of all…we had given out all 150 wheelchairs, but still had many, many more disabled souls who had shown up, by unimaginable effort, only to stare at us longingly, knowing they had missed out. As if our hearts had not already been wrenched enough, this was practically unbearable.
Thankfully, Francis is a determined, resourceful man. That evening he sent two of his team members over 200 miles to Entebbe. While we rested, the two Ugandans drove all night on wretched roads to get one-hundred more wheelchairs from a storage unit. Francis had instructed the hopeful recipients to come back tomorrow, but we worried that the trust had been broken and that some would not.
We all met back at the church early the next morning, and with herculean effort, the torment in those people’s eyes driving us, we all (including the two who had driven to Entebbe) pitched in to assemble the one-hundred chairs in a fraction of the time it took us the first days…and more people began to arrive…

This poor sweetie had already been crippled from malaria, but later contracted an eye infection. He was not able to speak for himself, but his mother told me that she had taken him to a witch doctor for the infection and that the ensuing treatment caused his eye to fall out…

…That he could still gift us with such a smile was incredible.

And then there were these two (one above and one below), who, because of their disabilities had NEVER left the dirt floors of their homes. With the noise and commotion of throngs of people, these young girls were terrified beyond comprehension. I am crying now, just as I cried then, remembering their distressing wails of fear.

This one (yes, a fourteen-year-old girl) had even messed her pants she was so frightened…and never stopped screaming.

This eleven-year-old girl had brought her little brother, by herself, by hired “moto,” many miles, to get him a wheelchair. They had no father, and the mother was working and could not come…

…Such a relief to these families.

Hmm…flip-flops worn on the hands, dirt on the knees, feet put on backwards…and smiling…just what was it I was complaining about this morning??

Pride and dignity radiated from this grandmother’s face and through her clean, best dress. We as Americans cannot begin to fathom the pain and suffering she has endured in her lifetime.

This boy had no legs, but apparently did go to school and was a star pupil. He spoke excellent English and seemed highly intelligent. Note the missing buttons on his school uniform and the reserve of the mother.

How shameful for people, especially the elderly, to have to crawl in the dirt. As much as some folks want to complain about our country, no one in America has to face such indignity.

To see such hope and pride on these people’s faces as they begin to realize how their lives can now change is a true gift to us.

This white wheelchair is the Generation I model. Some, like this sweet lady and the one below, could not sit up well enough to be comfortable in the blue Gen II model.

It is sometimes shocking to see such intelligence and “normalcy” in one with such a hopeless body. This amazing woman had little to no control over her badly deformed torso and limbs, but carried on a conversation as if we were sitting and chatting over coffee.

These curious children were not disabled, but watched the goings on with interest…and begged me for some bottles of water (which I did sneak to them).

So now you and/or you loved one has a wheelchair…how do you get it home??

Very resourcefully!

Note all of those cardboard boxes going home, too!

Our final assignment was to bring three wheelchairs to the prison to give to some inmates in need. This is a shot of the women’s side, which we did not visit. We were invited inside the men’s unit (no photos allowed, too bad) which was fascinating and maybe a little frightening. The inmates had been gathered in an outdoor area, sitting on the ground, and we sat on a bench in front of them, not ten feet away, while presentations were made. No security was present, and Lissa and I were the only females. Had a riot ensued we would have been in deep trouble (we found out later that some were interred for rape and murder), but I looked at the faces and into the eyes of those men and saw no malice. I saw openness, curiosity and gladness for their fellow inmates who received wheelchairs, but in the end, felt no threat whatsoever. I can’t even imagine in what other prison that would have been possible.

Now finished with our “work,” we were driven, along with the intrepid Maureen (Francis’ other full-time employee), a full day north to the Murchison Falls National Park.
These are just some street scenes taken from the van along the way…

This friendly fellow used his best smile to beg for money.

Once at the Park, we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves after, what turned out to be, a highly intense and emotional experience. We decompressed, enjoying nice lodge rooms, with great beds and wonderful, plentiful food….

…and several game-watching tours led by the wonderful Sammy.

Come with us now as we drive through the Central African savanna, watching wonderous animals (apologizing again for the poor photo quality)…



Jackson Antelope are humorously called “food” by the guides because they breed plentifully, but are slow and clumsy!



Water Bucks

(Two) hyenas. Evidently, the females are bigger and lead the packs.

Besides the land tours, we also went on a boat ride up the Nile to see the Murchison Falls…

…where we saw lots of hippos (which can run 70 mph!)…

…and Kingfishers…

…and…I forgot…sorry!

…and crocs…

…and skunk monkeys…

…and elephants!!!

Let’s be wise and never forget how great our lives are.
See you in December when we report on Israel! Stay tuned!
All our best,
Ned and Kat