By Elizabeth Callahan
One day in 2003, Gus Zuehlke walked down to his basement office at St. Bavo’s Church in
Mishawaka, Indiana to find visiting Ugandan priest Fr. Bob Binta crying at his computer.
Alarmed, Gus said, “What are you weeping about, Father Binta? Father, what is it?” Fr. Binta
replied, “There is an insurgency in my country, in the north of my country, and a woman got
killed, hacked to death by machetes with her baby outside one of the camps.” Having no idea
about the devastating war which Uganda was in the midst of, Gus asked Fr. Binta to explain.
After Fr. Binta explained the situation in Uganda to him, Gus recounted that “All I could do
was pray with him.”
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing the founders of BOSCO-Uganda, Fr. Dr. Joseph
Okumu and Gus Zuehlke, about BOSCO’s origin. Fr. Joe obtained his anthropology doctorate
degree in Rome, served as the first Executive Director of BOSCO-Uganda from 2007-2020,
and currently sits on BOSCO-Uganda’s Board of Directors. He also juggles this duty with his
church-given roles as the Rector of wiPolo Martyr’s Shrine in Paimol, northern Uganda.
Gus, who currently serves as the President of the US-based BOSCO Inc, graduated from the
The University of Notre Dame with a degree in Theology in 1980 and has taught religion at St.
Bavo’s Church for the last thirty-one years, having settled into the role in July 1990.
Six months after their emotional conversation, Fr. Binta, who at the time was the Catholic
Chaplain to the Parliament in Uganda would give Gus the opportunity to travel to Uganda to
talk to catholic parliamentarians at their retreat.
Gus jumped at the opportunity and in December of 2003, after delivering at the retreat, he opted against the advice of his host Fr. Binta and decided to visit the warzone in Northern Uganda. They flew to Gulu where Gus experienced the destruction caused by the war first-hand in visiting the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in northern Uganda. While in Gulu he also visited the Catechists Training Center, where he first met the director of the training center, Fr. Joe, and kept in close contact.
Gus visited the warzone two more times and upon his return to the south, grappled with the
trauma his experience in northern Uganda had burdened him with. With his trauma came the
resolve for him to act.
In 2006 at St. Bavo’s, after his three visits to the IDP camps in northern Uganda, an idea
came to him. He thought, “Do you think we could use that technology they use in internet
cafés to bounce a signal into the displacement camps?” He emailed Fr. Joe with the idea.
Just as Gus felt a motivation to help those struggling in Uganda, Fr. Joe had a similar
reaction to help his people. He asked, “What can we do to end this kind of suffering?” No
better idea than communication came to his mind, adding, “communication would be the best
means to resolve all the divides, both political and geographical.”
At a time when there were 251 IDP camps spread across the eleven districts of northern
Uganda, Fr. Joe, and Gus’s idea was to connect the camps digitally by providing free internet
access to the IDP. This project would help foster communication with the outside world and
aid in peacebuilding following the humanitarian crisis that had caused massive loss of lives
and displaced more than two million people.
As a tribute to St John BOSCO, Gus suggested the name for the organization and came up
with the acronym: Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach. On January 31, 2007, thirteen months from the time the idea had cropped up, the first computers for BOSCO-Uganda arrived. Coincidentally, this was also the feast day of St. John Bosco. “We went from idea to deployment in 13 months, so that was kind of crazy,” Gus said.
“We went from idea to deployment in 13 months, so that was kind of crazy.”
By the time the first computers had arrived, the 2006 truce facilitated by Archbishop John Baptist
Odama had already been ratified, signifying the end of the war in Uganda. However, given
the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country, BOSCO-Uganda was still necessary.
As time passed, BOSCO’s goals and the focus shifted with the needs of the people. Although in
2007 the greatest need for the internet was in the IDP camps, as the country restabilized, the
the greatest need for internet access became rural farmers, who make up 90% of the Ugandan
Integrating Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into agriculture allows
farmers to add value to their crop production, get to the market more directly, and increases
their chance of breaking the cycle of poverty for their families. Fr. Joe illustrated, “My dream
is to see farmers under a tree with a computer in Kampala ordering a truck of cabbages (a
crop that is not grown in Kampala).” BOSCO helps give internet access and ICT education in
schools, and the non-profit is working to expand its network to help healthcare facilities.
Throughout our discussion, Gus emphasized the importance of keeping BOSCO’s
management entirely in Uganda. He explained how BOSCO Inc., which he runs in the U.S.,
has only three jobs: raising money, building partnerships, and vetting technology. He stated:
“I felt like the Uganda blessing was us sharing technology, and Uganda sharing wisdom
with us. We’ve gotten the better part of the deal—I believe very strongly—between Fr.
Joe’s love for his people and his brilliance in anthropology and Archbishop Odama’s
commitment for peace, not only in Northern Uganda, but in the whole region, and, indeed, the whole world.”
“I felt like the Uganda blessing was us sharing technology, and Uganda sharing wisdom with us. We’ve gotten the better part of the deal—I believe very strongly—between Fr. Joe’s love for his people and his brilliance in anthropology and Archbishop Odama’s commitment for peace, not only in Northern Uganda, but in the whole region, and, indeed, the whole world.”
For Gus, the 14-yr journey of BOSCO-Uganda has been an adventure, a project born out of
his sheer desire to respond to the plight of the people of northern Uganda. “I’m an unlikely person to start a project in Africa but I took it on because I couldn’t stand what I saw in that warzone, so it’s all because of that…I wanted to do something that would make a difference,” he says.
Another focal point of our conversation was the foundation of religion and faith throughout
the entire history of BOSCO-Uganda. Fr. Joe stressed the sustained conviction of faith behind
the mission of BOSCO. Communication at BOSCO is more than just the ability to send an
email; communication is divine, communication is Jesus, and communication is God made
man. BOSCO, then, continues the mission of Christ to communicate God to the people. As
Fr. Joe put it: “If and when we ran short of money, if and when we ran short of ideas, we never ran short of Christ. Christ is always there.”
“If and when we ran short of money, if and when we ran short of ideas, we never ran short of Christ. Christ is always there.”
Both Fr. Joe and Gus’s wisdom was especially on display when I asked them about the
lessons they had learned from each other throughout their friendship. Fr. Joe explained how
Gus taught him how to better follow Christ’s path in charity, as the Church calls us to do. He
also talked about learning the importance of the common good, which both individuals have
always been on a quest to find. Gus expounded on the point of the common good remarking:
“The common good has so many levels, and it always starts locally with the principle of
subsidiarity… Decisions need to be made with the people closest to and most affected by the decisions on our minds.” He also discussed the importance of respecting our common humanity, explaining how Fr. Joe taught him the “difficult process of building bridges where other people want to build walls.”
“The common good has so many levels, and it always starts local with the principle of subsidiarity…. Decisions need to be made with the people closest to and most affected by the decisions on our minds.”
Both Fr. Joe and Gus place their hope and faith for a successful future for BOSCO-Uganda in
the younger generations. When asked what advice they had for young people striving to start
an organization and make an impact as they have, Fr. Joe explained: “When you listen to
yourself, you realize that you are one among many. And when you discover the one next to
you, then you will eventually look at the commonality, what is common to you both, what is
common to you all. That is going to define the kind of project or organization you are going
to find.” Gus spoke in a similar way about having empathy for others, saying we need to have
a “sympathetic understanding of other people by being willing to pass over to them and then
come back to yourself with new insight as to what you’re going to do.”
“When you listen to yourself, you realize that you are one among many. And when you discover the one next to you, then you will eventually look at the commonality, what is common to you both, what is common to you all. That is going to define the kind of project or organization you are going to find.”
Gus also emphasized the role of providence in finding our purpose and vocation, quoting
John Dunne, a theology professor from Notre Dame: “Things are meant. There are signs. The
heart speaks. And there is a way.”
This article was written by Elizabeth Callahan, a student at Notre Dame University who interned with BOSCO Uganda in the summer of 2021.