My name is Hope Okeny. I direct a multi-faceted organization in Gulu, Uganda.
I was visiting Gulu in the late 1990s because I wanted to see exactly what was happening there. The drive to Gulu was very familiar as I had travelled there before many years ago, when I was a young child, but I had been away for many years in the United Kingdom. Seeing the beautiful terrain, the landscape full of African wildlife and flora brought back beautiful memories. But, the roads were terrible and full of potholes, the heat beat down on our car, the air conditioner had stopped at the beginning of the journey. We were sweaty and miserable, our bodies stuck to the car seats, we were hungry and thirsty. As we crossed the Karuma Bridge, there was a great difference; we saw trucks that had been burnt out by the rebels, and very notable was that there was not a single sign of human activity around, no houses or animals. I was scared because we did not know what lay ahead of us, we were told that the rebels were operating everywhere and so it was risky to travel, mines had been planted everywhere. Although I was excited, I was not prepared for what I saw. What I found was food for my very soul. My life was changed by the children I met. They fed the empty place in my heart.
The war was far from over, many children were being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), mothers were desperately looking for their lost children, many had lost their entire family due to abductions, displacement and diseases. It was a sad time. No one was happy, and to me I felt so much pity. This was the place that I knew God had sent me. Why I had made this trip? I knew after this trip I would feel I had accomplished something in my life, fulfilled what God wanted me to fulfill. I have now my destiny, my purpose: help the children and their families. The children that are called the invisible ones… the former night wanderers… marginalized children… and the child soldiers.
It was during the rainy season that we made this trip. We visited the Internally Displaced Persons camps that had recently been set up, where many families had spent sleepless nights in the cold, their makeshift shelters very wet, mud everywhere, and children clinging to themselves to keep warm. Children cried from hunger. It was a sad and desperate time. We visited friends and families who were now confined to living in the camps and waiting for handouts from the World Food Program, something many people in all their lives were not expecting to have to do. We visited the rehabilitation centres at the World Vision Centre. There was so much activity at this centre as many children who had recently escaped captivity were being brought in, children who had stayed for a while and were hoping to reunite with their families, anxiously peeped out of their rooms to see the visitors. Perhaps some of them were wondering what their future held. Their faces showed so much pain and hopelessness. As we sat down under the tree, we were introduced to some boys and girls who had recently been brought to the centre and we inquired if we could speak to them and pray with them. They each narrated to us their stories but it was the story of the nine-year-old boy Dennis who broke my heart. Dennis was very articulate as he told us the story, he spoke very frankly how he was captured under the control of the LRA and the devastating effects that losing his parents and family has had on him. Dennis had been abducted with his brother, and during this attack he was forced to set ablaze the hut in which his parents and baby sister were forcefully shut in. No amount of pleading could change the rebels’ mind. They were tied up and led away as they heard the pleas and cries of his parents and sister as the hut burned down. At this moment in his story, Dennis began to cry. He then narrated to us how he escaped and the nightmares he has every night or when he is alone ever since this incident.
As I listened, I could not imagine the pain this boy was going through. When he finished his story he wondered if there was any need for him to continue living, he wondered if God could ever forgive him for murdering his own parents, and as he continued he burst out in tears and cried so much. I cried too, everyone cried, even the counsellors. It was a painful story. I cried all the way back to Kampala and I could not imagine that all this had happened to a child’s life. My heart was broken! This story touched my heart in a deep place.
Over the next months with friends, I made several trips to Gulu to distribute food, clothing, salt and medicine to the people trapped by the senseless war and in the IDP camps. I continued listening to children and women, but I realized that listening was not enough. This gave me the courage to go on, the courage that the people I talked to gave me is the true meaning of courage. I also gained courage from friends who supported me in all the ways that they could.
For me it was an honor to work with them. This is how Childcare Development Organisation Uganda was born, to help children like Dennis and their families who were suffering. Many children were praying, hoping and just surviving.
Again, through the help and support from friends and from a church in Bergen, Norway, we opened a health centre called Karin Medical Centre. The plan was to provide access to basic health care, as many children were dying from preventable diseases because they were not being immunized. We started carrying out immunisations for children and pregnant mothers and doing other outreach activities. We believed that if there was a unit that had medicine in stock all the time, we would not have to worry every time a child fell sick. I continued to contact more organizations and friends for support, because I believed that if my friends and others around the world knew of the need and knew of a way to make a difference, they could help many people by meeting this need, and they would choose to give from their surplus. The bible says “…For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” Luke 12:48. I continued praying to God for strength and provision because it was not at all an easy task.
I also believed that with my background, experience and networks I could contribute to this community. I truly believed that this was my calling, this was a way to help my community. We believed that there were plenty of small needs like the health project that would never be funded by large funding agencies and that friends of Childcare Development Organisation Uganda could meet this need. CDO Uganda could serve as a network bringing together those with the needs, those with the knowledge to meet the needs, those with the power, and finally those with the funds to meet these needs. This was how and why CDO Uganda was born and I am thankful for all the support all these years.
They say health is not health alone, the community needed more support, they could not afford to pay for their health needs with no source of income. Again, I was confronted with another need and a desire to help. We did not want to just hand out money or simply enrich one person with our gifts. We wanted the funds we had raised to be distributed fairly, to help the community, to be used in a way that would save or impact the most lives. This is when we applied to Heifer International to support the mothers of the children in the program. We mobilized the women in a group and began training them on modern farming techniques. We believed that with these skills and once they begin milking their animals they would be able to sell some of the milk and retain some milk for the family to drink too. Today over 200 families have benefitted from this support. The women worked very hard towards this project.
The health centre we are constructing will provide the much needed medical support to the children and mothers who have to travel many miles looking for medicine.
I truly know that we are making a difference and saving lives as we carry out this work. I believe that working together we are saving more lives with this work, we are not just saving lives but improving lives. We are helping children and their families who were caught in a senseless war, many children who were born in the camps have lost their childhood rights. Many women lost the opportunity to get education. Today they are marginalized, with no skills, illiterate and unable to support themselves let alone their families.
For me this experience has been very practical, its not always easy, many times inconveniencing but it is very necessary. It’s certainly not easy without a team effort to empower others to help meet their own needs and the needs that surround them. It’s the ability to use one’s position of influence to affect lives for the better. Its achievable.
Today we work with children, youth and women, I work with health workers and community health volunteers. The health centre offers a comprehensive program focusing on addressing the major health issues that children and women face throughout their lives. We combine health care service provision, health education and awareness raising and staff training. Through this program, children and women in the formerly internally displaced camps and remote villages have access to vital services such as immunization, pre-natal, post-natal and family planning care, as well as a host of other basic and basic and specialized services that address their specific needs.
Grinding poverty is as cruel as war. Thus with my business background, I teach the local small and medium entrepreneurs business skills to provide them with micro loans to help build their businesses. The local women make jewelries and craft items o supplement their incomes.
I work with local teachers and community child protection officers to re-integrate the former child soldiers back in the community. We teach them basic skills like sanitation, hygiene, health talk including HIV/AIDS. We teach them art, painting, games and sports activities to the children to help them heal the wounds of war. We have helped families reunite, rather than reject their children who were child soldiers or bush wives. We do all this to encourage the children to go back to school and get on with their life.
I work with the farmer groups to help support them to sell their milk and provide other services that are need to build their dairy farms.
For me these experiences has taught me many things to be patient, flexible, mature and most of all the trust God who has provided for us in all the times