Changing lives in Uganda
A milestone birthday was cause for reflection for one Wilton woman on how she could leave a lasting and positive imprint on the world. The answer was to build a water well in an impoverished area of the world and that’s exactly what Marie-Antoinette Boot did. Little did she know it would lead to an even bigger, more meaningful project that involved the Wilton community.
“Last year when I turned 50 I was very contemplative on what life meant,” Boot told The Bulletin at her home on Friday, just a few days after returning from a trip to Uganda. She wanted to leave the world a better place, as best she could, and had friends who had raised money to build a well in Africa.
She talked with her husband Dirk and “adopted” the village of Nabweye, Uganda. She learned of Innovation Africa, an Israeli nonprofit that brings innovative Israeli solar and water technologies to impoverished areas of Africa.
Boot donated the money for Innovation Africa to build a solar-powered well nearly 250 feet deep that delivers water to 12 spigots throughout the village of 1,200 people, 710 of whom are school children. Prior to that villagers got their water from a muddy watering hole.
When Boot visited Nabweye last year to celebrate the well, she learned the village was also in need of a medical center — vaccines and maternity care were two priorities.
“I was standing next to the Ugandan minister of trade and industry” at the well celebration, Boot said. He said if she could build the building, he would get the land and the medical center would be part of the Ugandan health system, reliably staffed with medical personnel.
The cost was about $46,000, which Boot thought was “very doable.” Once again, she turned to her contact at Innovation Africa, Sivan Yaari.
“I trusted her to build the medical center,” Boot said of Yaari. “She’d never done it before but nothing is too much for her.” Boot relied on Innovation Africa because the organization has an excellent reputation for using the money it receives for the projects it is working on.
Boot started reaching out to the community. Bianco Rosso helped spread the word by including postcards in their customers’ checks, she collected medical supplies at the Village Market, and she spoke at Wilton Congregational Church to which she belongs.
“The church members were very generous,” Boot said. “A large part [of the cost] came from the church.”
Her son, Henry, a student at Fairfield Prep, organized a fund-raiser there and the Apple Blossom School, which her younger son Max attends, also did a fund-raiser. The money raised at the schools was used to buy desks and supplies for the village school. In all, nearly $52,000 was raised.
Boot, along with church members Giff and Marie Broderick, attended the ribbon-cutting celebration July 8. And what a celebration it was. Not only did the entire town turn out, there were two TV stations there as well as numerous dignitaries including The Honorable Katabusa, the minister of trade and industry, and an African rock star who entertained.
Upon her arrival, Boot was given the royal treatment. The women presented her with African dress to wear that included a woven “crown” topped with flowers. They gave her a name for the day — Mama Kahkai, which means kind mother — and presented her with gifts including a woven basket of eggs, small painted stools, and other items. She brought home all but the eggs.
That was not all. Festivities actually began a day earlier, July 7, with a celebration of the delivery of about 80 desks for the school. The desks were built in Uganda.
“We were greeted at the beginning of the village by all the residents singing and dancing as we walked to the classrooms,” Broderick told The Bulletin in an email. “We had a tour of the classrooms and then the ceremony had songs by the children, the village choir, and speeches by the town elders. We also brought over schools supplies and some clothing. After the ceremony, the women in the village performed a play on how the new water pump has benefited and changed their lives.”
Many of the villagers are farmers and when the well was built they asked for seeds. The well will allow them to water their crops in a time of drought. One woman has started a brick business.
The state-of-the-art medical center — by Ugandan standards — consists of a reception area, exam room, treatment room, shower room, a two-room maternity ward, and a medicine dispensary. It includes running water, electricity, showers, and sinks, basics that don’t generally exist in such a remote area. The medical center will serve not only Nabweye, which is in a mountainous region close to the Kenyan border, but surrounding communities as well.
A plaque on the building reads: Nabweye Medical Center donated by the Wilton community. The American and Israeli flags are painted outside.
The need for such a center is very clear.
“There are a lot of treatable diseases such as malaria and AIDS that are life-threatening because there’s no medical attention,” Boot said. She was also told how hazardous it can be for women to give birth. Before the medical center was built, the nearest help was six to seven miles away and often women had walk there in the dark if their labor started at night.
“Often they don’t make it,” she said. Some end up giving birth by the side of the road.
In one case, a neighbor took a woman on a moped to the clinic but no one was there. He tried to get her to the next nearest help, which was 45 minutes away by car. Sadly, both she and her baby died.
No wasted money
With a stable government in Uganda, Boot is confident the money raised will not be wasted.
“The minister has kept his word,” she said, and the medical center will be staffed right away.
In addition, before Innovation Africa embarks on a project, they secure a buy-in from the village. “They have them commit to maintaining what is done,” she said, adding the organization follows up on all its projects.
Spreading the word
The next step is to spread the word about what was done and encourage other communities to do the same. To that end, Wilton filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris is producing a documentary, The Forgotten People, about Boot’s efforts.
“We are in the preliminary stages,” Smith-Harris said of the process. “We’ve got a couple of interviews, accessed footage from Marie-Antoinette’s recent trip, we’ve got some photos and we will cut together a fund-raising trailer.”
The documentary will be produced as a nonprofit venture with donations sought from individuals, companies and foundations, which may be made through the Center for Independent Documentary in Boston. Visit http://bit.ly/2ubsu0h or ForgottenPeopleFilm.org.
“We would love to share it with a national audience, and have one woman’s story inspire others around the country,” Smith-Harris said. “What she has done and continues to do is extraordinary.”
“If you can get 400 people to donate $100 each, you can build a well in Africa,” Boot said. “It’s not so much for us, but it is life-changing for the people.”