Priest hopes to help homeland with organization he launched

Father Vitalis Torwel pumps a water lever during a June 2008 visit to Nigeria. Shine Nigeria, an organization he founded, provided the well for a village of 2,500 people.

By Celine Klosterman

Father Vitalis Torwel was flying back to Iowa after visiting his homeland of Nigeria in January 2006, when he came across an article about the rate of HIV and AIDS in the African nation’s 36 states. The highest rate, he read, was in his home state of Benue – for the second year in the row. 

“I immediately became disturbed,” he said. He vowed to find out why Benue’s rate was so high.

About six months later, Fr. Torwel returned to Benue to investigate, and determined that health ignorance and poverty were to blame. So he founded Shine Nigeria, a 501(c)(3) non-profit group based in Nichols, Iowa, to teach Nigerians about preventive health measures and give them job-skills training.

So far, the organization’s Nigerian office is working with donated educational health videos, a computer and a sewing machine. Shine Nigeria has also provided a well for about 2,500 people at a donor’s request, though the organization focuses chiefly on education and training, said Fr. Torwel. He teaches communications at the University of Iowa and is sacramental minister for St. Mary parishes in Nichols and Lone Tree.


He hopes for more funds to better educate and train Nigerians. Shine Nigeria’s goals are vital, he said, in part because the Benue state of 4.8 million people has just one health facility for every 129,000 people and 1.7 or fewer health-care workers per 1,000 people. And though the World Health Organization recommends spending $34 per capita on health care in low-income countries, Nigeria’s per capita spending totals just $5, he said.

Private, urban health facilities are too expensive for many Nigerians and difficult for rural residents to reach, Fr. Torwel added.

He said prevention is the best health-care strategy. So he’s translating videos of 15-30 minutes on healthy lifestyles that he aims for health-care workers to present during interactive sessions at churches, schools and community events.

Eating a balanced diet is one key such workers will stress, said Fr. Torwel — but many people in Benue can’t afford to eat well. He said most of the jobs available are government positions that pay as little as $50 a month. A family with two or three children needs $400 monthly to live “reasonably,” said Fr. Torwel. University graduates snap up most of the jobs, leaving few opportunities for people with less education.

Shine Nigeria aims to help those people make a living by learning tailoring and computer skills, and thus help them better afford healthy food. “This is all about prevention and keeping people out of the hospital,” said Mary Catherine Soloski, Shine Nigeria’s secretary and a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City.

The organization hasn’t been Fr. Torwel’s only effort to help people in his homeland, which he left in 2001 to get a doctorate in communications at the University of Iowa. In a July 2008 meeting the priest arranged, Iowa Governor Chet Culver and Benue Governor Gabriel Suswam agreed to collaborate on agricultural projects. Iowa farm machinery has since been sent to Nigeria. Iowa State University’s agricultural extension program hosted and trained Nigerians in November 2008 on farming techniques, and has been training another group since March 2009. Six students will arrive in late summer or fall to learn about hog and beef production, said Fr. Torwel.

To donate to Shine Nigeria, call Fr. Torwel at (515) 770-2353 or send a donation to 406 Ijem Ave., Nichols, Iowa 52766. The organization seeks funds for a vehicle to transport health professionals to villages and to buy carpentry tools and 10 sewing machines for job-skills training.

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