Photojournalist Ruth Bonneville recently returned from Uganda where she helped build a classroom and volunteered at an orphanage. Peace remains fragile, but she sensed hope on the horizon.
Africa’s breathtaking dawn creeps over the horizon in a blaze of red light. Rickety motorbikes, rows of school children and overloaded cyclists dominate the streets, all making order of what appears to be chaos as they head for their diverse destinations.
The road in front of us is dusty, hazy and crumbling. Our team of seven has flown from a frozen continent to build a classroom in northern Uganda, a steamy, war-torn country that has only recently glimpsed signs of peace.
As we bounce around the bus like clothes in a hot dryer, my thoughts are interrupted by an endless stream of questions for our guide, a humble and gentle soul named Phillip Oundo. This was my first trip to Africa and I knew instantly why people had told me travelling here can change a person. My questions would wait. Instead, I pulled out my camera and allowed the story in front of me to unfold.
We had arrived from Winnipeg two days earlier, flying into Kampala in southern Uganda, the country’s largest city with about three million people. It was the first time in this part of the world for most of us and we had no idea what to expect. After years of hearing about Africa’s starving children, this was a chance to serve, to build and to have an impact on a struggling community in a tangible way.
Clearly there was a need. The view from the bus windows was shocking — makeshift houses with poor sanitation, garbage strewn everywhere, young children in bare feet. The intense heat only worsened the situation.
Exchanging goods is how most people here earn their living. Everyone runs their own micro-business on the streets. You could buy everything while sitting in traffic, from newspapers to sunglasses, from chicken on a stick to toilet paper.
But against the backdrop of these deplorable living conditions were flickering splashes of brilliant colours. These rich hues of orange, green, aqua and blue were like rays of hope worn on the backs of hardworking women.
* * *
We headed north to the town of Gulu the next day — a seven-hour journey along a highway barely two lanes wide that connects the country’s north and south.
As we sped into the heart of northern Uganda, a feeling of discomfort swept through our bus. Maybe it was because we were asked to put our cameras away while crossing the Nile River.
"It is extremely forbidden to take pictures of the bridge," said Oundo, who had been assigned to be our host by Watoto (Swahili for children), which is a church-based organization that rescues orphans and places them with new families.
These were unexpected, unsettling words coming from someone we recognized as having a gentle heart and calming spirit. Immediately we obeyed, removing all cameras, iPhones and other recording devices from view. No one wanted to risk being scrutinized by soldiers over a picture of a bridge.
The Karuma Bridge that crosses the Nile is a strategic military boundary separating the country. It is here that the Ugandan army fought during the late 1990s to keep rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army followers from spreading into the south. The civil war lasted more than 20 years and left tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced. Many lost their homes, their land and their children. Others had to live in Internally Displaced Persons Camps or were forced to become one of Kony’s soldiers.
Oundo somberly described the scene that played out for many of his close friends: "[Kony] would ambush at night, burn their houses, kill the older ones — the fathers and mothers — take their food and abduct their children.
"After Kony abducted the children, he would brainwash them and make them believe he had spiritual powers to control them wherever they were."
Even today many of these young victims live in fear that Kony will return, Oundo said.
"He would turn these boys into little terrorists. If you give a child a gun, it seems like a toy to them. If you tell them to go and attack and kill, they would kill."
If these boys refused to kill, the soldiers would threaten to kill their siblings in the same group. Even worse, they would often force one sibling to kill another, Oundo said.
"You might have a brother in the group and they would tell you to shoot him. If you did, they would say you were a good soldier and give you a rank. If you didn’t, they would hack with a machete your brother in front of you. It was traumatizing. They did a lot of horrible things."
I could no longer hold back my questions. I asked Oundo how a person can forgive after living through that.
"It’s difficult, but the ones I’ve seen who have forgiven their neighbours or have forgiven themselves have gone through trauma counseling and discipleship," he said. "That is what we do at Living Hope."
Living Hope is a program that helps wounded and vulnerable women get their lives back. Many were child soldiers and were used as sex slaves, which often left them HIV-positive and abandoned by their families.
With few skills, poor education and small children to raise, they needed help to survive. Through trauma counseling, mentoring and vocational training, Living Hope restores dignity to the lives of these women.
Oundo explained how it works: "We ask them, ‘what use would it be if you are in your garden digging and a snake bites you? Do you chase the snake and hit it, or do you first deal with the venom that is in your bloodstream?’"
Lack of forgiveness is the venom and the snake is the person who hurt you, Living Hope teaches. First, learn to forgive. Then, go and settle your grievances with the person and tell them you forgive them.
"That is what’s bringing back hope into our community."
* * *
About 55 kilometres southeast of Gulu is an expansive piece of land in rural Uganda that is a perfect place to raise a child. This is where our journey ended. The place is called Laminadera, and it is home to hundreds of rescued children and women who were left destitute and abandoned after the war. With the village bursting with children, more classrooms were needed.
Dressed in work clothes, gloves and lots of sunscreen, we jumped from the bus ready to dig in and get dirty. Our task: to build an eight-metre by eight-metre bricks-and-mortar classroom.
With few skills, but with eager spirits and willing hearts we listened carefully to our foreman, Jackson (the only name he would give us), as he took us through the steps for laying bricks, filling the gaps with mortar and building the structure.
Jackson lives near the school site, which was once a killing field for the rebels during the war. For him each building raised is a symbol of hope.
We worked together as a team, with each one of us taking on a role, some shovelling mortar, others lifting bricks. It didn’t take long for each row, eight-metres long, to be placed. The air was hot and dusty, with the temperature climbing to 40 C by mid-afternoon. We managed to erect our part of the structure in three days — a day earlier than expected. Once the walls are up, local workers come in to complete the roof, paint and landscape.
The funds donated by our group were enough to not only provide the materials, they also supported local workers in the area and paid for the finishing touches, including desks, chairs, blackboards, and school supplies.
By the end of this year students will be attending school in this classroom.
* * *
If you walked the streets of Gulu in the evening during the war years, you would have seen rows and rows of parentless children among the trash, dirt and debris, Oundo said.
Hours earlier, the children would have left their villages after school and made the trek — some walking more than 12 kilometres.
The ones between the ages of six and 13 were most at risk of being abducted into Kony’s army. But Gulu, controlled by Ugandan forces, was a safe zone.
The next morning, they would pick up their beds and make the long journey home.
Today, in the centre of Gulu, in the middle of a busy traffic circle, is a statue of a boy and a girl with two stacks of books in front of them.
"The books on top are open to signify that they can go to school and read peacefully without any distractions from the war," said Oundo.
The monument is made of melted down scrap metal from weapons used during the war.
It symbolizes freedom for the children of northern Uganda — freedom to be noticed and not hide, freedom to stand up, go to school, learn, grow up and be at peace.
With arms wide open
The children’s village of Suubi sits on top of a hill overlooking the valley below.
This village, run by Watoto, contains more than 180 homes built by teams like ours, housing more than 1,000 rescued children and 200 abandoned women who have become their adopted moms.
As I visited the village, a young boy of about five or six spotted me from a distance. Immediately he started running toward me with his arms out wide yelling "Muzungu, Muzungu!" like I was his long lost mother. (Muzungu in Uganda means white person from the West).
I was worried he would bash his face on my camera lens in his excitement, so I quickly swung it around to my back, knelt down and waited for the impact. My arms were open wide as he slammed into me, giving me a huge bear hug. I was humbled and taken aback by his outpouring of love for a stranger. After our embrace, he put his little hand in mine and started to walk with me toward a group of children playing in the distance. There was a tear in my eye and a smile on my face as he skipped along beside me.
With more than two million orphans in Uganda, only the most desperate cases are living in orphanages like this one in Suubi.
The area around our guest house in Gulu was filled with children, many without parents and being raised by neighbours.
One evening after arriving at our guest house, which was enclosed by a high wall and large gated door, I asked if I could go back out into the village next to us and spend some time with the children. The Watoto staff were happy to oblige but kept an eye out, knowing not everyone would receive us with open arms. The war has left many adults distrustful and everyone is a suspect, especially those carrying cameras. Taking their photo, even with the best intentions, could prove volatile.
The children gathered around us quickly. We felt like pop stars in a young crowd of screaming fans outside a concert hall. The few toys and candies we brought ran out immediately. I wished I had a truckload of toys, such as skipping ropes, soccer balls and Frisbees, to hand out so they could play with something else besides a worn-out bicycle wheel. Spending time playing games with them was all we had left to give. They didn’t seem to mind.
Orphaned, not abandoned
The story of Uganda is the story of many African countries.
Fifty per cent of the population of Uganda is under the age of 15 and 72 per cent is under the age of 30.
The war wiped out a whole generation, leaving thousands of children orphaned. Then there is HIV, malaria and disease, meaning even fewer adults remain to raise the next generation.
Organizations such as Watoto are struggling to keep up. They have adopted more than 2,500 children, who are in homes in children’s villages throughout Uganda.
When Watoto takes in a new child, it commits to them for life. All their needs, including a home, family, food, clothing, schooling and medical supplies, are paid for through Watoto’s child sponsorship program and donations.
Abandoned babies as young as a few days old, who were left in garbage dumps or at police stations, typically end up at one of Watoto’s three baby orphanages. During our time in Uganda, we visited the Bulrushes Orphanage in Kampala. It was brimming with hundreds of babies ranging in age from a few weeks to toddlers. Getting an opportunity to feed, hold and cuddle them was humbling and beautiful. It’s like looking into the face of God as you hold one of these little babies in your arms and stare into their deep, dark eyes.
One little boy I held in my arms was Jonah. He was born without legs and probably wouldn’t have survived without a team of medical professionals at this high-risk children’s facility.