Ugandan engineer builds new life in North Idaho

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  • Courtesy photo. Banet Mutungi left his home, girlfriend and an established career to come to the United States.

  • 1

    Courtesy photo. Mutungi works for Verdis, a Coeur d’Alene-based land planning, engineering, design and construction firm. He said he can see North Idaho becoming his home.

  • Courtesy photo. Banet Mutungi left his home, girlfriend and an established career to come to the United States.

  • 1

    Courtesy photo. Mutungi works for Verdis, a Coeur d’Alene-based land planning, engineering, design and construction firm. He said he can see North Idaho becoming his home.

COEUR d’ALENE ­— A simple twist of fate, a whole lot of paperwork and — after years of waiting — perfect timing.

That’s what it took for an engineer from Uganda to end up in Coeur d’Alene.

Banet Mutungi was helping a Spokane-based nonprofit build a pig farm in Uganda in 2017 when he received an unexpected phone call: After years of waiting, he was eligible for a U.S. visa. He could join his mother in America.

Eternal Hope had hired Mutungi after running into delays and problems with the pig farm project, which was designed to spur economic development and fund the nonprofit’s efforts to rescue Ugandan sex trafficking victims.

The 14 buildings planned for the site required concrete foundations, but cement mixers aren’t particularly easy to come by in rural Uganda. Cement has to be mixed by hand: Concrete has to be poured one wheelbarrow load at a time.

Mutungi not only helped get the project back on track, he finished it earlier than expected, said Chris Cheeley, an Eternal Hope board member and local real estate developer.

“He told us when he got done with the project he was hoping to move to the United States,” Cheeley said. “I told him, why don’t you come here, I know some folks in your industry.”

The first meeting Cheeley arranged for Mutungi was with Sandy Young, owner of Verdis, a Coeur d’Alene-based land planning, engineering, design and construction company.

“Banet impressed me with not only his education, but his past experience managing the construction of a large, indoor pig farm in Uganda,” Young said. “The project was a success despite a multitude of adverse conditions.”

Cheeley credited Mutungi with the project’s success.

Last winter, Young invited Mutungi to job-shadow the Verdis team for a week. After determining each side of the deal was a fit for the other, Young offered him a permanent position as a project engineer.

“From Day One, Banet stated he was willing to go where he was needed, and that’s exactly what I was looking for,” Young said. “We will be sending him to Arizona to work on our border projects. I have no doubt he will be successful as our new project superintendent.”

Mutungi said he knew he wanted the job before it was even offered.

Born in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in 1987, Mutungi said he considers himself fortunate. During his parents’ youth, the country was ruled by a dictator and torn by war and conflict. Mutungi was born a year after the current president took power.

“I was lucky I was born in that period,” he said. “It was quite peaceful, and it was quite fun. I lived in a peaceful time.”

He was a teenage boy when his mother left their home in Uganda in 2001 and came to the United States looking for work. She studied and worked her way into a job as a home-health nurse, then applied to have her children join her.

That was in 2004. Life went on for Mutungi and his siblings in Kampala. He studied at Makerere University, one of Uganda’s top colleges, and graduated in 2011 with a degree in civil engineering.

“I had always wanted to do something that would impact others,” he said. Civil engineering was also appealing because of the diversity it offered.

Mutungi worked for a nonprofit organization called Watoto Child Care Ministries for seven years before taking the job with Eternal Hope. The organization cared for Ugandan orphans. Mutungi helped design and build villages consisting of homes, schools, medical facilities, access roads and water distribution systems for the orphans.

“Watoto looks after over 3,000 orphaned children in Uganda,” Mutungi said. “About 75 percent of these were orphans due to the AIDS pandemic that occurred in Uganda in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While working for the nonprofit, Mutungi traveled to New Zealand for training in rainwater harvesting and how to build concrete tanks. He used what he learned to help design and build a sustainable rainwater harvesting, storage and distribution system for one of the nonprofit’s villages in northern Uganda.

The country has two distinct seasons — wet and dry. The dry season lasts three months.

His future in the United States was far from his mind when he received the call that he was eligible for a visa. Although he felt uncertain about leaving his home, girlfriend and an established career, Mutungi decided to take a risk and seize the opportunity. He arrived in Chicago in August 2018. Though he had an engineering degree and work experience, Mutungi wasn’t sure what the procedures and requirements would be to work as a U.S. engineer.

“When I first got here, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Mutungi said. “There’s so much opportunity. I just took a risk.”

While adjusting to American culture, he lived with his mother near Chicago, where he spent four months working at an Amazon warehouse. He took driving lessons, saw his first snowfall, learned to file taxes and took a solo road trip to visit a friend in Missouri. Freeways with multiple lanes in every direction — and the speed with which people moved — was different from what he was accustomed to in Uganda. He was amazed by how quickly he was able to travel from his mom’s home near Chicago to his friend’s in Missouri.

“It was about 600 miles, and you do it in 8 hours,” Mutungi said. “That’s impossible in Uganda.” There, traveling half as far would take twice as long.

Mutungi has been taking in the North Idaho scenery and pine-covered mountains with awe. It’s a place he says he could see becoming his home.

“It has things I really like, like hills, mountains, hiking and water,” he said.

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