Medical mission to Uganda heals many, others count their blessings

By Rebecca Villaneda - Peninsula News

A unique relationship between a local Peninsula church and a village in Uganda, which began last year, is giving plenty of people reason to give thanks.

A group from Peninsula Community Church in Rancho Palos Verdes organized a weeklong medical mission this month, which turned a church into a makeshift clinic that treated about 1,500.

“It is a very symbiotic relationship,” said Rolling Hills resident Dr. Dapo Popoola. “Our church has given them things that they are benefiting [from]; however, they are giving us a lot of faith, strength and a lot of energy back, in terms of appreciation of what God has done for us and what is left to be done for the people of Uganda and the people of the world who are not so privileged.”

Villagers from Bombo, Uganda came by the hundreds to get treated for diabetes, high blood pressure, hernias and tumors, while about 350 people were tested for HIV. Forty-six tested positive. For many patients, this was the first time visiting with a doctor. 

Many suffered from abdominal pains that Popoola attributes to worms; others had teeth extracted, received malaria tests, or underwent fibroid surgery.

There also were those who had eye problems, including one woman that Popoola remembers affectionately.

“This lady was very religious and was very depressed because she had not been able to read her favorite book, the Bible, for years. She came to my little office. I gave her little glasses we brought along, and she said, ‘Halleluiah! I can read,’” he said. “She had the biggest smile on her face.”

This story of helping others begins when Peninsula Community Church Pastor Jim Welch first went to Uganda last September with an Orange County church to see how they could help the village.

When he came back it was clear medical attention was the priority.

After Welch shared his first trip to Uganda with the congregation it made perfect sense for Popoola to volunteer. Within the last several years he has made yearly medical missions to Nigeria, where he is originally from.

Popoola came to the States when he was about 17 and attended the University of Oregon. Now a 35-year bariatric surgeon he is doing what he can to give back to his home country through his new organization, Operation Heal Africa.

“It was just born about two months ago and it was born out of necessity,” Popoola said. “There are people in other parts of the world that are not as happy as we are. We complain about gas and that the economy is bad — these people don’t have food. They live in houses about the size of your living room in your home, and it’s a mud house, not cemented — that’s the average house.”

Welch said the most satisfying part of the trip was seeing people’s health improve. “Really their whole life perspective improves,” he said. “There were kids with chronic ear infections, who, with a little bit of antibiotic, you’ve cleared up their hearing. There was one 14-year-old girl with all rotten teeth that for 600 bucks we were able to get her hooked up with a dentist in town and is going to get that all fixed. It’s life-changing.

“For us, it’s showing, really, the compassion of Jesus Christ to people who, maybe they just hear our words, but we want them to see our actions — that we do care about them,” Popoola added.

Their days in Uganda typically began at 6 a.m. with breakfast and they would get to the village’s church by 8 a.m. and work until around 6:30 p.m.

“Every day we get there at least 500 people were waiting … We just go there and get to work,” Popoola said. “The patients that we diagnosed with AIDS … some were fresh diagnoses, even children. It is a death sentence for them because they don’t have availability to some of the modern medicine we have here.”

Despite having some of the odds against them, both Popoola and Welch were in awe of how warm and welcoming Africans were toward them.

“They are very proud people; they don’t know any better. It’s when you compare, that you know how behind you are — they don’t have any means of comparing. This is what it is; this is what they’ve been dealt with,” Popoola said. “They are very religious … They thank God every day, despite their poverty.”

A future in giving

When the idea first began circulating within the church community, people were skeptical, but now the Peninsula Community Church hopes to turn these efforts into an annual event.

“When we announced the medical mission to Bombo about nine months, people laughed … Those were the ones that I convinced to just trust me and to come with me because we were going to make things happen there,” Popoola said. “People can volunteer in anything, at dispensing medicine, helping with registration — there’s all kinds of things for every person to do. Anything goes.

“The goal is simplified by the name of the organization … We tend to go to different parts of Africa, and just do the same thing and hopefully it will get big enough some day that we make a difference ,” he added.

Already the Peninsula-based church has made strides. They have donated about 2,000 mosquito nets to Bombo to help combat the spread of malaria. Since its first delivery last year, the rate of malaria infection in the community was cut by almost 80 percent, Popoola said.

The church also has helped to build a well in Bombo that people can pump water from. Although it was hard for some church volunteers to witness the poverty in Uganda, Popoola said most used it as an incentive to work harder.

“As human beings we do adapt very fast … You get to used to it and you get to be thankful to God … We’ve been blessed in this country more than we know,” Popoola said.

Said Welch, “We can make difference — we have been blessed to be a blessing, not just to enjoy our blessings and that there are places in the world where we can really make a difference, even a church of 300 folks.”

For more information on how you can help, call the Peninsula Community Church at (310) 377-4661.

Operation Heathy Africa Foundation (formerly known as Operation Heal Africa) is a CA non-profit 501(c)(3) Organization