COLUMBIA — Julius Udinyiwe said he had the shock of his life when he returned to Nigeria after 13 years away.
There was no running water in his district. The school was "like a ghost town." The few chairs in the building were toppled and strewn about, and the teacher's desk was propped up with 2-by-4s.
"The condition of things was backward from when I was there," said Udinyiwe, who grew up in southern Nigeria.
Many of the children in the crowded schoolrooms had to sit on the ground.
"I knew that moment that I was here for a reason," he said. "I knew something had to be done."
Udinyiwe, who owns a one-hour photo shop in Boonville, returned a year later to repair the classrooms and build wells to provide water to his community. He returned again in February 2013 for almost four weeks to continue the projects he began earlier.
A personal mission to help his hometown
Udinyiwe grew up in Benin City, the capital of Edo State in Nigeria, with a population of more than 1 million. Widespread poverty and a government often accused of corruption have contributed to inadequate living conditions in many areas of Nigeria. It has made meeting the needs of the most populous country in Africa difficult.
According to a November 2012 U.S. Department of State Bureau of African Affairs fact sheet, "Nigeria has yet to develop effective measures to address corruption, poverty and ineffective social service systems, and mitigate the violence."
Organizations such as UNICEF work throughout Nigeria in an effort to improve the country's living conditions. Udinyiwe has made it a personal mission to tackle the situation in Benin City and other towns in Edo State.
Udinyiwe's first trip in 2011 lasted only a few days, and he spent them digging a well in his family's front yard. The community reacted instantly, he said, using the well day and night to gather fresh water.
Seeing that response, Udinyiwe knew he wanted to return quickly to undertake more projects. Retired U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Don Wemhoff, who met Udinyiwe through a mutual friend in 2004, funded the trip and traveled with him to Nigeria.
Wemhoff said he wanted to see the city and help the community.
"Since he's a native, I thought it would be insight to see how they truly live rather than going as a tourist does," he said.
The two men dug a second well in the village, built classroom desks and helped repair the schoolhouse.
This well provides water for children from six surrounding schools, Udinyiwe said.
"You see them migrating almost like herds of cow," he said. "When school's over, they just take over the street, coming from every direction."
Wemhoff remembered watching the children congregate around the well and collect water to take home to their families.
"Some of them get pretty good-sized, 3 to 5-gallon pails of water," he said. "They'd help each other. One would set it on the head of another, and then they'd take off."
When they gave the children simple desks built with 2-by-4s, Udinyiwe said they marveled at the gift.
"I was a little hero," he said, laughing. "But I feel so small. If I was to be going home all the time, I don't think things could have been in this situation."
Udinyiwe and Wemhoff also installed speed bumps near the well to make the area safer. The location had been the site of numerous accidents because of the heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
Udinyiwe's also wanted to improve communication between the Catholic Church and the rest of the community to help the village in a lasting way.
Tension between the government and churches over property ownership have made cooperation difficult, said Udinyiwe. The tensions are the result of Edo State receiving its independence in August 1991.
The church owned land before independence and built schools that were later taken over by the government. Though the churches often have the means to support the schools, Udinyiwe said they leave the job to the government.
He tried to bring the priests and elders of the community together to begin discussing how they collaboratively can maintain the schools. Udinyiwe challenged the church to use its resources to help fix and maintain the schools, even though the government owns them.
"I said, 'Father, you cannot come into the school and give children the sign of the cross when they're sitting on the ground because there's no chair,'" Udinyiwe said. "'You're telling them that's where they belong.'"
Called to the U.S. as a missionary
Udinyiwe lived in Edo State for 25 years before traveling to the United States as a missionary. He grew up in a polygamist home with 27 brothers and sisters from his father's three wives. His education began in Catholic primary and secondary schools before he learned videography and photography at his church. He then spent a year in Bible college.
In 1988, he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport with $120 and his Bible. Though he felt called by God to move to the U.S., he had doubts.
"Leaving those things (his accomplishments in Nigeria) to come over here was like a setback to me," he said.
He felt his doubts were justified when the immigration officer told him he should return home. He was young and had very little money; the officer thought he would be a liability in the U.S..
After talking to another immigration officer and finally being cleared by Customs to enter the country, Udinyiwe quickly found confirmation for the move.
A man in military uniform approached him in the airport. The man told Udinyiwe he was planning to commit suicide.
"He had a voice to come to me so I was able to reach out to him," Udinyiwe said. "That was my very first day in the country, and that day I knew that if I was to go back home, I wouldn't have done my work, my mission."
Udinyiwe plans to continue his work in the Edo State, both in the city and in surrounding rural areas.
He would eventually like to build a facility to purify the water in his hometown and make more of it consumable. One rural village is building a church that could be used as a school.
"The illiteracy level in that area is really, really high," he said. "Many of those families over there, they like to keep their kids close to themselves. They are farmers, and day to night they are out in the field and with their children."
There will be a small home to house volunteers who teach at the school, and a well built near the location to serve the rural village.
"Many of those children are deprived of the benefits so our goal is to go to where they are."
Udinyiwe said he has received support from LifeRock Church in Columbia and Boonville churches such as Santa Fe Trail Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church and Church of God of Prophecy.
Hope Photo customers and Boonville High School have also offered their support.
"My goal is to go back as often as I can," he said. "If I have the resources to do it, tomorrow I will be back over there."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.