I found it today in Gulu, a town ravaged by the civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, displaced over 2 million people, was the heart of the evil that is child soldiering. I found hope in a town that seems determined to break from its past through education.
Hope today was on display as over a thousand young people graduated from Gulu University, 45 of them new physicians.
Under a beautiful Acholi-land sky, in the shade of a magnificent mango tree, we were treated to a spectacle of tradition, solemnity, culture, and unbridled youthful exuberance. It was breathtaking.
I had the opportunity to ask the Vice-Chancellor what the University has meant to this community and this region, and he replied “everything.” It has brought development, jobs, commerce, healthcare, improved agriculture, and most of all, hope.
Politics aside, the government’s decision to open a university in 2003, at the height of the war, was a prescient one.
There are problems of course, but the appetite for a better life in this community is almost palatable. And it almost stops you in your tracks when you realize that every one of these young students grew up in a war zone. Many of them are former child soldiers, young people who lost their childhood to the savages of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
I met one of them. Her name is Grace.
Grace is one of the Aboke Girls. You can google their story, or better yet, you can pick up a copy of the book “Stolen Angels”, written by Canadian journalist Kathy Cook.
Grace was among 139 girls kidnapped by the LRA in 1996. Most were released a few days later, but 30 of them remained in the bush and became known as the Aboke Girls, named for the school they attended. Many of the Aboke Girls didn’t live to tell their tale. One was tortured to death and nailed to a cross. Others were killed during Ugandan military attacks on LRA camps.
Grace, like all the others, was raped, tortured, psychologically abused, and “given” to an LRA commander, by whom she had two children. One of her children died in 2004 and the other, Mercy, is a beautiful 8-year-old with whom I shared a bottle of Mountain Dew.
Following the graduation ceremony, I walked along the dusty red murram road to the Boma hotel to meet Grace, her mother Consy and Esther & Solomon, a young couple with three children of their own and two orphans under their care. After being away from my wife and children for over a week, it restored my soul to be surrounded by so many children. I showed them pictures of my children and even a video of my kids playing in the snow. They were mesmerized as I told tales of snowballs, snowmen, hockey and snow forts.
Esther & Grace run an orphange and school in Lira, just south of Gulu with the support of a Canadian NGO called the Ugandan Orphans Fund. Consy, who was the leader of the parents organization that lobbied the world to release the Aboke Girls still works tirelessly on their behalf, raising funds to help support them financially so they can attend university or college.
We sat and talked for two hours as the sun set over the African sky. I felt as if I had known them forever and as I reflect on the moment, I realize how small this world really is, and how connected humanity can be, if only we try.
Today restored my faith in the human condition. I spent the morning enthralled at the power of educating our young people. I spent the twilight hours in the company of a young lady who endured unspeakable horrors, and yet, there she sat smiling, full of humanity, full of potential. Full of Grace.