The stories below provide a little context for the entire trip.
If you need to find Steve Swigert, most days he’ll be working in the Noble Foundation’s Agricultural Division. Weave through the building to the back hallway and there’s his office. You’ll know it is his, because some of the pictures and knickknacks seemingly don’t match the man or the industry.
Sure there are photos of his two grown daughters with wife, Vicki. And there’s some memorabilia from the University of Oklahoma (he’s usually wearing it). But if you look closely there’s a small, Africa-shaped memory box on the corner of his desk, and pictures of a lush green land that is clearly not Oklahoma.
Steve is an unassuming man, one of those guys that would do anything to help anybody. He has a bright smile, a hardy laugh that strikes a pleasant tenor, and a grey mustache that could win a contest.
For more than 22 years, Steve has served as an agricultural economist for the Noble Foundation, assisting farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains with financial advice and business planning. His background is completely ag (He has two masters degrees in ag-related fields and managed a farming operation for almost a decade before coming to Noble). His livelihood is ag. His passion is ag, and – as it turns out – Africa.
For almost 25 years, Steve has circled the globe, participating in and leading more than 30 mission trips for faith-based organizations. Two years ago, Steve’s local church – First United Methodist in Ardmore, Okla. – came to Uganda to support the Watoto Childcare Ministries (Watoto is Swahili for “children”). Ardmore physician Mike Carnahan led an effort to construct a new medical clinic in one of the Watoto villages.
Steve was all in. This particular mission trip, however, would be different.
For a little background, Watoto Childcare Ministries sprouted from the Watoto Church in Kampala, Uganda.
Thirty years ago, Gary and Marilynn Skinner – poor missionaries not billionaires as I originally assumed – walked into Uganda, believing they were called to bring life to a dying land.
The couple had zero resources, few connections and three children in tow. Imagine bring your young family into the lion’s den. The couple founded Watoto Church during Milton Obote’s second tenure as president/dictator.
To put this in perspective, Uganda in the early 1980s resembled America’s Wild West except with oppressive poverty, massive corruption and genocide mixed in. Hundreds of thousands of people were openly imprisoned and murdered, and the AIDS epidemic further unraveled an already tattered societal fabric. All of this didn’t just happen. Decades of coups and genocide had left Uganda broken.
Obote was eventually exiled, and Watoto Church grew steadily. One day Gary Skinner visited a woman who had lost 6 children and a husband to AIDS. That moment, Gary wrote, defined the next pursuit. Soon the Skinners founded the Watoto Childcare Ministries.
The concept behind Watoto is direct and profound.
The Watoto model focuses on orphaned children and vulnerable women. The program offers physical care, medical intervention (including treatment for HIV/AIDS), education (formal and technical), trauma counseling and spiritual discipleship.
The goal is raise the next generation of African leaders, who have a solid moral compass and academic/technical training. Watoto leadership believes – and is being proven right – that you can change a country from within if you provide capable leaders.
Today, Watoto Childcare Ministries has more than 2,500 children (ages 3 months and up), living and learning in villages across Uganda. Once the children are accepted into the program, they are a part of the family for life.
And the family needs to grow. War and AIDs have left 2.6 million orphans in Uganda, and Watoto can only assist 1 percent. The goal is to ramp that up to 10,000 children. That’s where Steve Swigert and Kent Donica, an agriculture producer from southern Oklahoma, come into play.
Steve and Kent go to Africa
Two years ago, Steve and Kent joined their first mission trip to Uganda, expecting to assist in a small agriculture project. What they found was a calling that matched their particular skill sets.
After the first day of touring the facilities, Steve and Kent realized the profound impact a sustainable agricultural program could have on the ministry. The idea was simple: help Watoto raise as much of its own food as possible. This would put vegetables and protein into the mouths of the orphans, and also provide products to sell market that could generate a revenue stream and further fund the mission.
Steve and Kent sat together that first night – with tears in their eyes – knowing the substantial task before them. “It’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hose,” Steve said.
And so it began.
Steve and Kent helped the organization map out a plan to better utilize their land resources and build infrastructure, while providing invaluable education to Watoto workers about cropping and animal husbandry.
Steve has returned to Uganda eight times in the last 24 months. Each time, he answers more questions, provides counsel and support, and helps trouble shoot everyday problems.
If he doesn’t have the expertise, he knows where to find it. Often Steve calls/emails back to the Noble Foundation office, and his fellow agricultural consultants provide the answers.
Between each trip, Steve, Kent (who has returned twice) and their church have marshaled resources. Agricultural producers and business owners, who hear the Watoto story, have donated equipment that is loaded into giant containers and shipped around the world. Special fundraisers have yielded funding for agricultural needs. And individuals touched by the mission have flocked to lend their particular expertise.
What started with one goat barn and 30 goats has blossomed into an agriculture endeavor very near to full scale production. Each Watoto sight has a different project. The goat barn at Suubi now holds 120 goats and provides enough milk for the Watoto babies home. The once-never-imagined chicken facility at Buloba is mere months from going online. The Buloba site also houses a feed mill and a 15,000- bushel grain storage facility. The eggs will provide protein to the children, as well as be sold for profit. The grain storage will save the organization tens of thousands of dollars by holding grain for use in the dry season.
The 200-acre vegetable garden at Lubbe produces corn, rice and vegetables for the villages. And – at the urging of Steve – Watoto is preparing to turn 200 acres of high quality land into working farm. Future plans include a 10,000-acre crop and livestock farm that would transform the organization.
The speed of change has awestruck all involved. “I’ve seen hundreds of operations progress and grow but nothing has ever come together so quickly. It’s been less than two years,” Steve said. “It’s truly a God thing.”
The relationship between the Noble Foundation and Watoto grew as well this year. Supporting sustainable agriculture and advancing the industry has been the cornerstone of the Noble Foundation mission. As the organization furthers its international reach, the connection with Watoto’s sustainability and educational efforts was a natural fit.
Watoto, the Noble Foundation and two agricultural universities – Oklahoma State University (OSU) and/or Texas A&M University – collaborated on a pilot program that will send one skilled student from Oklahoma or Texas to Uganda for three to five months of on-the-ground experience.
The Watoto-Noble Fellows will be integrated into all aspects of Watoto’s agricultural production system, including animal management, crop production, land stewardship, agronomy, water management, harvest, storage, distribution, food system development, marketing and economics.
Sarah Hart, an OSU graduate student, was the inaugural choice. Sarah’s been traveling internationally for many years. She’s quiet and unassuming, and right now she’s part of our little traveling party headed to Uganda. (I’ll fill you in more on her later.) The only piece of the story left to tell is mine.
A ginger in Uganda
Last June, I happened to cut through the Agricultural Division building on my way back from a meeting. Steve pulled me into his office and told me the Watoto story. My entire life, I have never, ever desired to do mission work. My cocoon is comfortable and reinforced. No need to go to the dirty and unwashed. I’m fine right here in my routine thank you very much.
My faith has always been a driving force in my life but the idea of mission always seemed to cause my faith to peter out at the Oklahoma state line.
As Steve talked that day, I knew I would go, and I knew I would go sooner than I could imagine.
My life had to fall apart first.
My 10-year marriage imploded and sank in the murky waters of divorce like flea tied to an anvil. While it’s easy for me to point at her sin and feel justified, I embrace my responsibility. I compromised my faith to marry her, and a decade of my life vanished in struggle and suffering. (Remember kids, being equally yoked is discussed in the Bible for a reason.)
Soon after the divorce, Steve appeared and said it was time for me to go to Uganda.
BUT … I said over and over. But finances. But timing. But these obstacles are so big that there is no way the creator of the universe can fix them.
Sheesh … ye of little faith, right? How often do we put God in a box? How often do we stubbornly hold onto our problems and attempt to fix them in our power. We have the source of love and grace one prayer away, and we refuse like a petulant child to give them up. If you’re in this club, understand that I’m the president. I’ll send you the handbook (which just says “It’s all about me” on the cover) and a membership jacket. I hope to resign soon.
I told Steve I would pray about it and I did. I said the same prayer for three weeks. “Lord if you want me to go, open the door widely, so that I know it’s you. You know the obstacles. If this is your will, remove them.”
Less than three weeks later, I was filling out paper work for a passport.
Not only had every obstacle vanished but He sent endless encouragement. I walked into church after missing a few weeks. Instead of the usual message from our pastor, our mission team spoke about their trip to Honduras. Several first-time travelers discussed how the Lord had blessed the experience. I sat in the back and cried. It was like the Lord said, “See how wide the door is open.”
Afterwards I told my pastor Tim about the opportunity in Uganda. Without hesitation he said, “Yes, you’re going to go. It’s your destiny.” The expression on his face was one of almost surprise like everyone already knew.
A few days later, my shoulder locked up. The knot was so profound my ear and my shoulder were conjoined. I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The unbearable pain drove this somewhat bashful boy to get a massage. The random therapist my chiropractor recommended “just happened” to be a former minister who had also “just happened” to have traveled to Uganda and Watoto. For months she has provided prayers and scriptures of encouragement. (Thank you, Sharen.)
So think of it this way – the Lord used an agricultural economist, a massage therapist and a pastor (sounds like a beginning of the weirdest joke ever) as encouragement in this journey.
The lesson I keep learning is the Lord is invested in my life. He’s not a magic genie that pops up and grants my every request. No, that’s not it at all. He loves me. He provides grace to cover my screw ups. And mostly, he is absolutely directing my life. I just have to obey and allow him to work.
I did this time, and now I’m headed to Uganda. I know there is a jewel waiting for me in Africa – an experience, a moment of profound definition, something that I’m supposed to see and do. This is a moment of willful stretching, where my faith is going across the Oklahoma boarder and around the world.
So I wait to see what the Lord is going to do, and I welcome the adventure.
Of course, this means I had to get shots.