As Trócaire’s Lenten campaign draws to a close and the organisation calls for Trócaire boxes to be returned, local Manorhamilton woman Eithne McNulty, who works for the charity, recalls a trip to Uganda in January when she saw how money donated in Co. Leitrim is changing lives that have been devastated by decades of war.
Have you seen the ‘YouTube’ Kony 2012 video? Almost 90 million people around the world have. Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a ruthless, massacring and brutalising rebel force which wrought havoc in northern Uganda over a 20 year period until forced into stopping the violence about six years ago. The video is disturbing, showing violations of a most unspeakable nature perpetrated against innocent people – children, women and men. The video calls for Kony to be arrested before the year is out and taken for trial to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. He should, indeed, face justice.
As a tool to communicate Kony’s atrocities to the world, the video is very effective. However, it is six years too late. Kony has not been active in recent times. Instead he has left behind a legacy of traumatised and impoverished people who need help to get back on their feet again. The world’s focus should be on helping these survivors rebuild.
This is what Trócaire is doing in northern Uganda where I recently had the privilege of spending some time and meeting the most amazingly spirited people - welcoming and above all, resilient.
Uganda is a country of contrasts: tough on the one hand and warm, lively and attractive on the other. Life expectancy there is 53 and it ranks 143rd in the world out of 177 countries in terms of human development. Eighty per cent of the population depend on small scale farming to make a living. Most people eat one small meal per day.
It was in a part of northern Uganda, called Bar Kwach, that I met and spent a couple of days with Daniel Okweng – the nine year old boy who featured on this year’s Trócaire box. I met him with his brother, parents and extended family. It was a pleasure and honour to do so.
Trócaire has been working with this family and others in Bar Kwach for three years now and what a difference it has made – thanks to your money which you so generously give to Trócaire each year during Lent. Having come through unbelievable adversity, Daniel and his family are now doing well; they are farming again, ploughing with oxen, sowing seeds and looking forward to a reasonable crop because, thankfully, the seasonal rains have come. They have some goats and hens and a waterhole which is a bicycle ride away for Daniel who fetches most of it for the family’s use. All of these resources have been supplied by Trócaire.
Daniel goes to school and is now speaking good English as is his eleven year old brother Emmanuel. This is a great human success story. No wonder Daniel smiles a lot. His parents ask that I convey their grateful thanks and appreciation to the people of Ireland for their kind support, which I gladly undertake to do. So thank you on behalf of the Okweng family.
Trócaire will continue its work in Bar Kwach for many years to come because there is so much more to do. The life situation of Betty Agong and her 6 year old son, Innocent, illustrates this need very poignantly. I would like to tell you her story and hope you find it as moving as I did.
The active years of Kony’s LRA in northern Uganda were hallmarked by incomprehensible brutality; the kidnapping of young boys and ‘training’ of them as LRA soldiers and the kidnapping of young girls to become weight bearers and ‘Kony wives’.
Little boys, as young as eigth, were lifted from their homes and forced to carry out brutal acts of killing and torture, sometimes in their own communities. This ensured they would never leave the LRA; they could never go home again. Little girls were made to carry all the weight of a rebel force on the move in the bush. They carried food, ammunition, water, weapons; anything that needed carrying. Even worse they were made to be sex slaves for Kony and his generals. Hence they became known as ‘Kony wives’.
I had the honour to spend some time with one such young woman. Her name is Betty Agong. Betty was captured by the LRA when she was very young and became a ‘weight bearer’ and ‘Kony wife’. She is now 28. She escaped and returned to her home place with a little son. Ironically, his name is Innocent and he is six years old.
Betty does not make eye contact with you when you meet and greet her. She has what is known as the ‘thousand yard stare’. It is that chilling, blank and empty look in a person’s eyes caused by untold and indescribable suffering over a prolonged period of time, where the senses have had to shut down simply to survive.
My Trócaire colleague, who is a nurse from Limerick, first noticed little Innocent and his mother standing near Daniel’s mud walled, straw roofed house. What drew her attention was the cut on his leg and we asked what had happened. Like any little child, anywhere in the world, he had fallen out of a tree. But he had fallen out of the tree in August 2011 and my nurse colleague could tell the little leg was broken. Broken and wrongly reset itself over time.
Innocent was in a lot of pain, especially when he lay down to sleep. We bandaged it as best we could and got the money to send them both off to the nearest hospital which is in Uganda’s capital Kampala – a seven hour bus ride away. We asked our local contacts to look after them and ensure Innocent’s broken leg got as good medical attention as possible and we promised to follow up. We did and currently Innocent is on a course of strong antibiotics and a set of crutches while waiting to have his leg reset. His leg will be fine.
I felt the tragedy of this family. It was not just about the little broken leg. I knew too that African tribal culture defers to a child’s paternal line. Innocent does not know his, so he and his mother become ‘personas non grata’, unwelcome and outcast in their own communities. People like Innocent and Betty suffer double injustice. And there are so many like them in the communities Trócaire works in. That is why we not only help people to grow food and sink boreholes for clean water.
We also deliver trauma counselling and work with the local tribal leaders to build acceptance, sensitivity and support for ‘Kony wives’ who return to their communities in northern Uganda with babies and young children. The stories are heartrending. And yet, how easy it is to be with the people there - the ‘Bettys and Innocents’. The attraction is that indomitable Ugandan spirit, the shared hope of the people for the future, their hard working nature and their gratitude for every little helping hand given to them. I come away humbled and very appreciative of all I have back in my home place of Manorhamilton.
Trócaire boxes can be returned to parishes across Co. Leitrim or to make a donation log on to www.trocaire.org/lent or call 1850 408 408. The charity is also reminding schools about its national competition for a primary school to design next year’s 2013 Trócaire box for its 40th anniversary. The closing date is April 27. Details can be found on www.trocaire.org/education