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Norwich Christian uses retirement to help war victims

Freda Lewis from Thorpe St Andrew has used her retirement to raise tens of thousands of pounds to buy life changing facilities for a camp of displaced people in Northern Uganda including a 16-room clinic built with the help of the Bishop of Norwich’s Lent Appeal.  Jenny Seal reports.

Freda Lewis, 73, first visited Uganda in 2003, as a volunteer on a month long mission to provide humanitarian aid to internally displaced people in camps caused by the civil war. 

On her return to the UK Freda had the idea to collect toys to take out to some of the children.  “It sort of snowballed from there”, said Freda. “And I’ve been out to Uganda practically every year since.”

Freda, a retired infant school teacher who is a member of St Francis Church, Heartsease started the charity ‘The Oasis of Life’ in 2004 to fundraise for the small camp of Ambalal in Northern Uganda, which then provided shelter for around 200 people fleeing war-torn communities. 

Freda began by buying blankets and mattresses for the children who had to lie on the floor of their mud huts at night.  She then fundraised for a school, and a house for the widowed leader of the camp.

In 2013 the Bishop of Norwich chose The Oasis of Life as one of his annual Lent Appeal projects.  The appeal raised £14,500 and with another £30,000 raised by Freda the building of a 16-room, 51.5m long clinic is now complete.

Thanking supporters who have donated to the clinic, many from Norfolk, Freda said: “It is going to make such a vast, vast difference.  This clinic is on the road between Lira and Soroti.  It will be for the poorest of the poor.  At the moment the people living there can’t get to the hospital. They have to go by wooden wheelbarrow; that is the only means of transport. So having the clinic out there will be absolutely brilliant.”
“Children get sent up trees to collect coconuts and when they fall down they can’t afford any medical help.  They go to the witch doctor who puts leaves on them.  There are a lot of kids with badly set arms and legs, so they are crippled.  So a clinic with proper attention will be brilliant.”

In order to protect the clinic’s long-term sustainability, Freda has deliberately ensured that local people have had ownership over the project from the beginning.  The visionary behind the diagnostic clinic is Steven Puleh from Makerere University in Kampala.
“He said his dream was to start a diagnostic clinic because there are so many strains of malaria out there and it’s a big killer”, remembers Freda.  “So he wanted to firstly be able to diagnose what they have to save money and then secondly to treat them immediately. “

Steven will lead the project now that the building’s infrastructure is complete and it will be his responsibility to apply for government funding in order to staff and equip the facility.

Freda explains: “They have big plans for it including installing an operating theatre.  But I will be a hindrance now if I keep raising money for it.  My white face will stop them from getting a rcould fund it.” 

So following a ribbon cutting ceremony on October 23 Freda officially handed the project over to Steven, praying that funding will be awarded to get the medical facility up and running.  

What Freda has achieved in terms of fundraising and development is even more incredible given her attitude towards returning to Uganda in 2004.
Freda remembers: “God said ‘Go out!’ and I didn’t want to go. I fought really hard not to go.  And then God said: “Remember Jonah.” And I thought: “Hmm, three nights in the belly of a whale - alright I’ll go.”  And in the various challenging and risky situations that she has encountered God has always ensured her safety.

Her biggest joy in the journey has been raising funds to build a house for the camp leader, Margaret, a widow who looks after seven orphaned children.  Margaret founded Ambalal camp having escaped from an attack on her village by the Lord’s Resistance Army

Freda explains: “Margaret pushed her two girls out of the window in her mud hut and got out while the Lord’s Resistance Army macheted the men folk to death.  The women and children were then rounded up, put in a mud hut and set it alight.  Margaret was the only one to escape.  She started this camp.  

“And when [President] Museveni decided that the camp had to go, because the Lord’s Resistance Army had moved on to Sudan, Margaret asked me to help her to build her a house, because she didn’t want to go back to her village.  It held too many memories and the village wasn’t there anymore.  So she bought a piece of land and she built this house.

“When I went over there this time they were so grateful I was almost in tears.  She had had an accident.  She was sitting at the corner of a road selling charcoal which is how she ekes out a living and a lorry tipped its pallets on top of her so she was hurt. And she couldn’t go back to work. She said: “I can stay at home because I don’t have to pay rent, because you’ve bought this house.” And they were so very, very grateful.  I was really quite overcome.  I thought: “Yes, I have done some good.”

Freda is not planning any further trips to Uganda but she will continue fundraising.  Her next focus is to better equip the school and ensure the children receive a good education. 

You can find out more about The Oasis of Life at www.theoasisoflife.co.uk 

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