As a child in 1950s New Orleans, Scott Kellermann read about Albert Schweitzer, the physician and Nobel Peace Prize winner who devoted much of his life to alleviating suffering in Africa. Inspired by Schweitzer, and stories of people in need that came alive on the pages of National Geographic, young Scott committed himself to finding a way to serve the poor in faraway places.
Scott pursued his goal with enthusiasm, attending Tulane University for medical school and receiving a master’s degree in public health and tropical medicine. He also met his wife Carol (also a 2014 Unsung Hero) at Tulane, and together the couple embarked on a life of service.
On one medical mission in 2000, Scott, Carol, and their younger son surveyed the Batwa, nomadic pygmies who had lived in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwestern Uganda. “Evicted from the forest in 1992 to protect endangered mountain gorillas, the Batwa themselves were becoming endangered,” he says. “They were landless and homeless. They lacked access to health care, education, water and sanitation, and income generation, and were losing their rich cultural traditions.” Moved deeply by their plight, Scott and
Carol sacrificed a comfortable life and thriving medical practice in California to help the Batwa full-time. “At first,” Scott says, “we thought we’d made the worst decision in the world. The support the dominant tribal groups, church, and government agencies had pledged never materialized, and the Batwa seemed unwilling to help themselves.”
Disheartened, Scott and Carol considered going home until they met a seasoned mission- ary couple and confided their troubles. “The gentleman asked me, ‘Do you think God has called you to Africa to be successful, or to be faithful?’” Scott recalls. “That struck a deep chord. We realized our failures resulted from concentrating on immediate needs, rather than heartfelt searching for what the Batwa wanted.” That moment helped Carol and Scott refocus
their energies on cultivating their relationship with the Batwa. Scott says, “When we asked them what they valued most about our work, they unanimously responded ‘kumara obwiri’, which means ‘making time’ or ‘just sitting.’ They valued our presence and companionship more than any of our projects.”
On many occasions, Scott and Carol doubted the possibility of success, particularly when they attempted to buy land to build a small health clinic. “The price of land skyrocketed whenever a seller became aware that ‘rich Westerners’ were the buyers,” Scott explains. Finally, tribal elders intervened with a seller: “When are we going to stop having our kids die?” they asked. That powerful message resonated, and Scott and Carol got the land for a fair price.
“Next we had to give the elders the bad news that we didn’t have enough money for construction,” Scott says. “To our surprise, they responded by donating free labor and materials to complete the clinic. From then on, the community considered it ‘their’ hospital, and that ownership became real engagement.”
Today, the 120-bed Bwindi Community Hospital and related development projects serve a local population of 70,000. Rates of malaria and tuberculosis have decreased, maternal deaths are down by 60 percent, and an insurance plan helps people access health care. A nursing school, satellite health clinics, and several schools complement the work of the hospital.
Through the Kellermann Foundation, 100 acres of old-growth forest were purchased. There, the Batwa have built traditional houses and worship sites as a place for their children and outsiders to learn about rich Batwa traditions, songs, legends, and hunting techniques.
After living with the Batwa for a decade, Scott returned to California in 2011 to devote time to fundraising for the work the community carries forward. Reflecting on what the Batwa have taught him, Scott says, “I especially learned the value of living in the moment. Right now is when I can make a difference.”