Those who came out on a recent cold January evening to see the film “Under the Umbrella Tree” at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library caught a glimpse of what life is like in a country where poverty is endemic and crippling. But they also were warmed by hope.
Produced by Mt. Lebanon residents Pauline Greenlick and Louis Picard, the film tells the story of Victoria Naolongo Namusisi, co-founder and director of Bright Kids Uganda.
Ms. Namusisi runs a group home in Uganda that cares for more than 100 abandoned children. Not only does the home give them a place to live, clothing and food, it pays their tuition at local schools.
“There is no free education for children in Uganda,’’ Mr. Picard explained.
Mr. Picard, director of the Ford Institute for Human Security and professor of public and international affairs and African studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has been traveling to Uganda since 1965 when he joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan.
He met Ms. Namusisi five years ago through a friend and was so impressed with her work with orphaned children that he offered his help.
He has raised money in the United States for Bright Kids Uganda, and on his frequent trips to the African nation, he sometimes brings interns from the University of Pittsburgh who teach children at Ms. Namusisi’s group home.
Mr. Picard is accompanied on his trips to Uganda by Ms. Greenlick, his wife, who is an adjunct lecturer and supervisor of special education student teachers at Carlow University.
She thought making a film focusing on Ms. Namusisi’s work would bring a greater awareness of the plight of Uganda’s orphans.
To tell the story, Ms. Greenlick teamed with local filmmaker Leonard Lies of Mt. Lebanon, owner of Dream Catchers Films Inc. of Dormont.
The scale of the problem in the African nation is enormous: More than 2.5 million children have been orphaned and 1.2 million are homeless. Many have AIDS-related diseases.
Thousands more have been captured and enslaved by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group that has ravaged northern Uganda in brutal fighting with the government.
The conflict has pushed thousands of children into camps with little food and limited medical care.
Ms. Namusisi has rescued children from these camps and nurtured them back to health at her group home.
Mr. Lies, who has worked in the film industry since 1981, took on the daunting task of directing the film and editing raw footage shot by Ms. Greenlick while she was in Uganda.
“I would tell her by email we need more footage of [Ms. Namusisi] or other shots,” Mr. Lies said. “I would download them, cutting and editing the footage on the run as it was coming in.”
Through his long hours working on the film, Mr. Lies said he came to know Ms. Namusisi and many of the children she has worked to save. When he recently had the opportunity to travel to Uganda and meet her in person, he said, he felt she was already a friend.
“She’s a wonderful human being,” he said.
Ms. Namusisi was an important government official in the capital Kampala and was the first female sports reporter in Uganda before she dedicated her life to homeless and orphaned children, he said.
The title for the film is based on her method for contacting children in her role as a Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader.
She camped out underneath an umbrella tree and handed out bananas and sugar cane to young people with the hope they would join the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but she soon realized the children had more basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
“She turned her home into an orphanage, and she has adopted some of the children into her own family,” he said.
One young boy depicted in the film lived in the city dump from the time he was 5 years old, competing with goats and dogs to scavenge food.
Ms. Greenlick said sometimes when she hears people in the United States complain about minor annoyances she thinks of the many people in Uganda who struggle day to day just to survive.
“The people are so poor the children are often just abandoned. Ninety-five percent of the children in Bright Kids Uganda would be dead if Ms. Namusisi hadn’t given them a home,” she said.
Ms. Greenlick, who has worked most of her life with disabled children in the United States, said the struggles of disabled children in Uganda are even more formidable.
“Children with disabilities are often considered a curse,” she said.
Ms. Namusisi takes these children into her home, too.
Ms. Greenlick also is impressed by Ms. Namusisi’s commitment to making her work sustainable and the home self-supporting.
The film depicts how the children are learning to raise pigs, chickens and cows for food and for sale so they can earn money to keep Bright Kids Uganda operating.
Most of the money donated in the United States is used for the children’s school tuition, which is the biggest expense, Mr. Picard said.
Recently a group of soccer players in Texas raised $27,000, and two of Mr. Picard’s interns wrote a proposal that earned a $50,000 grant for Bright Kids Uganda.
Mr. Picard said plans are to show the film in local libraries, and he is working to schedule at least five additional screenings. DVDs of the film are available to borrow at the Mt. Lebanon Library, and the DVD can be purchased from Ms. Greenlick at [email protected]. All proceeds go to Bright Kids Uganda.
The program appears to be yielding some long-term benefits. The boy who scavenged in the city dump as a 5-year-old is now studying to become an electrical engineer.