by Len Lear
We have all seen newspaper articles and TV documentaries about starvation, wars and the most unimaginable suffering in Third World nations. Anyone with an ounce of compassion has to feel sick and depressed when confronted with such horrors; some of us send money to charitable organizations working on the scene to limit the suffering. Barbara Birks Wybar, of Chestnut Hill, has done a lot more.
Barbara, 68, grew up in Montreal. She graduated from McGill University with a major in art history and psychology. She never worked in either field, but she insists that she has used some of what she learned in psychology courses in her teaching career. She taught third grade for two years in London, England, but left in 1987 to come to Philadelphia, where her then-husband, Michael, was in the insurance business.
They moved to Mt. Airy, where she lived until 1999, and she then moved to Rex Avenue in Chestnut Hill. (Michael left in 1993; the couple had four teenagers at the time.) Barbara was a teaching assistant at Germantown Friends School and then taught second grade at Chestnut Hill Academy for 10 years.
But in 2007, Barbara left her big, comfortable house on Rex Avenue and since then has been living for a part of each year in a village called Bududa in Uganda, East Africa, where she has no electricity, running water or any other 21st century conveniences that the rest of us consider second-nature, not to mention barely enough food to survive. (“I have never seen an obese person there,” she said.)
In Bududa Barbara has been the driving force behind the building, staffing and operation of the Bududa Vocational Institute, a school that now turns out graduates who can earn a living — something that was barely possible before when the village had no school. She also raises funds to feed starving AIDS orphans.
Every so often Barbara, who receives no salary in Uganda, returns to Chestnut Hill to visit friends and family and to raise funds for her school and the AIDS orphans. She also tries to visit Canada because she has relatives in both Montreal and Toronto and also to raise funds. (Both of Barbara’s parents had big families whose ancestors had been in Montreal since the War of 1812.)
But once in 2009, after finishing a speaking and fundraising tour on the Gaspe Peninsula near Montreal, Barbara changed $3,700 Canadian dollars into U.S. dollars, all of it earmarked for Bududa, at a Globex foreign exchange bureau. After leaving the office, however, a knife-wielding thug attacked Barbara from behind and stole her bag. He also slashed one of the rear tires on her rented car so she could not get away. After the incident was reported in a Montreal newspaper, an anonymous donor replaced the money.
Now Barbara spends “only” about 12 weeks a year (two six-week stays) in Bududa and much of the rest of the year fundraising. On June 17 of this year, thanks to a website called Global Giving that helps raise funds for humanitarian causes (the website does take 15 percent of all money raised, though), Barbara’s school raised about $15,000 in one day from 141 donors.
“It’s like a horse race,” said Barbara. “There were 35 other charities involved. Since we raised the most money that day and also had the most donors, we were given additional bonus money. All told we got $18,728. It was the most amazing day. Very touching. To be accepted by Global Giving, we had to go through many qualifications. We had to have a board in Uganda and a board in Canada, among other things.”
Many of Barbara’s local friends helped with the fundraising. For example, Martha Repman, former librarian at the Chestnut Hill Library, sent requests to her address book people. That brought in several contributions. Other friends forwarded the request. The Bududa Vocational Institute currently has over 120 students who do pay very low fees, augmented by Barbara’s fundraising. Masons, carpenters, nurses, etc., are turned out by the school. Wybar has to raise $80,000 to $100,000 a year for both students and orphans.
She has helped to start an organization called Children of Bududa, which has managed to recruit 135 sponsors in North America to support their 135 orphans. Local residents live in mud huts, although many do now have doors and windows that were made by graduates of Barbara’s vocational school.
Most people in Bududa eat one meal a day, but if they do not grow their own food, they do not eat! They rarely eat meat. “We had two boys, Julius and Simon, who had nothing, no food, sleeping on a mud floor,” said Barbara. “Julius said he was going to join the rebels in Kenya (terrorists), not because he wanted to hurt people but only because he knew he would be fed. But he came to our school instead. Now he is a carpenter with the biggest smile. And a job maker! He has his own shop and can make a door a day! He can sell it for about $35, although he only gets $5 or $10 of that.”
The village looks like something out of National Geographic magazine. Women carry their belongings on their heads. An occasional cow is moved along with a stick. Children are always hungry, and it is about 90 degrees or more every day of the year. “The kids are so malnourished,” said Barbara, “but they are still fit and strong. They do a lot of hard work early in the morning, and then they walk two to three miles to school. It’s a real wakeup call for people from Europe and North America. Two-thirds of the world lives this way.
“My own children have all come to Bududa. I’ve had 85 volunteers from the U.S., Canada and Europe. It changes them. Many have gone into international development work after this experience. The first ones that came were from Chestnut Hill Academy. I don’t know who got more out of it, the CHA kids or the African kids. A CHA student named Bobby McArthur said ‘I’ll never complain again.’”
Does Barbara, who is used to eating like most Americans (too much), eat the same food as her African friends? “Yes,” she replied. “We eat one meal a day of cabbage, beans and rice. Chicken is rare and tough to get. And it is tough to get the meat off the bone because they run around and use their muscles, not like the ones in huge pens in the U.S. (injected with hormones to make them plump up fast). When I am there, I sometimes dream of having a crab cake in a Chestnut Hill restaurant.”
For more information, visit www.bududa.org or bviuganda.blogspot.com. Barbara can be reached at email@example.com. Donations should be made out to Friends Peace Teams and sent c/o Barbara Wybar, 111 Rex Ave., Phila. PA 19118.