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Purple & Gold in Uganda - Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Peter Kiwanuka, center, with Steve and Claire Wilson.

Purple & Gold in Uganda

By Ed Cullen

Not just LSU graduates form lasting relationships with their alma mater. Peter Kiwanuka, of Uganda, was at LSU just three semesters, but he maintains a connection to the University and to his former host family, Steve Wilson (1975 BACH A&D, 1978 MAST A&D) and his wife, Claire (1979 BACH H&SS, 1993 MLS). Their bond is Bethany Centre, a community organization situated between Kampala and Entebbe that is a primary school for local children, many of them orphans of the AIDS epidemic. The center ministers to HIV and AIDS patients in their homes.

"He was a student at LSU for one-and-a-half years,” said Claire Wilson. When his money ran out, he went to Chicago in 2003 to work for another host family. He returned to Uganda after about a year in Chicago when his visa ran out.

Kiwanuka lost his father and a brother to AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa has been affected by the AIDS epidemic more than any other part of the world. Even with increased awareness, AIDS is a major problem in Uganda.  "You go to Uganda, now,” Claire Wilson said, "and you see these billboards of a middle-aged man. The billboards say something like, ‘It’s not OK for your teenage daughter to have [relations] with him.’”

Kiwanuka wanted to offer a better life not just to AIDS patients but to all the young people near his mother’s village of Jjungo, some thirty miles from Kampala. Visit Jjungo, as Claire Wilson has twice, and you will see something else, the effect LSU had on Kiwanuka during his short stay in Baton Rouge. The school building is painted purple and gold. The children’s uniforms feature purple shirts with gold collars. "He has a high regard for LSU,” Claire Wilson said. "We didn’t know he’d pick those colors.”

"LSU is brilliant in his memory,” said Steve Burchfield (1978 BACH H&SS), who has visited the mission three times. "When the children came up to us, they were wearing purple and gold and saying, ‘Go Tigers.’ It was so unexpected.”

Between 2008 and 2016, several members of the First Presbyterian Church congregation in Baton Rouge, where the Wilsons attend church, have visited Bethany Centre. The church has raised about $50,000 in support of Kiwanuka’s mission, and in six years, art shows hosted by the Wilsons’ stained glass studio has raised another $50,000. The fundraisers are part of the work of Bethany Centre Alliance, a nonprofit in Baton Rouge. A Louisiana couple not affiliated with First Presbyterian has contributed $150,000. Another $250,000 has come from churches and individual donors, according to the Wilsons.

The mission started in a chicken coop. The floor was dirt. There was no glass in the windows, no doors in the door frames. No running water. No electricity. Money raised by Bethany Centre Alliance, First Presbyterian, and other Louisianans has provided a school, water well, handwashing stations, a latrine, two large cisterns and a soccer field. Outhouses serve as bathrooms down a hill about thirty yards from the school, but there is electricity and running water. "The building is much on par with a nice school,” said Steve Burchfield. "Uganda is beautiful. The children (about 600) are well taken care of. That’s the main goal. The teachers, headmaster, and Peter are dedicated.”

"When we were there in 2008,” Claire Wilson said, "I wanted to go with Peter to pick out uniforms. We had a donation of $2,000 from a couple at First Presbyterian. The clothing factory in Kampala was covered by a flat tin roof, open, like a booth, with women sitting out front working at old sewing machines. I think they were manual machines. I don’t know where they got the purple and gold material.”

Kiwanuka met the Wilsons through the LSU International Hospitality Foundation in 2001. "I signed up and gave my contact info,” Kiwanuka said in an email interview from Uganda. "A few days later, I received a call from Steve. ‘Hello, Peter, this is Steve. I’m your host. My wife, Claire, and I would like to meet you around 1 p.m. and take you to lunch.’ Three minutes past one o’clock, Steve and Claire Wilson pulled up in front of West Laville Hall and off we went to the Vietnamese restaurant on Highland Road past The Chimes restaurant.”

Kiwanuka’s memories of LSU include the reaction on campus to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack in New York. "On the morning of Sept. 11, I was seated in the cafeteria, news of the attack was on TV. It was a big shock to everyone. You could find many students on campus crying and others making frantic phone calls to their loved ones.” Kiwanuka had been on campus a week. "I will never forget the patriotism and love for the country shown by the American people during and after Sept. 11.”

His time at the Baptist Student Center and memories of LSU football (and tailgating) stand out in his memory, but it’s First Presbyterian and its people that Kiwanuka recalls when he says, "First Presbyterian is a fundamental supporter of Bethany Ministry for almost 10 years now. We are continually inspired by this wonderful church. It’s the reason we continue to work hard in order to make a difference in our community.”

Ed Cullen, an LSU journalism graduate, is author of Letter in a Woodpile, a collection of his essays for National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered.” He is retired from the Baton Rouge Advocate where he wrote the Sunday column "Attic Salt.” 


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