American Guy

Man From Uganda


James Mutaka holds his 2-year-old daughter, Jessie, in front of their house in Uganda.

James Mutaka ran away from home. He was 22 years old. He was running from poverty. He was running from Africa, searching for the land of opportunity. Mutaka was born in Jinja, Uganda and later moved to Soroti. At age 7, a friend from the village donated an old Ford to his father. He was intrigued by it, and bombarded his father with questions about the car. With harsh honesty, his father told him it was from America–an entirely unreachable place as no members of their clan had ever stepped foot on a plane. Mutaka was crushed, and from that moment on he dreamt of traveling to America to see where the Ford car was made.

As Mutaka passed through the strange automated doors of JFK airport, he was immediately shocked by the tall buildings of New York and the fast pace of life. After exiting the building, Mutaka stood on the street, completely and totally disoriented. He was overwhelmed by America and everything it held.

Mutaka continued his travels, ending up at YMCA camp Lanakila in Fairlee, Vermont. There, Mutaka worked with kids and enjoyed his time in America. He has returned to the camp as a counselor every other year since 2002.

Largely thanks to his time in the U.S., Mutaka has decided to dedicate himself entirely to charity. He is now pursuing more stringent water regulations as well as the widespread installation of solar power in Uganda.

“Lack of clean water is the biggest cause of child death in Uganda, not Malaria or AIDS,” said Mutaka. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 30% of all childhood deaths are caused by diarrhea or other diarrhea diseases–nearly all of which are caused by waterborne viruses and bacteria.

Although not directly connected to the clean water issue, solar power is a significant development because it can be used to purify water and pump it into schools. Mutaka is scared by the number of children dying in undeveloped countries due to unclean water.

In order to access even the most contaminated water, girls as young as five years old must walk over two miles to reach the well, where there is always a line. Then, with several pounds of water balanced precariously on their heads, they must walk back through a pitch-black night, unaided by streetlights. Unsurprisingly, many girls are raped, with their parents only finding out months later when they are noticeably pregnant. More than anything, however, Mutaka is saddened by the education and potential he sees stolen from these young mothers as they are forced to drop out of school.

Installation of solar-powered water filtration will eliminate the sickness that plagues Ugandan schools. All of these kids in school are suffering from stomach aches. “A large portion of this is due to unclean water,” Mutaka reluctantly said.

“In small villages, there is no electricity and oftentimes candles are used,” says Mutaka. When Ugandan children get home from fetching water, they are exhausted and frequently fall asleep on their textbooks, sometimes catching on fire when their candles tip over. Having solar power so that kids can study without an open flame is crucial.

Mutaka believes that if he had not gotten the opportunity for education that he had throughout high school and college in Africa (much more than the average Ugandan), he wouldn’t be in America today. It would have been a life-long dream never fulfilled. “Education is the platform of society,” says Mutaka. Education has kept his dream alive.

Schools in America organize donation programs for shoes, money and other supplies to be sent to parts of Africa. Mutaka says he thinks it is wonderful, but he laughs and admits he has no idea why shoes are being sent. The way shoes (and other products) are distributed can make a large difference. Whether the shoes are sent to a village or a city and if they are distributed by schools or communities. Mutaka remembers his first pair of shoes, he worked hard for them and, at age 13, he was finally able to purchase his first pair. “Shoes in Africa don’t last,” he says. “There is bad weather, and rough roads. Shoes only last 6 months.” Even though shoes are a valued commodity, Mutaka considers it even more helpful to give resources that will benefit the child for a longer period of time. “No one can take it away from you, you have it in your brain so if you give them the money, or the shoes, [they] wear out, which is good, but then tomorrow they come back asking for more shoes.” He believes it’s better to invest in books to let these kids study and obtain knowledge. “It’s kind of like giving someone a fishing rod to go fishing, than to give them the fish. Africa doesn’t need a fish, they need the fishing rod.”

For Mutaka, it is frustrating to see the current generation’s behavior. He wants younger generations to enjoy their lives, but it frustrates him when they complain. He says, “I wish they could come to Africa, then they will appreciate what they have.” He wishes that they could thank their forefathers for what they have done to create America. “Africa will get there, but I don’t know when.”

Mutaka is the only man from his village to have ever been to America, and one of few who have stepped foot on a plane. Back in his village, they call him the ‘American Guy’. When Mutaka returns home from America, he is quiet. He doesn’t boast. Life is different in Uganda, and he is fortunate to have an adoptive family capable of supporting his travels.

Mutaka’s worst memory is being refused food. His mother and his father separated and, after that, his father had over seven wives and 33 children. The most terrifying memory was having an abusive stepmother. “My dad tried so hard to love us, but it would lead to punishment.” Mutaka remembers being so tired that he was physically unable to fetch water and firewood and was consequently denied food just because he was exhausted. When Mutaka is with children in Africa, he walks around the table and fills everyone’s plate, just to make sure he doesn’t eat until he knows that every child is eating. He doesn’t wish anybody to go through what he went through.

Back home, Mutaka has a daughter named Jessie who is two years old. “I love her, and she reminds me of my childhood.” He wants her to achieve her dreams, saying, “We understand each other. She has some brains of mine. It will be my road to revisit my childhood. She needs to dream big.” He swears that, if he could work tirelessly to make sure she gets the education she deserves, he would.

His most recent trip to America has been Mutaka’s longest trip by a significant margin. Being over 7,000 miles away from his daughter for over 6 months is heartbreaking. He has tried to purchase a phone but ultimately decided not to because he was not making any money. Instead, he goes on Skype and when his family in Uganda has the good fortune of a solid Wi-Fi connection, they are able to talk face-to-face. He becomes emotional when Jessie cries. “Today, I called Jessie, she keeps calling me Daddy come back. It’s painful, but I have to look for her. I cry, I take time to cry, and just tell her I need her. She badly needs me, but she will get me. Jessie, she still thinks I am on the plane, because when I left, she dropped me off at the airport, and so now when she sees the planes in the sky, she thinks I am there, and she points and says ‘My daddy, my daddy!’”

If Mutaka had the opportunity to speak with his father once more, “Dad, I made it,” would be his only words as he shows his father a photo of himself in front of the Ford factory. He knows his father would fill the room with loud, proud laughter.