Saving Whoville: The Tale of One Small Non-profit's Battle For the Mental Health of Uganda

By Marcia Robertson Sweet


I debated the merits of quitting up until the day I started at Finemind. A 10-week internship with a small mental health nonprofit working in Uganda? Not even close to a “rock star” career-enhancing move.


But I kept returning to three simple facts: 1.) I gave my word, and my word was my bond. 2.) I wanted to be a good example to my sons, and quitting your job before it begins doesn’t seem like a good way to do that. And, 3.) I did not want to bring reproach to my university. So off to Finemind I went.


The journey was not a long one – from my bedroom to our family’s office, about 10 feet. But from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., five days a week for 10 weeks, I crisscrossed the United States, scrambled around Europe, and trekked across Africa looking for money to help people I will never meet. While I may have wanted to be a rock star, Finemind needed a grant researcher.


I wish I could say I fell in love with the vision of Finemind’s founder and Executive Director Pavel Reppo as soon as I joined. I didn’t. Almost 10 years ago, he visited Uganda and was moved by the plight of the mentally ill in that country. He’s been returning annually to help ever since. His passion resulted in the creation of Finemind, a small community of likeminded individuals in Uganda and the U.S. working to confront the mental health issues in the Agogo District. I was a harder sell.


As a journalist, I covered the rise and fall of many good-hearted, civic-minded organizations started by good-hearted, civic-minded people working hard to save their communities. But when it comes to Finemind, I am ashamed to admit Horton had better perception than I did. In the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who, Horton the elephant is enjoying a splash in a pool when he hears a cry for help. He springs into action and rescues the speck of dust he believes is home to one person. However, his assumption is false: That speck of dust holds the entire civilization of Whos. Uttering one of modern literature’s oft-repeated lines – “A person’s a person, no matter how small” – Horton proceeds to fight to save people he has never seen.


It took photos to convict me. Not the successes celebrated on Finemind’s website, but the photos I found while searching for other agencies to join Finemind’s crusade. Photos of mentally ill people chained to trees, exposed to the elements with rags for covering. Photos of disheartened women not noticing the babies at their breasts. Photos of haunted men staring off into the distance.


And then there was the story Pavel shared in a 2019 Forbes article. A mother brings her 1-year-old daughter to the local health clinic for a check-up. While there, she confides to the health worker that she has been under a lot of stress. Her husband left, forcing her to become the sole provider for her three children, mother, and sister. Adding to her worries was the recent loss of a job. To this woman there was only one solution: adding rat poison to her dinner that night. As providence would have it, that health-care provider had been trained by Finemind to recognize the symptoms of depression and implement treatment.


As a happily married wife and mother with a job I love, her story is my worst nightmare. What would I do in that situation? Truthfully, I will never know. Even if Bob walked out and I lost my job, in America we have so many social safety nets and I personally know plenty of people in the social services field who care about me. Somehow, with their help, I would find my way. But the troubled Ugandan woman only had that one worker. I kept wondering what would have happened to that family if she had seen a different health-care provider. Thank God that worker was there.


It made me want to find the money to help Finemind equip more health-care workers with the necessary tools to save lives a different way. It convinced me to help Horton save the Whos.


There are 247,200 people in the Agoga District. Finemind has trained 22 of them like the one mentioned above to address the invisible scars caused by decades of civil war, the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and early deaths caused by malaria and disease. In two years, that small band of optimistic healthcare workers has helped almost 1,000 people by providing counseling as they apply bandages. They are the ones crying, “We’re here! We’re here! We’re here!”


Finemind has joined their plea. While Finemind is the Horton in our narrative, like hundreds of other nonprofits, Finemind, too, is a Who – so small that it can escape notice. We apply for grants that go to larger organizations with louder voices and greater reach. We ask to partner with those larger agencies but often go unheard. We scratch out an existence, thanks to friends, family, and donors who hear our cries.


If you think Africa is waiting to be saved by developed countries, you are wrong. My greatest surprise during the past 10 weeks was learning how many indigenous nonprofits exist in Africa and the creative ways they network to maximize their impact. But mental health is a tricky area. The stigma is so great that entire communities might shun families with a relative who suffers from mental illness.


That’s why agencies like Finemind are needed. We teach communities that wellness includes a healthy mind as well as body. We help individuals understand is it okay to grieve the loss of a loved one or a job. We give them the tools to help each other find a better, more hopeful future.


At times it did feel a bit hopeless. The spreadsheet Pavel designed to track grants listed a number of foundations that promised a response but never called or returned emails. Perhaps the sound of all of the Whos screaming deafened them. There is, after all, only so much money to go around and so many needs demanding to be met. Then I remembered Pavel, one man with a vision assembling a team of regular Americans with hearts big enough to care for people they have never met. I remembered those 22 health-care workers facing the 247,200 people who need them. And I got to work.


Currently, awareness of mental wellness is spreading throughout the continent of Africa. There is also an awakening regarding the treatment of the those afflicted by mental illness. What a perfect time to cry even louder, “We’re here! We’re here! We’ve here!” Who knows whose attention we may attract? The animals of the jungle, who initially thought Horton mad for suggesting that the Whos even existed, eventually heard the Whos’ pleas. I believe Finemind will be heard, too.