Local Rotarians Make a Difference in Uganda with Tools for Clean Water and Economic Development

Uganda Aquaponics for growing and harvesting fish to eat and sell
Uganda Aquaponics for growing and harvesting fish to eat and sell.

During January 2019, Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights, Chicago near South, and Lake in the Hills, had the opportunity to volunteer for two of our areas of focus: Water and Sanitation, and Economic and Community Development. The team of 13 headed to Bunnamweri, Uganda to build and install six Aquaponics tanks at the Saint Raphael School.

Rotary’s purpose is to provide humanitarian service with the goal of advancing goodwill and peace around the world. We achieve this through our six areas of focus: Peace and Conflict Prevention/Resolution; Disease Prevention and Treatment; Water and Sanitation; Maternal and Child Health; Basic Education and Literacy; and Economic and Community Development.

Arlington Heights, Chicago, Lake in the Hills Rotary Group in Uganda
Arlington Heights, Chicago, Lake in the Hills Rotary Group in Uganda.

The primary goal of this project is to provide a sustainable source of protein for the students of St. Raphael and their families. However, once it is up and running, it will serve as a model for smaller units that can be built by locals, where they can grow their own fish to harvest, eat, and sell. To that end, a curriculum is currently being created and microfinancing is being sourced to help families get their tanks started. The program will begin a year from now, once the first batches of Tilapia are harvested. This generous gift is provided by individual members of the Stepping Stones Foundation of Hope, the Knights of Columbus, and the Holy Family Association.

Located in East-Central Africa
Population: Estimate 44.2 million
Languages: English, Swahili

The idea for this project started eight years ago, on another service trip to Guatemala where the same tanks were installed. In March 2018, Matt Schultz contacted Jim Wales, International Service Advisor for Rotary District 6440. Matt had been part of the team that traveled to Guatemala all those years ago. He had returned from visiting the Saint Raphael School in Uganda in January of 2018, and knew that that school could use something similar. The two then reached out to Fr. Dennis Kasule, a teacher at Mundelein Seminary, who had established the Saint Raphael School in Uganda. Soon after, the idea for the trip became a reality.

An Aquaponics tank is a closed system, created for the purpose of growing and eventually harvesting fish to eat and sell. The goal of building the tanks is to provide the Bunnamweri locals with the protein they lack, as well as a new source of income. In simple terms, these tanks use hydroponics and fish waste to filter the water, so that it can be used to grow the fish and water crops.

Uganda Aquaponics for growing and harvesting fish to eat and sell
Uganda Aquaponics for growing and harvesting fish to eat and sell.

In Uganda, clean water is a luxury. The fish are living in the bottom tank with grow beds floating above. Fish waste is pumped into the grow beds above creating ammonia; the pump is powered by solar energy. The plants, in turn, filter the waste and transform the ammonia into nitrate. The nitrate then feeds the plants, but more importantly, provides clean filtered water for raising fish and growing vegetables. Thus, the only human attention the system needs is feeding the fish.

Jim Wales shared, “These people have limited access to meat, so the whole idea of building these tanks is to create the ability for kids to have fish (protein) added into their diet. This is a form of fish farming. The goal is that eventually the tanks will be mirrored by local villagers, as a way that they can bring themselves out of poverty”

When the Rotary volunteers arrived at the Saint Raphael School on January 27th, the school children welcomed them with a meal and a dance. Betsy Kmiecik, of the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights shared, “They were amazing, sweet, and beautiful children.”

The volunteers were more ready than ever to start the project, one that would allow the community to improve their quality of life for the long run. Every day, the volunteers had a 45-minute commute to the worksite, which gave them an opportunity to observe how the Bunnamweri locals lived their lives. Betsy noted, “Watching people commute was fascinating. Their primary vehicles are motorbikes. You would see four adults on one motorbike. The largest number of people I saw on a motorbike was a family of five: the father driving, a child between his legs, mother in the back and two more kids smashed between them.”

The sides of the road were lined with small commercial businesses, all squeezed together in the open air. The shops offered merchandise varying from clothing to auto parts to furniture, and much, much more. There were so many of these small businesses, one wonders if anyone was making enough to support themselves and their families.

A new well was dug to function as a water source for the Aquaponics tanks. Water is a scarce resource in undeveloped countries like Uganda. Betsy said, “It was not uncommon to see young children walking a kilometer before school to fill up their jerry cans with cloudy water from a spring.” The water from this early morning trip would have to be boiled before it could be used, and it would often be the only water a family had available for the day. Rotarians tried lifting the jerry cans the children carried, and were surprised when they could barely do it themselves. “They are very strong people, very strong from an early age. They have to be,” said Betsy.

Children in Uganda
Children in Uganda.

There is no doubt that every person who contributed to the success of this trip also made a huge impact on the lives of Bunnamweri families. When it comes to undeveloped countries, the best way to help is to provide a resource that is self-sustainable and can be built upon. The volunteers on this trip gave local families a chance to both excel and raise their quality of life. We want to thank our Rotarians for selflessly giving of their time to provide strangers with a truly life-changing gift. But no doubt, our volunteers received a gift in return.

Rare experiences like these help Rotarians take a step back and reevaluate what is important in our own lives. They put life in perspective and show us how small some of our problems are. “We watched the kids play soccer, and that ball was made from banana leaves. It’s amazing what they were able to do with so little. When we would go to the school we always took things for the kids. This time was a challenge. We couldn’t take pencils because they have no paper, or sidewalk chalk because there are no sidewalks. So, I took pipe cleaners, gave them out, and showed them how they could make things. They loved it! It was amazing. Twenty of the boys made glasses, so we took a group photo. It was great to see how much fun and enjoyment and creativity they got out of them. And the excitement they got from showing off what they made was incredible,” shared Linda Borton, a Rotarian on the trip.



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