• Kathleen Holyoak

Humanitarian Trip to Uganda - Part I

Updated: Sep 15, 2020


Oprah Winfrey said, "I've come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that's as unique as a fingerprint . . . and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you."


Kampala, Uganda’s capital city and also a city of hills, is one of the fastest growing cities in East Africa.

Oprah expresses the value of service so beautifully and through the years my husband and I have been privileged to participate in many humanitarian trips to foreign countries.


In 2014, Dr. Phillip Openshaw from Modesto, California invited my husband and I to participate in his annual dental trip to Uganda. Garth would be working with a couple of other dentists, hygienests and volunteer dental assistants and offering free dental service to missionaries and anyone who walked through the doors. I was especially excited because I would be teaching music workshops and presenting some firesides so I was looking forward to sharing my talents to anyone who would listen. While Garth was at the dental clinic, I would be working at the LDS meeting house the opposite direction in the city of Kampala. Together we felt we would make a strong team as we combined our efforts to help people in Uganda.


Uganda was colonized by the British Empire in 1894 and in1962 Britain granted independence to Uganda. Therefore, the natives speak with a very thick Brittish accent. It was great to be able to communicate in the same language but their heavy accent wasn't always easy to understand and vice-versa for them. In countries where we have previously volunteered, we needed interpreters but in this case we were fortunate because most of the people spoke English.

We arrived in Kampala after 25 hours.

We were privileged to stay with Jan and Betty Jonson from the states who were serving for 18 months as the medical couple in the Entebe Kampala Mission.


They had invited us to share their guarded two bedroom/2 bathroom apartment complex during our two week stay. Exhausted and blurry eyed, we arrived at 1 AM Sunday morning and when Jan kindly showed us to our room, we literally fell into bed. We were thrilled to have a private bedroom and bathroom so we could shower and clean up after each day.

View from our bedroom.

After a good night's rest, we woke up to Betty fixing a wonderful breakfast. This was the first humanitarian trip where we didn't crawl into a sleeping bag on the ground or stay in a bunk room with other volunteers.


The Jonsons made us feel so welcome that we instantly became friends. Betty and I felt like kindred spirits . . . you know when you meet someone you feel like you've known before?

As Garth and I looked out our bedroom window that morning, we high-fived each other and said, "We've got this made in the shade".





After breakfast, we were off to church where we would invite people to sign up to visit the free dental clinic the following week.






Notice the steering wheel on the right side of the car.

Driving to the church in Kampala our first day was an experience. The unpaved, dirt roads were rough and full of holes. There were no stop lights and people drove like crazy on the right side of the road! We realized right then we were going to have an adventure and lots of stories to tell our family when we returned home! Thankfully Jan was driving and Garth was grateful he was not at the wheel.


The photo below was one of the first photos I snapped as we drove by shacks and tattered structures. It was hard to imagine people living in such extreme circumstances.

Nicknames for Kampala include "The Happy City," the "City that Never Sleeps" or the "City of Hills".

With no place to play, children were outside and when they saw our pale faces, their smiles lit up! They waved and shouted, "Welcome," and it truly warmed our hearts. Despite their poverty, Ugandans are hardworking, beautiful, intelligent and the most welcoming people in the world.

Kampala is the capital city for the Republic of Uganda and one of the fastest growing cities in East Africa and the world.


The city is an area measuring 73 square miles within which 1.7 million people live. A third-world county, 73% of the population do not have electricity so families rely on harmful kerosene, charcoal and firewood to light their homes and to prepare meals. Women cook outside in make-shift kitchens and live in cramped houses with tin roofs, cement or dirt floors. Water, sanitation, education, and health care is often inadequate. Only 19% of the population has access to toilets so they use public latrines . . . conditions that pose a serious threat to women's health and safety.


Motorcycles, commonly called "boda boda" are the fastest and most convenient way to travel in Kampala, which explains why they are more prevalent than automobiles in traffic. Due to the road conditions, riding a boda boda is easier to navigate than a car.

Who says you can't fit a family on a boda boda?

Driving through Kampala was a real experience and as Garth would say, "Hang on to your girdle, Myrtle, this ain't no turtle!" As we drove through the crowded street, I was told to hold on to my purse and before I knew it the door opened and a man tried to grab it as we were driving slowing through the market place. After that I realized I had to also LOCK the door!



This woman was selling ginger and red onions.
Can you imagine carrying these on your head?

After quite a long drive, we finally arrived at a very nice LDS church building surrounded by a wall for safety and an armed guard. He was paid to stay there 24/7 and opened and closed the gate for each visitor.

People were arriving on boda bodas or walking from their homes and very few had vehicles. The families were beautifully dressed and we were impressed with the pride they took in themselves.

Everyone came up to us with a smile, extended their hand and said, "Welcome!" They were so warm and welcoming like no place we'd ever been before.


The average sized family in Uganda has 6 to 8 children.
Dr. Drew Calhoon from Canada.

Dr. Calhoon was outside to welcome us when we arrived. He and Garth immediately started talking "shop" and I was admiring the babies!


I couldn't resist the babies. They were chubby and so cute!

Dr. Calhoon shared his passion about coming to Uganda several times each year and bringing hygienists who also came to volunteer. They were staying at a place close to the dental clinic and were planning to spend the day at Jinga, a village several hours away for the afternoon.


Kizito (dental student), hygienists and Dr. Calhoon.

The church was very nice but there was no air conditioning so the windows were vented. With the high humidity, it was very warm even for Phoenicians. The chapel had electricity but it kept going on and off. I was asked to play some prelude music, hymns, and share a musical number during the meeting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a full-sized keyboard with weighted keys and I played an arrangement of "Love at Home." Members seemed touched by the music and I'm pretty certain this was the first time they had ever heard anyone play a solo.


When I accompanied the congregation for the hymns, they were so surprised to hear the accompaniment they didn't want to sing. I found out later they had never heard the piano before because nobody knew how to play it so they always sang acappella. It was then I realized I had a lot to accomplish before reuturning home and set some personal goals to encourage the members to use accompaniment in their services.

After church, people lined up to be scheduled and charted for treatment the next day at the Dental Clinic. Jan took charge of all the scheduling which was a tremendous help.

That evening, Betty prepared a delicious dinner and invited some service couples to meet us and share dinner. Spending such a lovely evening with great people was the "frosting on the cake" and that was the beginning of what was yet to come.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner with service couples the Wallaces and Hansens.

Garth was blown away to see the Hansens from Burley, Idaho where he was raised. He said, "I can't believe it! What a small world!" It was so fun getting acquainted and everyone made us feel welcome.


The next day Garth was excited to start work at the dental clinic at the school. We had to drive through a guarded gate to get to the school. I went along to see it before I was taken to the church to teach my music workshops.


Entrance to the dental school and clinic
Dr. Openshaw in navy; Dr. Garth in plaid shirt

This was the first dental trip where Garth would be working in a dental clinic and not sitting outside on the ground in a make-shift dental chair like he did in Kenya and Guatemala.


Upon arrival, Garth learned that the equipment in the dental school was not up to date and he would be working under limited circumstances. However, he was up for the challenge and was given a dental student to assist him.


Dr. Phil Openshaw and Garth view the daily schedule with Jan.

Garth and the other two dentists saw dozens of patients, each who had never been to a dentist.

The dental equipment consisted of 37 used chairs that had been donated and shipped from the U.S. There was no running water so he had to be work under limited circumstances. However, since those who came to the clinic had never been to a dentist, you could say "what they didn't know they didn't miss."


This beautiful girl from "Set Her Free" was seen by Garth for impressions and fillings. She was fitted with an appliance that filled in the gap between her front teeth. When she came into the clinic, she wouldn't take her hand away from her face and it took a lot of coaxing to get her to remove it for the BEFORE photo.


Allen before her dental visit

After our return, Dr. Calhoon sent these photos and said in an email, "Thanks Dr. Holyoak - your are amazing! Allen hasn't stopped smiling.  She used to hold her hand over her mouth before she smiled.  The before picture was the day after Dr. Garth had fixed her left lateral and took an impression for her partial. Don't you just love Africa?"


Having front teeth changed Allen's life for the better!

After Garth went to the clinic, I went the opposite direction to teach music workshops at the church. (Continued to Part II - Teaching Music in Uganda.) Please check back soon and feel free to share this blog.



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