Brian Johnson Special Correspondent
The Ada News
An act of generosity by Richard Kirabira and Charles Mugabi came full circle at East Central University’s fall graduation on Saturday.
Their life-changing act in March of 2010 has led to the two Ugandan men obtaining their master’s degrees during ceremonies at ECU’s Kerr Activities Center.
“Charles and Richard are not only great students, but have proven to be outstanding individuals,” said ECU President John Hargrave. “They have brought a lot of leadership qualities with them and will take even more back to Uganda with this additional educational opportunity. Our current and future students can aspire to the standards they set through their morals and character.”
The story began over two years ago when ECU President John Hargrave traveled to Gulu, Uganda, with Pros for Africa, an Oklahoma City-based organization that aids disadvantaged African children by drilling water wells, providing doctors and medical care as well as teaching life skills.
Upon landing, it was discovered that Hargrave’s luggage was lost. But Kirabira and Mugabi waited three days at the airport for the American’s lost luggage to arrive and drove it five hours through a civil war-torn area to deliver it to him.
Gulu is in northern Uganda where rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army fought government troops for years and brutally terrorized defenseless villagers, regularly seeking children to replenish their military ranks. They also kidnapped girls, forced them to become sex slaves and often mutilated or killed them.
"We didn’t encounter any problems but we went through some scary parts of Northern Uganda,” said Mugabi.
Once Hargrave received the luggage from Kirabira and Mugabi, the Ugandan pair would not take money and compensation from Hargrave for their efforts.
“The principle we live by is helping others without expecting a reward.” Mugabi said.
But Hargrave’s gratefulness for the massive deed didn’t go void as the pair was invited to the United States to attend ECU and receive their master’s degrees, thanks to funding help from Reggie Whitten and the Pros for Africa organization.
“Part of our principle was service. If we would have taken the money, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Kirabira.
That decision has led to the pair broadening their education for a lifetime.
“It’s been a life-changing time for me. In the classroom, I’ve learned a lot and because of the exposure to things outside of class and the interaction with students and the community,” Kirabira said. “To receive love from the community and to open their homes for us has been great.”
Kirabira, who is receiving his master’s in accounting, has certainly expanded his understanding of the U.S. and its culture as well as being exposed to the other cultures of international students at ECU.
He remembers the challenges he faced when he first arrived, particularly the culture shock.
“People could not understand me when I talked. I saw a video of when I first arrived and couldn’t believe it was me,” said Kirabira. “My language and my perspective on things have changed. Right now I’m looking at this as a global thing because of my interaction with people here.”
There have been obvious hurdles for the pair to overcome, particularly missing their home country, family and friends, along with the adjustments to American life.
“We had to adjust to the food and intrusive weather here,” Mugabi said. “It was a challenge to fully settle down and get used to the pace, but the friendships we developed here made us feel at home. After our time here though, we agree that America is a great nation!"
Murabi, who will earn his master’s in human resources, embraces the relationships and friendships that have developed along the way the past two years.
"Having a personal relationship with Mr. Hargrave, to me is the fondest memory. I come from a high-power distance culture where students cannot easily talk to the university president, but ECU has a lovely leader, down to earth and actively involved in campus life. That quality is rare among most leaders,” said Mugabi. “The other fond memory is the love, care and support offered to Richard and me by our friend Reggie Whitten. It has been that time in our school life when we have lacked nothing. Reggie is a loving man that everyone needs to meet.”