By Dan Harkins
ORMOND BEACH - Niwagaba Wilfred started thinking about politics at the age of 9, when it played a central role in the hardship and brutality he saw all around him.
The much-despised military dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, had just gone into exile. But the leadership of socialist Milton Obote to come, from 1980 to 1985, was just as despotic, he said.
Rwandans living in Uganda were being purged from the country, and about 20 refugee families had come to eat and bed down at his home, since his village was near Uganda's border with Rwanda and his parents had hearts that saw no borders. They would pay.
His father and uncle were taken away and tortured by Obote's soldiers for 15 months for supporting the fleeing Rwandans, as well as the country's fledgling democratic rebellion. Mr. Wilfred was the man of the house for that time, never believing he would see his father again.
"What I remember was the brutality of the soldiers then and anybody who had authority," the 40-year-old said one recent afternoon during his vacation to Florida. "Anybody in power regardless of level, they were brutal and tortuous. All of this has shaped me to become a strong believer in the rule of law and respect for human rights."
Until this summer, Mr. Wilfred had never taken a vacation. Despite a career as an attorney that's led to his second five-year term representing the poverty-wracked Kabale district in the Ugandan Parliament, he just never felt like he could justify the extravagance of world travel.
"When you become a politician in Africa," he said, "there are three things you should be ready for: One, death; two is prison on fictitious charges; and, if you're a coward, you go to exile."
That's not to say he doesn't have a nice exile spot picked out, if the need ever arises.
That would be at the local home of Larry and Vicky Gibson, who founded a nonprofit called Helping Ugandans Grow Stronger that has built a different construction project every year in Uganda since 2002.
A few years later, after their three sons had emptied from the nest, the couple "kinda started over," Mr. Gibson said, by adopting three Ugandan daughters.
"The decision was sort of spur of the moment," Mr. Gibson said. "My wife came home one day and said, 'I met this girl and God said that we should take her out.' I said, 'Take her out for lunch or coffee?' I knew what she meant."
After experiencing bureaucratic difficulties adopting their first daughter in 2005, a 12-year-old named Rose who's now 19, the Gibsons hired Mr. Wilfred to make their next two adoptions - of Rachel, now 13, and Nabasumba, now 14 - run more smoothly. All of their parents were either estranged, dead or too poverty-stricken to care for a child.
Mr. Wildred said the Gibsons and HUGS are much welcomed in Uganda, where the ravages of war and AIDS have decimated many regions.
"When everybody is in a constant struggle for survival," he said, "taking on a child is no small consideration. You really find a big number of people who need help. And most people who come from America, you get encouraged and moved by that kind of attitude toward picking up Ugandan children and raising them like they are their own."
Rose paused from perusing the Internet long enough to add, "I feel lucky because I was just one child out of all those people who need help."
The Gibsons try to help as many as they can every year, but monetary constraints are always pressing. The scope of their projects has shrunk: In 2005, for example, the organization raised $150,000 to build a large portion of an overpopulated refugee camp. In recent years, though, considerably less has been spent building a women's bakery in the AIDS-wracked area of Maziba or putting a roof on a community center in a refugee camp.
"Our budget probably won't ever be as high as (it was) in the first years," Mr. Gibson said, "but we will continue. Our philosophy is, we don't want to do the work for the people in Africa. We want to help them get the work done."
Mr. Wilfred left behind his wife and four children in the capital of Kampara, Uganda, recently to visit the Gibsons.
Though he's been to America before - a short jaunt to New York City for a conference - he still can't help but marvel at wonders great and small, how taxes allow children to be students from toddler to adult, how you can drive on a paved road to get just about anywhere.
"And you can drive on the beach," he added.
When visiting the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse just up the road, he had a hard time believing that the structure's light had been powered by kerosene since 1887.
"Less than 12 percent of our country is hooked up to the national power grid," he said. "So you have almost 90 percent of the people without power, mostly peasants. Most of them can't even afford a kerosene lamp, and this one has been used here in America since 1887?"