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The tourist who broke the rules and fell in love with Uganda

By Vision Reporter

Added 14th October 2007 03:00 AM

WHEN Steve Cobin talks about Uganda, it is as if he were born here, grew up in the country all his life, and then immigrated to the USA.

WHEN Steve Cobin talks about Uganda, it is as if he were born here, grew up in the country all his life, and then immigrated to the USA.

By Opiyo Oloya

WHEN Steve Cobin talks about Uganda, it is as if he were born here, grew up in the country all his life, and then immigrated to the USA.

The reverse is true—Steve, as he likes to be called, is an American who fell deeply in love with the people of Uganda that he feels the country in his veins, and cannot stay away for more than a few months at a time. Yet it happened almost by pure accident.

What began as a nature tour to see the rare silverback gorillas turned into a passionate life-long determination to help change the lives of Ugandan children for the better, earning him an award at the recently concluded Uganda North America Association convention in San Francisco.

Born and educated in Chicago, Illinois, Steve moved to California soon after completing Northwestern University, and stayed to become a wealthy stockbroker. His life was very busy creating financial opportunities for others and for his family.

An inquisitive adventurer who enjoys discovering the world, Steve travelled to many parts of the world over the years. In 1988, he took a 30-day tour through Africa, visiting Kenya, Tanzania, and Egypt, before travelling to Israel.

He enjoyed the jaunt, but wanted to return specifically to see the gorillas in Bwindi Nature Reserve in western Uganda. In August 2000, Steve arrived in Uganda with a group to watch the gorillas in Bwindi.

On his stopover at Gatwick Airport in London, he ran into Mrs. Jacqueline Mbabazi who, upon learning he was on his way to Uganda, introduced him to other Ugandans on the plane. In passing, Steve told Mrs.

Mbabazi that he was a board member of a charity called Wheels for Humanity which provides wheel chairs for disabled children, and that he would be keen to meet a Ugandan who could become a contact for the organisation.

Steve’s tour took him to Bwindi, where the tour operators warned the group to stay strictly on the officially sanctioned route. because in February 1999, just a year earlier, the world had been shocked by the brutal murder of eight tourists, apparently by Hutu militias.

However, the day after making contact with the gorillas, Steve fell ill and decided to stay behind in camp while his group went off for more sight-seeing. Not one to sit idly, he soon got bored and convinced his guide to go for a walk in the neighbouring villages.

He knew he was breaking the first rule of being a good tourist—never get off the beaten path—but did it anyway.

In the village, Steve spied a school, and peeking inside was amazed at the bare classrooms that lacked even the most basic resources.

He spoke to the headmaster, and Steve promised that he would communicate from America. Unfortunately, his attempts to contact the headmaster were futile.

In the meantime, Steve returned to Kampala where he met a lawyer, Charles Odere, who introduced the Californian to the Kampala East Rotary Club.

At a subsequent meeting one evening, Steve heard Faith Philo Kunihira from Kyenjojo speak of the orphans in Kaihura village near Fort Portal.

Her organisation, Bringing Hope to the Family, was working to raise funds to build homes for orphans as well as educate them. Steve remembers leaning toward Odere and whispering, “Do you trust this woman?” The lawyer nodded in the affirmative.

That was the response that Steve needed before plunging head-long into
helping the orphans of Kaihura.
And without knowing it, Steve had broken the second important rule of being a good tourist—do not fall in love with the natives.

He promised on the spot to donate money to build the first ten homes. Within six months, homes were built for orphans in Kaihura, Iganga and Pallisa.

Steve and his wife Sue came for the opening ceremonies, and he has returned regularly ever since to initiate other projects.

I do not have to worry because I have many wonderful people in Uganda watching over my money to ensure it is doing good work,” he says quietly.

Embraced by the people of Uganda, Steve and Sue responded with warmth. They decided to spend the American Thanksgiving holiday with their new extended family in Uganda.

Americans all over the world tend to return home to be with family on this day. The couple bought three turkeys which were prepared at a hotel in Kampala and served complete with all the trimmings to 100 guests.

It was one of the most special Thanksgivings we ever had,” Steve recalls fondly.

When asked to imagine the many lives he has touched with his generosity, the successful businessman, used to conducting multi-million dollar deals daily, is tongue-tied with emotion.

“Give me time because I cannot speak right now,” he says while trying to hold back tears.

When he regains his composure, Steve explains why he does what he does. He tells the story of losing his mother to cancer soon after he completed university, caring for one of his children who was born with birth defects, and losing Daryl, his 18-year old son in a motorcycle accident in 1986.

“I learned at a very young age about helping people in need even when you are yourself suffering. I know what the parents of those children are experiencing because I have been on that route myself,” he says.

Steve, who is Jewish, is happy to give his free time and money to other charities closer to home in California without consideration of race and religious affiliation.

The Daryl Cobin Memorial Scholarship, named after his late son, has provided many scholarships to needy students for college and university education. In fact, his closest business associate Raymond Lew was a recipient of the Daryl Cobin Memorial Scholarship.

Once a project has been identified, Steve and Sue’s enthusiastic generosity knows no bounds. As the Chairman of the Board of Wheels for Humanity, and working in partnership with Rotary, Steve and Wheels for Humanity spearheaded the delivery of several consignments of medical equipment and wheelchairs to Uganda valued in excess of US$ 500,000 (sh875m) in just two years, and another worth over $600,000 (sh1050m) to be delivered by year’s end.

Over the last four years, Steve and Sue have donated over $100,000 (sh175m) for the education and medical care of over 1,200 Ugandan children.

In one particular case, Steve had to get personally involved in saving a young girl named Jane Kemigisa from Kaihura. In June 2006, he received a heart-breaking e-mail from Faith Kunihira about the girl who was about to turn eight years old.

From what he could gather, Jane’s father had succumbed to AIDS, leaving his family a grass-thatched home sitting on a four-acre piece of land.

Two uncles desperate to snatch the property hatched a plan to wipe out Jane’s family, and carried it out with deadly precision, killing Jane’s mother and sister.

Jane received several machete cuts and a hammer blow to the head and was left for dead. She was discovered the following day and taken for medical attention in Fort Portal, and later transferred to Mulago.

However, while doctors at Mulago knew what to do, they lacked the facilities to provide the care that Jane needed to heal.

Without wasting another minute, Steve began pushing all the buttons to get Jane out of Uganda. He got the support of Mending Kids International, a non-profit organisation that provides free medical care for children from around the world.

Using his business savvy to get things done, he obtained both US and UK transit visas within four days, and Jane was ready to travel to America for treatment.

The only thing that Steve had not counted on was the fact that Jane spoke only Rutoro and a smattering of Kiswahili, but no English. He only spoke English. Undeterred, he got Faith to write down a few translated Rutoro words which he practiced diligently.

Using a combination of sign language and simple English words, he was able to communicate with Jane.

“I remember sitting on the floor of our hotel room in Kampala, waiting outside the closed bathroom door while Jane took showers, ready to get in should she get into trouble.

But she is a very smart girl, and a quick learner who often figured out things before I told her,” Steve says with a laugh.

However, the most difficult part of the journey was in the UK as they waited for the connection flight to America. “The whole time, I was on tenterhook, afraid of losing her because she spoke no English,” he admitted.

As it turned out, the only harrowing part of the trip was when Steve and Jane arrived in California, and were met by an official from Mending Kids International who immediately took control of Jane, cutting her off from the only person she trusted.

Although, he will not say anything negative about the organisation that has helped Jane to heal completely, Steve will only say that the official was clearly acting in self-interest. Today, Jane is a happy child who recently celebrated her ninth birthday in North Carolina.

Steve and Sue flew across the USA to attend the event. “We are ecstatic that Jane finally found Paige and Dirk Hamp who love her, take care of her needs, and will raise her as a daughter to her full potential in adulthood.

We are convinced that she will one day return to help her people,” says the financier.

So what’s next for Steve? Already in the works is a medical centre in Kaihura, toward which Steve and Sue have put $40,000(sh70m). More of the same, he says simply.

“Look, Uganda has become part of our lives, and we will do everything possible to bring education to those children who would not otherwise get it. I have an even bigger ambition to help out,” he says.

Working with family, friends and business associates, Steve has partnered with others to create a non-governmental organisation called Embrace Uganda ( that will become the channel through which medical, financial and educational resources will be sent to Uganda.

All this from the tourist who chose to stray off the beaten path, fall in love with the people and stay to help them.

The tourist who broke the rules and fell in love with Uganda

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