Dr. Winifred Constable's Goodwill Medical Efforts in Uganda

A local doctor comes face-to-face with extreme poverty in Uganda—and she can’t stay away.

THIRD WORLD PERSPECTIVE: Dr. Winifred Constable in her Bryn Mawr office. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
The line of men, women and children seems to stretch on endlessly—all of them hoping Dr. Winifred Constable can remedy their suffering. In a makeshift clinic set up under a tree in Sirimula, a remote village in Uganda’s Kiboga District, the Main Line physician readies herself for a 14-hour day of treating a variety of ailments, ranging from malaria to parasites.

The Africans in this village are primarily Rwandan refugees who, more than two decades earlier, fled the genocide in their country. They live in an extreme state of poverty, the likes of which few Westerners have ever witnessed firsthand. Virtually everyone is barefoot, wears rags for clothing, and works for a mere dollar per week in the fields.

On this summer day, Constable’s first patient is a man who looks to be about 70 years old. Through a translator, he asks if she remembered what she promised on her last visit. She produces a pair of reading glasses, and his face beams. It was simple moments like this—coupled with more intense times, like when she administered antibiotics to save the life of a little girl who’d fallen into a fire—that sealed Constable’s devotion to the people of Uganda. “When you leave a place like that, it’s not possible to go home and say, ‘What an amazing experience,’ and close the door and never go back,” says Constable.

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Constable made her first excursion to Uganda eight years ago. Since then, she’s returned twice a year for at least two weeks at a time. Her youngest daughter, Gigi, was 16 years old when she saw a show on CNN about African orphans. “I told her, ‘We can collect pennies and send them to a deserving orphanage in Africa,’” says Constable.

But Gigi insisted on more, collecting information on Mentor Volunteers, a community-based charity that supports children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Central Uganda’s Nansana village. Gigi reached out to them with the intention of going herself, but then the head of the orphanage heard that her mom was a doctor. “I can’t take any credit,” Gigi says. “What my mother is doing is far beyond what I could’ve ever imagined.”

Constable was certain the trip would be a life-altering experience for her daughter. Little did she know, it would profoundly affect her. “We talked to people who’d been there before, and with a leap of faith, we made our first trip over there,” Constable says. “It’s a culture shock when you go from a place like Uganda back to the luxuries of America. It’s impossible to forget these people.”

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SENSE OF RELIEF: Bryn Mawr’s Dr. Winifred Constable made her first visit to Uganda at the urging of her daughter. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
From her office at Bryn Mawr Primary Care, Dr. Winifred Constable practices internal medicine with a focus on the science of obesity. She tries to relay the severity of the conditions in Uganda, but she knows that words don’t do it justice. On her first trip over, Constable had 36 hours to let her imagination run wild. The reality was much worse. “It was appalling,” says Constable.

At the Uganda orphanage, the children were barely dressed, starving, and sleeping on dirt floors. There were four teachers for 600 students.

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Constable felt an immediate connection with orphanage director Segawa Ephraim. That first trip, her daughter taught at the primary school while she worked at the clinic—nothing more than a room with a table, a chair, and a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling that flickered on and off. She had no medical equipment or any of the medication she needed, but she made due with what she had. “The infectious diseases are rampant and everywhere,” says Constable. “In America, if I’m not here for a patient, there will be another doctor. No one is going to die due to a lack of access to medical care. In Uganda, they would.”

Medical care isn’t the only thing Constable provides. She has also set up the nonprofit Ugandan Nansana Kiboga Fund, named after the areas she serves. Through her foundation, Constable has revived the lower school (kindergarten through eighth grade), while spearheading construction of an upper school. She typically raises about $50,000 a year through private donations. “They spent $13 million renovating Radnor Middle School; I can build a whole building for $20,000 in Uganda,” she says.

A high school degree in Africa is the equivalent of a college degree in the United States, so an upper school will offer students a greater chance at improving their lives. “Dr. Winifred Constable is not just a volunteer, but a mother to all of us here at our orphanage schools and in our community in Uganda,” says Ephraim via email. “She is our superior supporter. It is rare in this world to meet a person like her who has genuinely dedicated her life to serving others.”

Constable’s daughter shares Ephraim’s sentiments. “My mom is unbelievable,” says the 22-year-old Harvard University senior, who is majoring in pre-med. “She’s incredibly motivated and so energetic about doing everything in her power to help the people of Uganda.”

Gigi and her older siblings, Luke and Caroline, have all traveled to Uganda with their mother. Constable’s husband, John, has yet to make the trip, but he’s been extremely supportive. He has joined her in sponsoring the college education of John Ssalli, a young Ugandan man now studying industrial engineering at Makerere University, the best school in Eastern Africa.

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Orphaned at the age of 5, Ssalli “is extremely bright,” says Constable. “He scored in the top 10 percent of the country when he took his college entrance exams. He was competing with students who went to some of the top private schools in Africa.”

On her most recent trip to Uganda, Constable brought along 30 suitcases packed with clothing, medicine, food and 400 pairs of shoes. “There’s no infrastructure for mail, so I can’t ship anything over ahead of time because it will get lost or stolen,” she says.

When she returned home, all she had were the clothes on her back and her empty suitcases. At the gate in Uganda, she gave her sneakers to Ephraim and wore
slippers for the trip home. She’d promised them to one of the orphans, and she wanted to keep her word.

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