Trip of Perspective to Uganda
July 16-24, 2015
Those Travelling: Jermaine Broetje, Suzanne Broetje, Cheryl Broetje
Purpose of Trip: to Learn more about children of war, especially child soldiers
Wilberforce Onyango administrates for ALARM, an NGO working in Uganda. He was #6 of 14 children his mother was left with by a polygamist father. As a result of their destitute poverty, she sent half of them to live in the bush. 5 of them starved to death. Wilberforce was 6 when he went there. Later a pastor took notice of him, leading to his eventual conversion to Christ, and through him, their entire family. Wilberforce organized our in- country schedule; he and Quinto, the driver, spent the week ferrying us around. You can imagine why his most favorite words after something like ‘glory to God’ are: “In Africa we shall eat!” followed by uproarious yelps of joyful laughter that go on for some time.
We travelled to Gulu, the epicenter of the 20 year war with Joseph Kony and the LRA. As recently as 2007, some 30,000 children poured nightly into towns like this, for protection during their sleep….because too often their families were being slaughtered or abducted at home.
- ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries) sponsors a school there for children who have been impacted by the war, leaving them either as orphans, child headed householders, or former child soldiers, or their former ‘wives’ and their children conceived in captivity, all often shunned. ALARM’s work is reconciliation and peace-making in addition to leadership development, so they are well aware that kids need to heal from these traumas in order to learn, to grow, to integrate back into society. As kids are matched with loving mentors, they are trying to build new families and new lives.
- Next we visited Talanta Micro-finance, an affiliate of Partners Worldwide. Timothy Jokene, founder of Talanta drove us around to walk through various farm projects, the result of loans made to those families. He was angry that day, about the plight of the women there however….during the war, left with children to somehow keep alive, they did what they could to find work for food. Many families spent time in refugee camps and are just now trying to make a new life and livelihood.
When the families who survived came back, many men felt unneeded, resulting in a lack of self-respect. As a result, many have become drifters and drunks- while everywhere you turn women are either in the field working with a baby on their back, or at their vegetable stands selling items like tomatoes or squash. However….Timothy says they have discovered that although 70% of Talanta’s 3,000 members are women, it is about 70% of girls in Uganda who do not achieve their basic education. Why? A big reason is that money is not routinely allocated to buy sanitary napkins ($1 US for 10 pads)……and too often men still drink up whatever money comes in. So……..girls can miss two months or more or school a year, eventually just dropping out.
- Visit with two motor-bike (called ‘boda boda’ there) loan participants: these two men are purchasing bikes over 60 weeks. During that time they keep roughly $7 per week, and the rest goes to pay off the loan. After the loan is repaid, they can keep all the money they make, which may run 4-5 times that much as they use the bikes as portable taxies.
Note: ½ of the world’s population is 30 years and younger. Why are so many turning to violence at this time, all over the world? Mercy Corp has a report out on: Youth and Consequences: Unemployment, injustice and violence. Their findings are that children join violent groups not because they are poor, but because they are angry about injustices like corruption, exploitation and violence. El Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia, comes from an Arabic word for “youth”. Currently Somalia ranks #1 in child soldiers.
Their findings support the theory that “violence makes people poor, but poverty doesn’t appear to make people violent. Dignity is more important than dollars.” Even if you offer job training programs, without real, meaningful jobs, “it’s like giving someone a glass with no water.” And, even building social connections between youth isn’t necessarily positive. If it comes with higher social standing, yes…….but it often reinforces a common disconnect with social institutions.
- Visit with former child soldier: When we sat down for the conversation, his first comment was a question: what was our aim? He had already told his story 5 times before. Always the people tell him they are going to remember him. But he never hears from them again. Since meeting people like Sisto was the reason Jermaine came to Africa, he responded: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you lies…I can’t promise I can do anything. But I do know this: you are not alone. You and I are brothers. We are the next generation. Together maybe we can build a better world.” (Note: Jermaine leaves Saturday to attend a two week leadership camp with “Me to We” in Canada.)
Okwera (which means ‘rejected’) Sisto Otim was abducted in 1998 at age 11 and carried on the backs of soldiers to Sudan. He was spared the initiation rite of having to kill someone, perhaps by shooting them or cutting them in two and walking on them, or maybe helping their mother be wrapped in a blanket and burned alive… because the commander that day thought him too young. Soon enough he was trained to become a fighter. He learned his lessons well and became a commander, never thinking he could ever go home again… until 2005, when one day his “heart wanted to go home”. He marched his platoon off a distance after having put their guns down, and while gone, his assistant took all the bullets out of the guns. When they marched back, he asked them if anyone knew why they were in the bush fighting? No one spoke. He drew a line in the dirt and said he was going home. If anyone else wanted to come, step over the line. No one moved, too fearful that he was testing them.
Then, an old man with the group said he wanted to go home. He was tired. One by one they were processed for repatriation at a World Vision Children of War center there. No one came for him until two months had passed. Then his sister came. Both parents were dead. He went with her.
Today he is 27 years old. He put himself back in school once, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. Then he went to work to pay for a younger brother’s school fees. That boy has just become a teacher. But Sisto still is waiting to reach his dream of becoming a lawyer.
ALARM says a big part of Sisto’s healing will depend on two questions:
- Does he think he can be forgiven? (After all, we would call him a mass murderer here.)
- Do surviving victims think they can find the courage to forgive him?
- Pader Technical School in Pader: Here 150 children of war live and attend school, 10 of which are former soldiers, 80% of the rest come from IDP refugee camps. They pray to God to be able to come here. Many have no place to call home, and no in- tact families. So, they also learn job skills in areas such as welding, mechanics, agriculture, sewing, construction, masonry…with a two year certificate they can get jobs in their communities. So far, they have graduated 265. Students meet daily in small groups, and twice weekly for two hours all together, to share their stories of the past, and work on healing and reconciliation issues, preparing the way for new, positive future visions. We also met several alumni in their workplaces! Very exciting to see. They are filled with gratitude to God for sending ALARM.
Jermaine spoke to the student body. He told them that in the U.S kids often drop out of school, just to play. They aren’t serious about school. He often feels alone with his thoughts. He told them he wished they could all be in his classroom together, and that as brothers and sisters working together, they can change the world. Jermaine told them: “ youth are the arrows…….the future depends on where we are aimed.”
Here is the Video of that speech.
- Visit with former LRA wives: Angela and Janet were part of a group of 139 girls abducted in 1996 from their school. Angela was 14. Because Kony heard the president’s daughter might be among them, (although she was not) he ordered them all to be brought to him alive. A nun was able to negotiate release for 109 girls. The most desirable 30 were kept.They marched to Sudan from Uganda, so even when all the skin had come off her feet and they were bleeding so bad she had to crawl, they didn’t shoot her as was usual. They were given to commanders as wives and lived in the bush for about 8 years. Commanders often have up to 20 wives.
The “first wife” has the authority to torture or kill any who get out of line or try to escape. They can have your lips cut off for example. They lived with daily with death. Janet bore two children in captivity. 5 of the 30 girls died in captivity.
Through a string of mysterious miracles, Angela and Janet finally escaped in 2004 each carrying two children… Currently they are seeking non- profit status for an organization they founded for returning wives and children. Angela told us the post-conflict is actually harder on children than the war because they want to know their fathers-and, they are shunned in their communities. They are angry. There is a steering committee of 9 for the group. Angela was horrified when she discovered one of the members chosen had been one of her torturers. She softly cried through- out her testimony.
This is the on-going work they are now trying to address. There are no words to say after hearing a two hour story of pain like that. But, at the end Angela said, “it’s way too late to give up now”.
Slowly, these people who were taught to stay alive with guns, machetes, bombs, sexual violence…are learning a new way to fight; they are learning how to become warriors of the spirit. To become this kind of warrior one needs different tools and weapons such as compassion and insight; mindfulness. When self- doubt, self-criticism and hatred come by, they acknowledge their presence. Then….ask them to leave-get on with the business of loving their circle of valiant ones….they laugh and cry, tell jokes, offer support as bread for the journey.
One day, along the Nile River, we saw magnificent herds of hippos swimming; elephant families; crocodiles, and my favorite… the wart hogs. We heard an amazing story about a man who had become known as the elephant whisperer: one day he died. No one knows how, but herds of elephants in the area began marching to his home where they stood silently for two days, neither drinking nor eating, in homage to this man before heading home again.
If animals are capable of such compassion, love and solidarity, why can’t we humans cross tribes, cultures, religions and even whole species, in service of The Love which sustains us all and nurtures a world that works for everyone?
We must pray AND work in the fields where God has placed us, for that vision.