University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Healing Through Helping

The Ngobis help people in their native Uganda become self-sufficient through education, medical care, and good-paying jobs.

Photo Credit: Erica Loeks Sutherland

Joy Babuwe Ngobi (M.P.H ’96), was struggling about 15 years ago. Her older sister in Uganda, Rebecca, had just died from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), leaving behind three children. Ngobi had also previously lost four of her brothers to alcoholism. She became deeply depressed. Adding to the stress, she and her husband, Gideon (M.S. ’98), had just moved to Wisconsin for her first job as an anesthesiologist and they knew no one there.

Instead of wallowing in her pain, Ngobi decided shortly after finishing her U pediatric residency in 2003 that she needed to heal herself by helping others. Her first thought was to support youth in her native Uganda so that they could develop into “Rebeccas” like her sister—kind, giving, and enamored with learning.

Joy Ngobi saw vast needs near the couple’s’ hometown of Jinja, Uganda, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria. The duo knew they could apply some of their knowledge, connections, and resources to help. But how?

“We believe that education is a passport out of poverty,” says Gideon Ngobi, who earned his master’s degree in geology from the University. “When people have knowledge, they make better decisions. That’s one of the reasons I do this—to help the next generation through education.”

They set to work, providing school scholarships and encouraging their church to undertake a mission trip to Uganda. That trip, in 2006, met the goal of building a church in a Jinja slum, while also prompting the Ngobis to think bigger. They aspired to make a lasting difference in people’s lives through education, better access to health care, and economic opportunities. To make it happen, they started a nonprofit called the Hope Institute of Uganda.

But the nonprofit needed a revenue stream to provide that full-bodied help. Joy Ngobi discovered it on the same 2006 trip: She saw Americans’ enthusiasm for buying colorful jewelry made by local artisans from recycled paper. Before leaving, she convinced a pastor there to teach more women how to make the jewelry and then to send it on to her for sale in Wisconsin.

Jewelry made from recycled paper and other materials
Photo Credit: Erica Loeks Sutherland

The enterprise quickly took off, inspiring the Ngobis to open the Hope Institute’s Jinja Fair Trade Gift Shop in Janesville, Wisconsin. It sells jewelry, musical instruments, crafts, batik art, and more. The Institute funds job training and employment for 25 artisans, who earn a living wage that supports their families. The store’s proceeds also fund a primary school for 75 young orphans and other children.

Though there is universal primary education in Uganda, many children stay home because their families cannot afford supplies and fees. Others struggle with poverty and access to health care, stemming from political instability and displacement from previous guerrilla warfare in northern Uganda, explains Njeri Githire, an associate professor of African American and African Studies at the U.

“Education is highly prized in Uganda. But we call many of these children the Lost Generation, because the war took away their parents and they had to rely on elderly relatives or go into exile,” Githire says. “They need education to face the challenges of today.”

Photo Credit: Erica Loeks Sutherland

Another component of the Ngobis’ nonprofit work involves medical missions. Joy Ngobi says her colleagues at Mercyhealth Hospital in Janesville begged to get involved with the Institute’s efforts at a hospital in Buluba, Uganda. Since 2008, Wisconsin medical teams have traveled there regularly to perform more than 300 surgeries, train local clinicians, and deliver supplies and equipment.

Today the Ngobis are juggling all of this while she works as an  anesthesiologist and he runs the store, and together they raise their three sons. Now, however, things are in a slight state of flux. This fall Ngobi started teaching at the U of M as an assistant professor of anesthesiology, teaching residents and practicing at the Medical Center. For the time being, Gideon Ngobi will stay in Janesville with their youngest son to explore possibilities for the shop, which they hope may include finding a partner or even opening a fair-trade store near the U of M Twin Cities campus.

Still, the hard work is worth it for Joy Ngobi. On top of knowing that their efforts help Ugandans become self-sufficient, it has been therapeutic for her. “The Hope Institute has been a place where I find solace and peace,” says Ngobi. “When the young people we help reach out to say thank you, I feel like my siblings come back alive.” 

Suzy Frisch is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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