From California to Uganda: Bulamu’s Unlikely Origin Story

Gerald Atwine next to a poster honoring Bulamu cofounder Jim Balassone

Bulamu, which means “well-being” in the local language of Luganda, was launched due to a chance encounter between the two co-founders, Gerald Atwine and Jim Balassone.

Gerald was born and raised in Uganda, the youngest of ten children in a rural town. His father, a high school teacher turned businessman, was shot and killed during the brutal regime of the infamous Idi Amin when Gerald was only 8 months old. His mother, widowed and illiterate, somehow successfully raised her ten children. Gerald managed to secure a U.S. student visa, gain acceptance to the University of Michigan, earn his bachelor’s degree in nursing, and became a licensed R.N. in California.

It was as an R.N. that he found himself in a Santa Clara hospital treating Jim Balassone, 75, a retired technology firm executive who was recovering from surgery. The two bonded, and a few months later Jim traveled to Uganda with Gerald to explore the potential for starting an NGO to improve the health of poor Ugandans. They soon had formed Bulamu Healthcare International, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, with Jim as chief fundraiser and Gerald in charge of program activities.

Tragically, Jim Balassone passed away on May 6, 2017 after three weeks of hospitalization due to a rare lung disease. Bulamu has continued with the same growth momentum, however, as Jim’s role on the board of directors was taken over by a Princeton classmate, Dick Chandler, who was an early Bulamu donor, has served as Board Chair since 2017, and served as CEO from 2017 to March 2021.

In Jim’s honor, Bulamu established the Jim Balassone Memorial Challenge Fund that matched all donations made between November 20, 2017 and December 31, 2018. The $250,000 raised was enough to fund all five Bulamu medical camps in 2018, which was Gerald’s last year with the organization. Today, our team remembers Jim and Gerald for the important roles they played in launching Bulamu with a vision of improving healthcare for the poor in Uganda and beyond.