Uganda has a long, complicated history characterized by British colonialism, subsequent independence and cyclical upheaval as various governments have taken control only to be overthrown by resistance movements. War and genocide have marked this struggle over the past century, tearing families apart and decimating villages. Religious tensions have also fragmented the society and driven much of the upheaval. The rise of the National Resistance Movement about 30 years ago and the drafting of a new constitution in 1995 led to democratic elections and a semblance of stability. However, as in many other parts of Africa, an AIDS epidemic is ravaging the country and leaving millions of children orphaned.
Against this backdrop, hope is as essential as food and water. For the past 20 years, Watoto Child Care Ministries has endeavored to meet the physical, medical, educational and spiritual needs of the region through a holistic care program grounded in Biblical values. The organization seeks to rescue individuals, raise them as leaders, and assist them in rebuilding their nation. Two major Watoto initiatives in Uganda are constructing children’s villages and providing them with sustainable food production.
The villages are designed to represent a traditional dwelling for many ethnic groups in Africa and are a refuge for orphaned children literally wandering the countryside. Each contains a nursery school, a kindergarten, primary school, high school, vocational training center, water project, medical clinic and a multi-purpose hall for use as a church and community center. A “Watoto family” consists of a housemother who cares for eight children age 2 and older; those under 2 years old are cared for at a separate Baby Watoto facility. Houses within the villages are designed to have running water and a bathroom, which are rare in rural Africa. In another Watoto program called Father’s Heart, men from the village church regularly visit the children in their villages and provide essential male role modeling.
By 2010, Watoto had established three children’s villages--Bbira and Suubi are located in Kampala and another in Gulu in northern Uganda. The latter was constructed to aid former child soldiers and their mothers with medical assistance and schooling, a church and homes.
In 2011, Watoto embarked on the construction of a new village site, Lube, in Kampala, Uganda’s largest city and capital. For Ryan Zweerink, president of Springfield, Mo.-based Ozark Laser and Shoring, it was a project that would have a lasting impact.
Zweerink--whose company sells, rents and services laser and global positioning equipment in southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas, southeast Kansas and Oklahoma from four locations--has long been a supporter of Watoto’s mission. The relationship began in 2000, when Brent Smith, international director of development for Watoto with a facility next to Ozark’s headquarters in Springfield, noticed Ozark’s giant forklifts loading shoring trench boxes onto trucks. Smith, who oversees the loading of equipment into containers and logistics for eventual shipment to Uganda, asked Zweerink if he would be willing to donate some forklift operating time to help Smith with staging and loading the equipment. Zweerink agreed. Soon after, when Watoto made a presentation about its work in Uganda at a fundraising event and asked if any attendees wanted to get involved, Zweerink responded to the call.
Since that time, Ozark has sponsored several Watoto children in Uganda and has provided Watoto with a rotating laser and an automated grade control system for a dozer that allows workers to strike off concrete flatwork at specified elevations. Ozark also has made regular financial contributions to Watoto through the ministry’s sustainability program. Many small churches that have not established their own mission program and small corporations are involved in the program, which directly funds activities such as purchasing land and starting up small businesses to bring sustainability to the villages.
Prior to his trip to Africa, Zweerink saw an opportunity to use some of his dealership’s technology to create a 3D village model, making layout easier for Watoto’s construction staff on the ground. His regional sales representative at Topcon Positioning Systems, Bill Painter, made him aware of Topcon’s Educational Partners Program, which normally provides financial assistance and training through Topcon’s dealer network to more than 600 colleges and universities worldwide that offer land surveying or geospatial studies. Although the Watoto-Ozark relationship is outside of the normal scope of the program, Zweerink received a significant discount from Topcon on a HiPer GA real-time kinetic (RTK) GPS+ receiver and FC-250 data collector equipped with Pocket 3D software, and he passed the savings along to Watoto.
Once in Africa, Zweerink focused on training the Watoto engineers and surveyors, who are educated and hired from inside Uganda, on the proper use of the equipment. Many have experience working with total stations and theodolites but have never operated GPS receivers. “Our task was twofold,” Zweerink explains. “We needed to train the Watoto engineers how to shoot control points and perform construction staking, and log topographic survey data so we could complete a design.” The software will allow contractors to determine the location of structures and utilities in real time and store as-builts.
Take-Off Professionals, a Peoria, Ariz., provider of data and 3D models, is developing the village models for Watoto. “They’re going to try to do a better job moving forward with all of their as-built data, the locations of utilities,” Zweerink says. “That is another reason why they needed the GPS--marking the locations of utilities in their villages--that’s another task we worked on in training.”
A positive aspect of the work was the satellite reception in Uganda. Because Uganda is located near the Equator, Zweerink was able to receive signals from up to 20 satellites during the best times of the day, which provided reception through heavy brush. “We were tracking 20 satellites and using maybe 17 at times,” he says. “That’s pretty impressive. We had some tree canopy situations. Most of the agricultural land had been cleared and we did have a pretty clear view of the sky in most places, but as we worked around the boundaries, I was really surprised that it worked, to be honest.”
Zweerink returned with a new appreciation for the work that Watoto is doing in Uganda. “They’re making huge strides compared to where they were 20 years ago,” he said, adding that he is particularly impressed with how the mission is facilitating self-sufficiency in the villages. “One of the most amazing things there was the people’s ability to take natural resources that are available to them and turn that into materials that can be used in structures and such--it’s incredible what they’re doing over there.”
Watoto’s vision is to rescue 10,000 children in Africa by 2023 by replicating its models throughout the continent; as of mid-2011, Watoto had aided about 1,800 children. “They’re doing absolutely miraculous work--I can’t tell you how it touches your heart. They’re serving children who otherwise would be orphans because their parents died from contracting AIDS or some disease--mostly AIDS--or famine. Or, there are kids who literally were found in a ditch and somebody called Watoto and told them they had found a child.”
Combined with the mission work taking place in Uganda, an inherent cultural optimism provides plenty of reason to hope for a better future, Zweerink concludes. “It’s a smart society, a prideful society--you can tell by the way they dress,” he said. “The men typically wear nice shirts and dress slacks and the ladies are dressed beautifully. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot--just a little shack or maybe they’re sleeping in one little room, maybe in a brick structure with a metal roof--that’s what they’ve got. But even though they’re impoverished, you don’t see a lot of people sitting around moping about it. The parents smile, the kids smile. They’re happy to have the basic necessities of life.”