Uganda / Press

“Once in a while, I have to sit down and remind myself of what these people go through in a third world country – it’s different here,” says Matt Gewirtz, Venture6 Studio’s senior cinematographer. High-tech lighting and cameras surround Gewirtz as he’s filming interviews for Venture6 Studio’s first foray into the world of corporate social responsibility videos. Gewirtz, who has recently returned from a two-week trip to Uganda, is hard at work producing a documentary detailing his visit. Gewirtz is passionate about the subject and eager to tell his coworkers about his experience, but the sudden transition from weeks of living in a third world country to the fast-paced world of a creative studio is becoming more evident as he continues to work on the project. He talks about the differences in culture in one of his interviews, commenting on our reliance on social media and technology in the United States and the startling differences in Uganda. “Our lives are controlled by devices, and we live in a very fast-paced world. It’s almost like we live in a bubble,” he said. “It’s the complete opposite of Uganda.”

Gewirtz, who has been filming corporate social responsibility (CSR) videos for a number of years, was first introduced to the practice by a former employer and wanted to continue his work at Venture6. Although it has gained popularity in recent years, the concept of CSR has been used for at least 50 years in corporate America. As today’s consumers and employees are becoming more aware of social and environmental issues, corporations are increasingly taking leadership roles to address these issues. As an innovative studio that specializes in creative services, Venture6 was looking for a way to put their video and storytelling talents to use. When Gewirtz mentioned the idea of starting CSR projects at a team meeting, it was a natural fit for the company and the project took shape quickly.

In order to make this new project a reality, the Venture6 team needed to find clients to fund the project. After putting the word out about this new endeavor, Venture6 was approached by Cliff Dice, president and CEO of DICE Corporation, a leading research and development company that specializes in software for the alarm and security industries. Dice, who was looking for a way to give back and continue his mission of keeping people safe and secure, knew this project was an excellent fit with the mission of his company. “I’ve always wanted to do things to give back relating to security and safety – especially with everything going on in the world. I went to Venture6 because they have a reputation in the industry with capturing moments on film, which helps everyone realize what can be done when you take the time and give,” Dice said. With DICE Corporation and another client, Wheeler Trucking, now on board, Venture6 was prepared to plan the trip.

To most, the thought of taking on a CSR project in a third world country would be an overwhelming prospect, but having visited Uganda in the past and having connections in the country, Gewirtz was up to the challenge. Uganda is one of the most impoverished countries in the world with an average per capita income of under $170. Much of the country’s problems stem from decades of political unrest and economic decline from decades of oppressive rule. More than 50 percent of residents are classified as poor and the life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world. Most poor Ugandans live in rural areas where access to education is nearly non-existent and crime is rampant.

The team developed a concept called Our Safer World to help combat the lack of safety and security measures available to the country’s people. Our Safer World will be a series of videos designed to showcase the unique stories of making locations around the world a safer place with items ranging from doors and locks to lighting and educational supplies. To prepare for this trip, Gewirtz contacted his friends Ibra and Wahab in Uganda, who have both acted as guides and interpreters for his past travels to the impoverished country. With their assistance, he was able to build an itinerary and determine the items that are needed to make Uganda a safer place.

Although CSR projects rely on corporations for their primary source of funding, these projects benefit from interest from private citizens and local organizations that are also looking to contribute to the cause. A number of options were made available for those wishing to make donations. Aside from donating cash to purchase supplies, many DICE Corporation employees and community members chose to donate trees, which were planted throughout Gewirtz’s travels in Uganda. Because sustainability is a key tenet in CSR, Gewirtz selected jackfruit trees. “Trees will do one of two things,” Gewirtz said. “[The trees] will provide food for the next ten years and will provide shade for the children.” Gewirtz has planted fruit-bearing trees in the past and was able to see them thrive on his recent visits. Food donations are another popular choice for donors, with one DICE Corporation employee donating 600 pounds of food, which fed an entire village for a month.

Because education is a major barrier for a safe and secure life for the citizens of Uganda, Gewirtz included a number of school visits in his itinerary. As word spread through acquaintances and social media, a number of schools began collecting donations of school supplies to donate to the Our Safer World project. Megan Friend’s third grade class at Owosso School District and Kim McMahan’ culture club at Adams Elementary School in Midland contributed hundreds of pounds of school supplies for the children of Uganda. Both educators felt this project offered a valuable lesson to their students. “We’re really fortunate in Midland,” McMahan said. “I think they [her students] have a new appreciation for kids who don't get to go to school. They’re not just learning about a new culture, but they’re making a difference,” she said. Students donated pencils, crayons, paper, and the supplies they would typically use in a classroom in the United States.

Few realize the amount of time it takes to reach Uganda from the United States. Gewirtz departed Michigan in November (the day before Thanksgiving), and after stops in Amsterdam and Rwanda, he finally arrived in Entebbe, a major town in central Uganda. Ibra and Wahab were waiting for Gewirtz’s arrival. “They took me to what they would consider a hotel. This was the last time I would be able to take a shower,” Gewirtz said. Much of what they distributed on this trip was purchased after Matt’s arrival because of the prohibitive costs of shipment from the U.S.

The crew was now off to the Katanga slum in Kampala, which is known as the largest slum in Uganda. This is a stark departure from the relatively modern Entebbe. Mud and brick huts are huddled together in dense clusters. Chickens and emaciated dogs roam freely and trash and contaminated water litters the dirt streets. “It’s a slum area where you have millions and millions people. They stack houses on a hill, and it’s extremely dangerous to walk around at night,” Gewirtz said. In the Katanga slum, Ibra discovered a school that was never completed and lacked windows and a door. The school was a constant target of robberies, with school supplies stolen regularly. The school is called Makerere Community Polytechnic and Sports Centre and is a community-based organization led by Bonny’M Kasujja. The school started as a free skills-development program, but began focusing on primary education with the addition of a kindergarten program after Kasujja learned of the students’ poor educational foundation.

Due to a wide range of circumstances, education has been a significant hurdle for the children of the Katanga slum. “[The students] come from the poorest of the poor and it’s a hassle for them to even get scholastic materials,” Kasujja said. All of the school’s services are provided voluntarily and the school’s leaders are determined to provide the highest standards of education possible. Although the school faces many obstacles and struggles to furnish the students with the most basic supplies, they have been able to hire a teacher with a university degree in education. With the assistance of programs like Our Safer World, community education programs like this are able to succeed. “To get an organization that says let me fix windows for you, let me fix a door for you; that is great,” Kasujja said.

DICE Corporation was able to provide the school with new custom-made windows and a steel door. Because of the lack of adequate transportation in this region, Gewirtz and his crew were unsure of how they would be able to deliver the new fixtures to the school. Determined to make this effort a reality, one of the local workers actually carried the door on his back. “They take pride in their work. They want to stay involved. They want to stay busy with it. They’re extremely proud of it. And we’re proud that we can keep these people a little safer at night and keep their school supplies safe,” Gewirtz said.

As Gewirtz and his team traveled north to Patongo (a trip that is roughly the same distance from Tennessee to Michigan), they met with Agnes Nyaga-Nighty, who Gewirtz knew from a previous trip to Uganda. Nyaga-Nighty runs a youth center in Patongo called Passion 4 Community and is responsible for 5,000 children. Nyaga-Nighty’s started Passion 4 Community over 20 years ago to assist children affected by war in northern Uganda. Many of these children have problems with anger, some live alone, and many are the heads of their households, responsible for raising younger siblings. Child heads of households are common in Uganda for many reasons, most are the result of HIV-AIDS or the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that operates in northern Uganda and is known for committing many human rights violations. Community centers like Passion 4 Community provide children and young adults with an education and psychological support so they can grow to be productive citizens in their communities.

Healthcare in the rural parts of Uganda is almost nonexistent. The facilities that are in existence lack the basics we would find in our homes, such as bandages and antibiotic ointments like Neosporin. While in Patongo, Nyaga-Nighty took Gewirtz to a local hospital that specializes in childbirth and HIV-AIDS prevention. “The hospital is a brick building with four nurses who also act as doctors,” Gewirtz said. “The building is very unsanitary with stains on the cement floors. Women are sharing beds with no mattresses. Some of the women don’t make it to the hospital and deliver the baby on the side of the road.” English educational posters about the importance of cleanliness and HIV-AIDS prevention line the walls, though Gewirtz says the efforts are futile as most of the people are unable to understand them. Before leaving, Gewirtz was able to donate first aid kits, toothpaste, and cloth diapers to the center.

As the Venture6 team learned more about child heads of households that Nyaga-Nighty helps care for and educate, they wanted to do something special for one of these children in need. With the assistance of Ibra, Gewirtz was able to locate Sharon Akello, a ten-year-old child who raises her siblings, including an older sister who suffers from mental illness. Gewirtz arrived at Akello’s home in Patongo as his trip was winding down. Akello, who lives in a small hut with a straw roof, was not aware Gewirtz would be visiting her. As the crew was approaching her home, Gewirtz said it was important that he build trust with Akello and not overwhelm her with the entire crew and cameras. As everyone stayed back in the vans, Gewirtz and his translator walked down the grass-lined trail to her home and introduced himself. “We didn’t use the word struggle; we just talked about how she was a hard worker and that she would like to go to school one day,” Gewirtz said. “I told here that there were a lot of people on the other side of the world who care for her.”

Like most child heads of households, Akello’s circumstances are the result of the LRA. Her father was killed in the LRA movement and her mother, unable to cope with the stress, hanged herself. To this day, Akello does not know what happened to her parents. In fact, she most likely doesn't understand the concept of her mother and father as her parents. This is her life now. At one point she had adults in her life that took care of her, and now she does not. She knows practically nothing about her background – not even her birthday. All she knows is that the people in the village call her Sharon and that she is responsible for her siblings.

Even though Gewirtz explained his intentions, Akello did not fully understand why he was there. “I tried to explain to her that there are a lot of people around the world who love and care for her and just want to help. She didn't fully understand that. So I asked her if I could spend the day with her, to help her carry the water,” Gewirtz said. As Akello started her day at 7 a.m., washing her face and sweeping the floor, Gewirtz joined her. The majority of Akello’s day is devoted to taking care of her family. She was off in search of food for lunch, her family’s only meal of the day. Akello found a few potatoes, which will feed three people. She then searches for firewood and walks two to three miles to a well and carries a 60-pound jug of water on her head to her home. By the time the meal is finished at noon, Akello has to make another trek back to the well to refill her jug.

As Gewirtz spent time with Akello and toured her home, he noticed she and her brother sleep on a cold concrete slab with no mattress or bedding. So the crew loaded into the vans and traveled to a nearby open market area to purchase a mattress, blankets, and sheets. In addition to her daily household duties, Akello is also responsible for farming, something she has been able to do remarkably well with limited resources. But with these obligations, Akello has been unable to attend school. So with the generosity of Wheeler Trucking, Gewirtz was able to purchase a team of oxen and a plow that Sharon can use for farming and rent to others when for an additional source of income. “It was a surprise for Sharon,” Gewirtz said. “They [Wheeler Trucking] want to make it more sustainable so she can farm faster and feed more people – thousands, we’re hoping. It will support her and make her life better,” he said. Now that Akello has more time to focus on her education, Gewirtz opened a bank account to fund the education of Akello and her siblings. Although she is ten, Akello started in kindergarten because she is just starting her education. With the help received from Our Safer world, she and her siblings passed their first year of classes.

After nearly three weeks, Gewirtz returned to Michigan in early December. Although he’s made countless international trips as a cinematographer, it was difficult to leave his friends Ibra and Wahab. “It is like a brotherhood,” Gewirtz said. “None of this would be possible if it wasn't for Ibra and Wahab.” Projects like this also provide excellent opportunities for them, too. Ibra recently graduated from a university and wants to be a guide for Americans who visit Uganda. Wahab was able to purchase his own vehicle and started a transportation business. “He’s extremely proud, and he’s told me he wouldn’t be able to do things like this if it wasn’t for me bringing people like DICE Corporation over,” Gewirtz said.

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