UNBC professor giving back to his homeland

The tears still come to Chris Opio's eyes when he thinks of a childhood in rural Uganda trekking for hours barefoot just to access contaminated water sources.

When he was five or six, Opio contracted bilharzia, a serious water-borne disease that compromises the immune system.

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"I thought I was going to die because if it's not treated you become sterile, or you become insane," said Opio, now a UNBC professor in ecosystem science and management.

His was the experience of many rural Ugandans. As the son of peasant farmers, he grew up in abject poverty. Even after he survived, he and the other villages faced constant suffering from other bacteria like E. coli, which often caused diarrhea and stomach illnesses.

"It paralyzes you. You can't do anything," he said, meaning farmers were kept from working in the fields and students lost weeks of school.

"When I left Uganda I promised one thing," said Opio, who emigrated to Canada in 1982.

"I said I need to do something once I have the opportunity, I need to do something to just make life better for people who are still drinking that water so that they don't suffer the way I did and my siblings and too many rural people."

So, in 2007, he set up the Prince George-based Northern Uganda Development Foundation (NUDF). By next month the organization will have built 74 wells that serve 120,000 rural people in the central east African country.

Each well costs about $2,500 and the clean water has helped reduce sickness by 85 per cent.

Opio is organizing its annual fundraiser on Saturday to help continue that work, which mainly supports access to clean water but also seeks to improve farming techniques, purchase goats, provide health education and teach Ugandans how to establish small businesses.

The goal is sustainability and that informs NUDF's approach to development.

"I want to create communities that are sustainable, communities that can do work for themselves, communities that can take pride in what they are doing."

"We have a principle that we don't dictate what they want," he said adding local support and buy-in is "very very critical."

While the organization provides the money, the local provide the materials. Locals are involved from the very beginning, including the planning stages and the clearing of land before NUDF's technicians start drilling.

"They take more ownership," said Opio, and although the organization will check back in on the well, the villages take charge and form committee to oversee their wells.

"I want them to feel that they're part of the process. It is their well."

The new wells also cut down the distance villagers, often women, have to walk to get the water.

"They come and report that we have saved their lives," said Opio, just by providing clean water, "something very basic, something very preventable."

Ivan Orlowsky travelled to Uganda last year with the organization to help dig wells.

"The original wells they have before we dig them are about a four-foot hole with this murky blue water in them. They have people, sometimes hundreds of people using this one four-foot-hole well," said the 20-year-old from Prince George.

"There are so many diseases in that little hole. There are parasites, there are bacteria. It causes tons of diseases and sickness," said Orlowsky who said everyone was so grateful for NUDF's work.

"The new wells they improve the quality of life incredibly."

Orlowsky said it's important the organization is led by someone who understand what the rural regions need.

"Chris Opio has vested interest in Uganda so it's not like a lot of charities with North Americans starting it."

Opio was named academic of the year in 2012 by the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. for his research work benefiting so many people.

For Opio, he hopes their work empowers villagers to launch their own development. The program is already such a success that the organization is moving into other district.

"I think we are helping to save lives and future generations" Opio said.

Tickets to the Saturday, May 30 fundraiser are $40 and includes authentic Ugandan cuisine as well as auction items brought back from the country.

The event kicks off at 5:30 p.m. at St. Mary's School. For tickets or more information contact Chris Opio at 250-961-9221.

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