Twenty-one years ago Vicki Owens stepped off an airplane into the hot air of Kampala, Uganda, thinking she had come for a brief stay, just long enough to help Christian missionary pastors start a primary school.
“I thought I’d do my little thing for humanity and then go home,” she says. It was her first time traveling overseas, and she really had no idea of what she would face in this country in the center of Africa.
Owens, who admits she was naïve to the culture, dangers, and challenges of living in a place like Uganda, had arrived two months after one military coup and about 10 weeks before the next. She didn’t know that all nonessential U.S. government employees had been evacuated from the country. But it didn’t take her long to assess the great poverty and needs of this country. Gunfire in the streets was a regular occurrence. Some nights she and the missionaries she lived with would sleep in the central hallway of their home to be safe from bullets. “It was a great prayer time for me,” she says.
Eventually, the government put in place by the coup stabilized, and the situation for Ugandans seemed to improve. Owens was able to help organize the school, and at the end of her contract started planning a return to the states. That’s when a conversation with a young woman in the community led her to realize there was no good system in Uganda for training counselors. Keep in mind, this was the place of the most recent Ebola outbreak, says Owens. It is also where the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnaps children from their schools and uses them as soldiers and sex slaves. “Rape has become almost an accepted way of life,” she says. It’s where AIDS and HIV are part of every family. There is a great need for counselors of every kind.
Owens followed her instincts to the campus of Makerere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She asked someone to direct her to the school of education. There she sought out the dean, to whom she pitched her idea of creating a master’s program for training counselors. “I’ll never forget it. He just said, ‘I can virtually assure you of an appointment,'” she says.
Owens, who grew up in the Tri-Cities, came to Washington State University in the early 1970s to study police science with the idea of becoming an officer. But when she heard a police chief say the only job a woman would have on his force would be behind a desk, she changed her major and received a B.A. in education in 1976. A few years later, she returned to the University, earning a Master of Education degree in 1985. It was around this time that she learned about the opportunity to go to Uganda. Two years overseas turned into a decade.
After teaching counseling at the Ugandan university for several years, Owens returned again to WSU, this time to obtain a doctorate in counseling psychology (1994). Then she went back to Makerere to help build the graduate counseling program. As a lecturer there on a string of two-year contracts, she has taught students from a range of fields, including law, medicine, religion, and the military.
One former student is now a lawyer advising the Ugandan parliament. Another teaches college students and is an expert in child counseling. A third is a nun who works in northern Ugandan camps of displaced villagers who have fled their homes after attacks, rapes, and kidnappings by rebels.
While her salary is a pittance compared to what she would earn in the same job stateside, Owens is able to support herself and make occasional trips home to see friends and family with money she earns working as a counselor for American employees of non-governmental organizations.
Last spring WSU named Owens a Woman of Distinction for the mentoring she has done for women in Uganda, as well as in Pullman. “Things like awards kind of make you look back at your life,” she says, listing camp counselor, basketball coach, and teacher as three of her jobs that seem to be about mentoring. Along the way she has encountered many remarkable women. “It is my delight to give them a little something so that they can go out and make a difference in their society.”
Owens is now starting to think long-term about staying in Africa. Last year she bought a plot of land in Kampala and hopes to build on it. Despite the rebellions, rapes, and dangers, she feels safe. “Really, car accidents are my greatest concern,” she says. “I fell in love with Uganda … . I can’t imagine myself doing something different.”