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Hughes takes clean water initiative to South Sudan
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Courtesy Photo: Rev. Walter Hughes Jr. (left) and fellow Rotarian Kenny Lovelace sit with a tribal chief on one of their trips to West Ghana, Africa.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

Rev. Walter Hughes Jr. of Union Hall spearheaded a drive to rid the country of West Ghana in Africa of the guinea worm disease.

The former president of the Rocky Mount Rotary Club knew that the problem was unclean water, and through his efforts, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to dig wells and educate the residents of the country's remote areas.

It took several years, with many fundraising trips to Rotary clubs around the country as well as missions to West Ghana, but the goal was accomplished.

Now, Hughes has turned his attention to South Sudan, a country also plagued by the guinea worm disease because of unclean water.

Hughes and fellow Rotarian and Henry County resident Kenny Lovelace left this week for the country, located in east central Africa.

"Initially, I was afraid," Hughes said. "South Sudan is the newest country in Africa. It gained its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011."

But the country has been plagued with unrest for many years, heightened after independence. Civil war has been a mainstay with government opposition and tribal warfare.

The country is one of the poorest in the world, and there is only one doctor for every 500,000 residents. The population is about 8 million.

"My faith in God helped me to overcome my fear," Hughes said. "I've been able to remain focused on the goal to provide hope and the seeds of peace with clean water to drink."

Hughes, pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Callaway, said the overriding purpose is to have a world where there is no more pain and suffering from the guinea worm disease, which often infects children who drink dirty water.

"We are very close to our goal to eradicate guinea worm disease," he said. "The Carter Center (founded by former President Jimmy Carter), South Sudan Guinea Worm Eradication Program and other organizations have reduced the disease by over 50 percent this year, but they can't get it done without providing clean water."

Hughes said he and Lovelace will help build a new team to dig wells and eradicate the disease in South Sudan.

Rotarians in five Rotary clubs in Tennessee, three Rotary clubs in Virginia, and 40 Rotary clubs in West Virginia, New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, Canada and Switzerland have started raising money for wells in South Sudan, he said.

"We are also raising awareness about the need for safe water in South Sudan with churches and faith-based organizations," he added. "Methodist and Episcopal churches are looking for ways to get involved."

Bethlehem UMC in Moneta, Redwood UMC and the United Methodist Women of Highland UMC are all contributing funds toward the effort.

"We've contacted Samaritan's Purse (charitable organization headed by Rev. Franklin Graham) and a large Methodist church called Ginghamsburg UMC. I've contacted UNICEF, well contractors in South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, and any other group who will listen that people are suffering," he said.

Hughes said the first step, though, was "to pray and to discern whether I was meant to go to South Sudan."

When that question was answered, he needed to find someone willing to go with him.

"Kenny Lovelace will be joining me on this trip to South Sudan," he said. "He is a member of Stone Memorial Christian Church in Martinsville and the Henry County Rotary Club."

Lovelace accompanied Hughes on several trips to West Ghana.

Hughes said he then educated himself on South Sudan and started talking to people already working there. That meant a trip to the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church in Tennessee to learn about its mission and ministry there.

"I also started to make contacts with the Carter Center in Atlanta to express my interest in the situation in South Sudan," he said. "I had to get a visa to enter South Sudan and had to check on my vaccines and anti-malarial medication."

He also contacted members of the Juba Rotary Club (Juba is the capitol city) and the Carter Center in South Sudan to accompany him and Lovelace around the country.

"I knew we needed people with experience to show us the way to get the work done," Hughes said, especially considering that the U.S. State Department issued a warning on Sept. 10 that it is "risky" for Americans to travel there.

"We are registering with the U.S. State Department so that they know we are going there," he said. "We also plan to minimize risks by taking a humanitarian flight from Juba to Kapoeta instead of driving. We will not drive at night between cities."

"We will also avoid the police and military. The precautions that we took in Ghana when I first traveled there will be used on this trip. We will make sure we stay where there is plenty of security, and we will also avoid traveling alone. We are bringing camping gear on the trip because there are not guest houses or hotels in some of the places we are going."

He and Lovelace will meet with David Stobbelaar, the Carter Center director in South Sudan. Staff from the center will be their guides in the Eastern Equatorial State to determine where the wells need to be dug.

"We will start with the communities with the highest number of people suffering from the disease and work down the list," Hughes said. "We will also care for people who are suffering from this disease. Many of them are children. It is our hope that these children will be playing soccer and going to school in the near future."

They will also meet with the Rotarians of the Juba Rotary Club, he said, because the money raised by Rotarians around the world must be spent and managed by the men and women of the Juba Rotary Club.

"It will be necessary to assess whether the Juba Rotarians can do the job," he said. "I will also train them how to manage grants and whatever else they need to learn."

Missionaries from the Methodist and Episcopal church as well as officials with UNICEF, United Nations Mission in South Sudan Islamic Relief Organization will be consulted as well, he said.

Hughes said that if he waited until it is "safe enough" for the visit, he may have to wait a very long time.

"I've learned to put my faith and trust in God," he said. "God has protected me in Ghana and he will protect me in South Sudan."

A note from Mandela Logoge, an advisor to the South Sudan United Methodist Church, steeled his purpose. That letter said, in part: "On behalf of the South Sudanese people, we would like to say you are most welcome and your presence is a big opportunity to the people of South Sudan who were locked up from the rest of the world for more than two decades. We remain the witness of the past today for what had happened in our society. I believe your coming not only will be a material blessing but a spiritual blessing too ... There are many who could not make this sacrifice; however, your manifestation of your program for the sake of the people of South Sudan is a great contribution that could not be easily erased." 

"The seeds of peace need to be planted to replace the decades of war," Hughes said. "If we don't help to give people hope for the future, then who will? Mandela made me realize that the gift of time will make a big difference."

Hughes and Lovelace will stay in the country for two weeks, returning here on Oct. 15.

"It is hard for me to leave my family because I love them so much," Hughes said. "I asked my son, Johnny, whether I should go to South Sudan. He said, 'It is what you do. I tell my friends that you help to give people clean water to drink and you go to Africa.' The journey is worth it whether we are able to see guinea worm disease gone from this world or not."

Hughes said the people in his church also understand that he has been called to do these tasks.

"They understood God's call on my life," he said. "Many churches ask me to preach to tell the story of the amazing things that God can do when we are willing to go."

"This is my way to give back to God. I feel that we are all given a gift to serve God in amazing ways. It is up to us to find out how we are meant to serve Him. I'm meant to go to the places that are at the ends of the earth to tell them that God loves them and that with God all things are possible."

Hughes said the farmer in the film, "Faith Like Potatoes," may sum it up best when he says: "Feel this potato. Smell it. Your faith in God needs to be real. You need to be able to feel God, smell God and touch God. Your faith needs to be like a potato."

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