In the Ugandan town of Gulu and its surrounding villages, the locals call Peter Keller “Muzungo,” the Acholi word for white person.
In Gulu, and in La Crescenta, where he has lived for 36 years, Keller oversees Aid Africa, the one non-governmental organization consistently serving locals, formerly known as “Internally Displaced Persons.”
Keller has taken a river boat on the Nile and seen elephants drink at the river’s banks, but Gulu is no tourist destination, and few aid workers inhabit the town of 175,000.
For 22 years, displaced families lived in crowded camps. They’d been ordered to leave their homes in the late 1980s by the Ugandan government when Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, rampaged through Central Africa killing adults, forcing boys to become soldiers and girls to become sex slaves.
The people were allowed to return to their bush-overgrown homes in April 2009, but they were without tools, water and seeds with which to rebuild their lives.
Aid Africa’s mission is to uplift the communities. It was established in 2007 by Keller’s longtime friend, former Burbank resident Ken Goyer.
Goyer once watched women cook over fire in El Salvador, an experience that compelled him to build a more efficient stove. Four years later, Goyer had the Rocket Stove. Made of bricks, it costs $10, uses minimal wood and emits very little smoke.
When Rotary International sent Goyer on a worldwide tour to teach impoverished communities how to use the stove, Goyer felt Northern Uganda was most in need of humanitarian aid.
Goyer oversaw Aid Africa until his death from cancer in 2010. Keller took over, although he already had volunteered in Gulu for four years.
“I was afraid the poverty was going to crush me,” Keller said of his first visit. “The thing that you find there, the reason I can go, is that the people have such good spirit. The children play, the women sing, the men chat. They’re living their lives.”
Prior to that, the 1965 Hoover grad wrote and edited television shows such as “The West Wing,” “JAG” and “Baywatch.”
“I tell people, ‘I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. It really took me 60 years to figure it out,’” he said.
Twice a year, Keller travels to Africa for weeks at a time to work with Aid Africa’s seven-member staff in Gulu, where they have planted orange, avocado, mango, guava and banana trees, in addition to non-crop trees for materials.
Aid Africa has also adopted an orphanage, sponsors children to attend school and digs water wells. When Keller is there, he visits local homes to monitor improvement. A few times, he said, he’s seen children who once were rail-thin grow stronger.
When Keller is stateside, his attention is on raising funds for Aid Africa’s team to plant more trees, dig more wells, build more stoves.
In all that the team takes on, Keller asks himself, “Are we going to do more good? Is this going to help the people?”
Once, after repairing two wells, Keller witnessed water become available to 3,500 more people in two days.
There were no cheers or joyful shouts when the locals interacted with the water for the first time, he said, just a solemn reverence as they quietly washed their hands.
What: Aid Africa
On the Web: On Facebook and Twitter, or at www.aidafrica.net.