By Christopher Smith
To the roughly 350 children living in the village of Nakaseke in central Uganda, Mason Satterfield is known as “Dad.”
“You can’t even express the joy that brings,” Satterfield said.
So the heartbreak he felt when he returned to Nakaseke after several months away only to find one of “his kids” gone after losing a battle with tuberculosis and HIV is “very hard to deal with.”
That’s a common problem in the country, but the grief it brings to Satterfield is not enough to make him quit his efforts there.
Satterfield, a 2010 Northwest Whitfield High School graduate and Varnell resident, never saw himself becoming a missionary until a fluke meeting with Simone Puccinelli while both were students at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. Puccinelli had started a Cartersville-based nonprofit organization called Simone’s Kids (simoneskids.com).
The organization has been building a school, called God’s Hope Primary, for the village since 2012, completing several classrooms and bathrooms last year and currently working to finish a cafeteria, clinic and kitchen.
The prior school was “dangerous, dilapidated and falling apart,” Satterfield said.
He said he heard about the need when Puccinelli temporary bunked with him and a friend for a few weeks during a roommate change.
“She told me that she was going on a month-long trip in June (2012) to break ground on the school and asked if I wanted to go,” Satterfield said. “I absolutely fell in love with it, being around all those kids. When I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized this was going to be more than just a one-time trip.”
A different world
Satterfield’s first trip came with the culture shock most might expect from entering a Third World country. He described the village as a city with “two main roads that are paved and that’s it.”
While there were “parts of the capital (Kampala) trying to become first world,” most of the country is “very poor,” Satterfield said. Government-controlled electricity is scarce, food is limited to rice, potatoes, beans and occasional meat, and “desperation” is palpable on the faces of the country’s malnourished children.
Nakaseke, located south of Kampala, is a place where children “celebrate a soda,” Satterfield said. Marisa Roy, also a 2010 Northwest graduate and a student at Lee University who travels often with Satterfield, said “it takes a lot to adjust” to life there.
“For us, we’re coming from this place where you can get anything at any time,” she said.
Satterfield returned to Uganda in the summer of 2013, then again that following autumn on a solo trip for several months.
“Simone told me about going on longer trips by myself,” he said. “She said, ‘It’s a pretty clear sign that you’re cut out for it.’”
Roy also went on a solo trip for a few weeks, but there were times Satterfield was the only American in the village.
Satterfield said “there’s a lot of desperation” in Nakaseke that can be hard to cope with emotionally.
“For example, there was a little boy named Marvin,” he said. “He is roughly six years old. They don’t do birthdays over there, so it’s confusing with age sometimes. He came to school last summer, back in 2013, and he was moping around, looking sad, and he had knots on his head.”
Marvin’s father, Satterfield said, came home drunk one night and beat him “until he was on the floor.”
“He is one of the most malnourished kids at school, he had no defense,” Satterfield added.
In America, most people aware of such a situation would likely turn to protective support organizations like the Division of Family and Children Services. But in Uganda?
“Law enforcement is twisted,” Satterfield said. “You just slip them some money and they look away.”
After discovering a second beating, Satterfield said he and other school officials took it upon themselves to track down Marvin’s grandmother, who now has custody.
“She is really old, but she does everything she can to take care of Marvin,” he said. “He’s a really, really stubborn kid. Seeing how many kids come from a background like that, you realize that even a hug could make their entire week.”
Faith in ‘desperation’
Satterfield and Roy, both Christians, said seeing such desperation can “take a toll” on their faith.
“It’s hard,” Roy said. “It does impact you emotionally and spiritually. Everything does. But, at the end of the day, I was so fulfilled to be around these children who want nothing more than to hold your hand and give you a hug. There’s nothing more fulfilling.”
Satterfield said the troubles plaguing Nakaseke are “hard to cope with and bring me several sleepless nights.”
“I think about them every single day,” he said, “even when I’m sitting here back home with my entire family thinking, ‘I’m happy and there’s nothing going wrong here.’ In the back of my head, I know that all my favorite kids in the world might not be eating right now.”
But his faith in God stays strong “because of their faith.”
“Those kids have some of the strongest faiths I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Their faith is what gets them through day-to-day life. They can’t rely on anything else but God. They’ve shown me more about faith than any revival or church scene has.”
The hardest part for Roy is the “disconnect” she feels with American friends, she said.
“It’s hard when you have someone you’re close to and you come back with the stories and pictures, you try to explain it, but they don’t quite get it,” she said. “The smallest little things mean the whole world to these kids. I would do anything for these kids.”
Satterfield said most people — including his family, friends and members of Varnell Methodist Church — have been “overwhelmingly supportive.”
“Knowing that there’s a whole church praying for the kids helps,” he said.
But most Americans still “don’t get it,” he added.
“It’s never enough here,” he said of the difference between American materialism and Ugandan desperation. “No one is happy with what they have here.”
More than 350 kids screaming ‘Dad’
Satterfield said he has risen in the ranks at Simone’s Kids and is the vice president of the organization, spending a few days of the week in Cartersville to help network and promote the nonprofit.
Now a Dalton State College student, he plans to return to Nakaseke during school breaks with hopes of longer trips after he gets a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
He said he misses the village. A lot.
“At points there was some homesickness for here (Varnell),” he said. “The Internet we had in Uganda was off a USB stick, so I could Skype every few weeks with my mom and dad and brothers and friends. And I would miss them.
“At the same time, when you’re missing everyone at home, you look down and there’s 350 kids yelling your name, running around calling you ‘Dad.’ And I would look at them and think, ‘I’m not homesick.’”
“I’m going to try to get there every summer,” she said. “But if the opportunity arose for me to live over there, I would do that, too.”
Satterfield said the school is “coming along,” adding that the organization is always looking for help. Anyone interested can reach him on his cellphone at (706) 271-7350 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.