A few years ago the hashtag KONY2012 went viral and nearly 4 million people pledged their support to stop Joseph Kony and his LRA army rebels from capturing children and turning them into child soldiers who are forced to rape, torture and murder the innocent. Now, in 2015, Kony is still in hiding and the world’s attention has moved elsewhere, yet thousands of people are still struggling to rebuild their lives in the lingering wake of his inhumanity.
Last month, I visited some of those survivors. It’s difficult to know which stories to share with you, and which horrible parts to leave out, or even where to begin or where to end the story… what point do I want to get across to you the most? It’s hard to write a sensible account when so many parts of the story defy sense and humanity.
I visited a fish farm, where kids are learning to farm tilapia. A teenager named Samwell let me help him feed the fish. Samwell was abducted by the LRA at age 5 and again at age 13. He escaped both times, but the rebels killed his dad and then his mother had a mental breakdown. He’d like to be a lawyer one day.
Alongside Samwell was Isaac who showed me how they keep the ponds clean using a steady stream of water. Isaac was tortured by the LRA and both his parents were killed. He’s now the head of his household and he cares for his younger siblings.
I routinely visited homes where the head of household was a teenager because their parents were killed by rebels or died from AIDS. Now these kids are trying to put the pieces of their lives back together but there is so much for them to overcome. Former child soldiers are branded with the stigma of war and communities are resistant to embracing them. And land being such a precious resource, teenage heads of households often have to fend off distant relatives or greedy neighbors who are trying to poach their parent’s land.
I heard horror stories you don’t want me to repeat. It was difficult to process that these things people were saying really happened in this world. It was even harder to picture these atrocities happening to these very lovely people with whom I was now talking. I took comfort in the work of GO Campaign’s Local Hero, Jane Ekayu, who founded Children of Peace Uganda and who works to rehabilitate former child soldiers and children affected by the war. With GO Campaign funding, she started the fish farms where I met Samwell and Isaac. She also took me to several ‘Peace Clubs’ where youth meet to talk about their past and work toward a more peaceful and hopeful future. Jane works tirelessly to combat the stigma placed on these children and she fights for the rights of child victims of war. And she does her best to try and find sponsors for the many orphan children who cannot afford their school fees. There are a large number of children who desperately want to go to school, but who can’t afford it… this was definitely the most heartbreaking part of the trip for me. The proceeds from the fish farms will only be able to help a finite number of children and I saw so many kids eager for education. Jane is hoping that more fish farms, beekeeping projects, and income generating initiatives will create stability and help her pay the school fees for more kids.
In addition to the heartbreaking, there was also the heartwarming. Kids in each village greeted us with songs, dancing, and poetry. It was inspiring to witness the resilience of the human spirit and see a people who refuse to be broken. Most of the people I met have little to their name. At first glance you probably wouldn’t notice them, but I have more respect for them than for anyone I’ve ever met.
It’s so easy to complain about the daily annoyances we encounter in our lives – whether it’s traffic, or the overpriced restaurant we ate at, or the shirt the dry-cleaner ruined… but just one brief conversation with any of these children in Uganda will remind you how fortunate you really are, and how a little bit of a helping hand to people in need can go a long way.
What would the world look like if that hashtag went viral?