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Newton group finds challenging mission in Africa

Twenty-two members of the First Lutheran Church in Newton spent three weeks in Tanzania, constructing a birthing center in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The group had expected to be building an eye clinic, however the construction materials were delayed in a dock strike, so they concentrated their efforts on a birthing clinic instead. Submitted photos

When 22 members of the First Lutheran Church in Newton made a commitment to travel to Tanzania for a building project, the work that was waiting for them was not what they were expecting. The First Lutheran Church had been working with a missionary couple in Tanzania, Paula and Dr. Dennis Lofstrom. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, East Lake Victoria Diocese, had asked the Lofstroms to help build a medical clinic there, and gave the building to the church for that purpose. The vision was to construct an eye clinic on the medical clinic campus, because the area is much in need of critical eyecare. The local tribal people believe in witchcraft, and red eyes are a sign that someone is practicing witchcraft. Unfortunately, for many of the elderly women of the area, who tend to the fires, their use of dung for burning because of the scarcity of firewood, turns their eyes red, and they are at risk of being killed. In addition, many believe there is no cure for cataracts, so surgery has never been an option. The Newton First Lutheran Church and one in Overland Park, Kan. began raising funds to build the eye clinic on the health center campus in Mwanza. “The Kansas church’s mission fell through, so our church rallied and raised the funds,” said Marie Quanbeck, a First Lutheran member and member of the Tanzanian mission. A container of building supplies and materials for the eye clinic was sent in April, in hopes that it would arrive shortly before the Newton group arrived on July 8. Unfortunately, red tape and a dock strike held up the container, as well as a second container of medical equipment for the eye clinic. “A huge job was waiting for us, but not the one we went for,” said Rex Thompson, who made the trip to Tanzania. Instead, the group found supplies waiting for them for a birthing clinic, another project for the health center campus. While the Newton group was in Mwanza, a team from Wolfe Clinic arrived to conduct cataract surgery, so they used a ward in the medical center. The eye team saw 300 patients during their stay. At first, there were few patients, because the tribal members felt blindness was irreversible, but soon word spread that folks could be made to see again. Meanwhile, the Newton team went to work on the birthing center. “We were a multi-generational team,” Thompson said, “with the oldest at 70 and the youngest at 12. We had three complete families, three Eagle Scouts, two Boy Scouts, four engineers and two teachers.” Thompson said the engineers came in handy, because the birthing center design was complicated and the construction methods, utilizing an aluminum wire mesh that holds concrete walls in place, was something most of the team was not familiar with. Rolling blackouts complicated the project as well, requiring a couple of generators on the work site. Ultimately, though, the group completed their portion of the construction, which will be finished by another church group. “It was also very important to work closely with the Tanzanian crew,” said Joee Williams. “They learned a lot of skills from our guys as well.” The concrete walls and wire mesh allows the buildings to withstand the many tremors felt in the area. Members of the Newton team said the experience was one they were very glad to have. “I was amazed at how warm and friendly they were,” said Chris Forsyth. Christina Thompson, a junior this year at Newton Senior High School said she had a very close relationship with the team’s cook, and she hoped to make a return trip someday. “I’d like to see the building I worked on being used,” she said. Infant and maternal mortality rates are very high in Tanzania, so the birthing center is an important project. Rex Thompson said there were no major mishaps during the trip, although one of the Tanzanian crew injured his hand with a drill. The team returned to Newton on July 30, after spending three weeks overseas. Francis Gunda, Bishop of East of Lake Victoria Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania is planning on making a reciprocal visit to the Newton First Lutheran Church, as well as the missionaries Paula and Dennis Lofstrom. The Tanzania travelers are planning a presentation to the congregation and the public, complete with Power Point and photos on Sept. 21, 5 p.m. at the First Lutheran Church, 309 E. Third St. N., which will be preceded by a potluck supper.

John Jennings can be contacted at 792-3121 ext. 425 or via e-mail at jennings@newtondailynews.com.

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