For ten days this month a most amazing event took place on the grounds of Southern Range Nyanza textile factory (formerly Nytil). Five tents were pitched, and medical personnel in uniform and young wazungu and wahindi girls were dashing around. What was happening was Uganda Medical Mission II – a ten-day camp to treat patients for free, including free dental, eye glasses, HIV/AIDS, pediatrics and gynecology. Medicine was dispensed on site for free. One dehydrated child was taken by ambulance to the hospital at no cost.

The spirit behind the mission is an unassuming Ugandan Asian by the name of Vasant Lakhani, a typical duka boy from Kamuli. His father had set up a general store in that village in the early 1920s. Vasant and his brothers - he is sixth out of nine - helped at the shop arranging the shelves and going out to collect debts. Father sold off his shop on a verbal agreement, without properly accounting for the stock. Next day the Second World War broke out. Prices soared. Against advice from friends he would not hear of breaking the verbal agreement.

At the time of the 1972 expulsion Vasant was working as the manager of the Exide battery factory, with the likes of Mulwana, Henry Kyembe and Eriza Kironde as directors. He had to leave that promising career as his citizenship was revoked. He ended up in Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada, that he had not even seen on the map. His first job was on a construction site in mid-winter. Then after working for five years in a lawyer’s firm it was back to the roots – duka. He became the owner of two shops – one dealing with confectionary and the other health foods.

On his retirement he started giving back, first during the earthquake in Gujarat and medical camps there and now in Uganda. Last year was the first Uganda Medical Mission. Nearly seven thousand patients were treated during the ten days of the camp. This year the total passed thirteen thousand. “Not one patient was turned back, even if they needed urgent care at a hospital,” says Vasant.

The mission was financed by Vasant himself and by contributions from individual Ugandan Asians in Canada and Uganda. Vasant was assisted by six doctors, ten nurses and a score of all-purpose volunteers, who each spent over US$ 3000 of their own money on air fares and insurance. Vasant's own contribution exceeded "five-figures", he says without bragging. The management of Southern Range Nyanza (Kishore Jobanputra) provided in-kind donations in the form of the use of their grounds, tents, internal transportation, and accommodation. Lunch for the patients was paid for by the mission. That alone cost Vasant US$ 500 per day.

Why all this? Says Vasant simply, “There are people less lucky than us and we have to give back. What better place to do it than where our roots were - Uganda and Gujarat!”

- Vali

Vasant Lakhani:
Looking for ways to help
By Michelle Hopkins

There’s a gentleness and humbleness to Vasant Lakhani. It resonates in his voice.

But there’s something much deeper about this 70-year-old father and grandfather. Vasant possesses a strong sense of commitment towards the marginalized and desperately poor around the world. He sees helping such people as simply the right thing to do – the only thing to do, really.

Vasant tells the story — he says there are hundreds more — of an 11-year-old girl he encountered at a humanitarian medical camp in Jamnagar, India, last year; the child had a serious eye condition that threatened to blind her.

“This beautiful girl had an eye disease and needed surgery right away,” he explains. “We managed to send her for surgery. If we hadn’t, she would have lost her eye. It costs only $50 Canadian, that’s all; and a cataract operation (in India) costs between $40 and $45.”

On that trip alone, he, along with a dozen physicians from the U.S. and Canada and three dentists from the US and the UK treated 5,158 patients in 14 remote villages in the poorest areas of India.

“The need is so great, and really what I do is just a drop in the bucket,” says Vasant, who pays all his own expenses to go on his humanitarian missions. “I had always done local volunteer work within the Indian community, but I wasn’t content. I wanted to do foreign humanitarian work and I wanted to work with my hands, not just behind a desk.”

Vasant, a retired community-development officer with the Ontario Public Service, is currently helping to co-ordinate and raise funds for a Uganda medical mission, scheduled for August, that will assist sick people in remote and poor villages.

“We have also set up a medical camp in the State of Orissa in India,” Vasant says. “It’s part of our two-year commitment to pay the yearly expenses, totalling $8,000 a year, to fund our Mobile Medical Clinic, which brings aid where it’s needed most.

“It’s such a small amount when you consider the costs of surgery here in Canada.”
Vasant was instrumental in spearheading the appeal for donors and volunteers for the Mobile Medical Clinic.
“I realized after leaving these camps and villages (on previous trips) that the villagers continued to suffer ailments and disease,” Vasant says. “I thought that if we introduced a mobile medical clinic, going to some of these villages once a week, it would help detect and avoid long-term complications and suffering among the young and old alike.”

Vasant is a man on a mission, one in which he involves family and friends; he makes no apologies for soliciting donations of money and medical supplies, children’s clothing and more.

Vasant’s journey to help his fellow man on an international basis began a few years ago.

“It was soon after Katrina that friends and I were talking about doing some volunteer work,” he says. “I started researching, and I phoned a friend of mine who suggested I get involved with the Association of Physicians of Northern Ohio (AIPNO).”

In December 2005, he headed with the AIPNO team to Cochin in Kerala, India. There, he helped build homes for the victims of the tsunami for the first five days and then worked alongside the physicians registering patients.

“At times I dispensed medicine under the guidance and supervision of the doctors,” Vasant says. “Prior to that, a group of us hauled bricks, making 15 to 20 trips a day from the mainland to the island. There were people there from the United States, Europe, Australia and other countries; it was like a mini United Nations.”
More recently, Vasant was part of a medical mission in Dwarka, Gujarat, where doctors saw 550 patients and performed 52 cataract surgeries.

“People say India is going through an economic boom, but that’s in the major cities,” Vasant says. “Go to the villages and you see extreme poverty. The people are suffering terribly; many don’t have access to clean drinking water.

“How can I not help?”

The two-week Uganda Medical Mission in August 2008 will provide medical and dental services, as well as eye examinations, to people who have no access to medical services or cannot afford basic health care. To learn more about the upcoming mission or how to get involved, call Vasant at 604-987-1925 or 604-318-4743.