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Unsung Heroes

Victor Ochen: The 33-Year-Old Ugandan Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

 

VictorWhen he was in the middle of an Internally Displaced Peoples  (IDP) camp, risking his life to burn charcoal to raise his school fees, mending shoes of his schoolmates in high school, Victor Ochen had no idea that his name would one day appear on the list of the Nobel Peace Prize nominees.

Abia village, Abletong district in Northern Uganda is where he was born in 1981. For many years of his life he didn’t see peace. Idi Amin, Obote 11 Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit movement, the NRA and LRA rebels. War was the life he knew.

Hopelessness lingered, security was an illusion, and clothing, medication and other basic needs were a luxury. At the heart of conflict most of his friends joined armed forces. He refused to join because “I wanted a more peaceful way of solving conflict. I told my mother that I don’t appreciate guns and that I shall never join armed forces no matter how many guns were exchanging hands.” guns were everywhere, those that were not abducted by the rebels or recruited by the Uganda Peoples defense forces, joined auxiliary forces- home guards. “My friends were abducted so was my own brother Geoffrey Omara who was 26 when he was taken and we have never heard about him since.” He confesses to have become angry and bitterness clogged his life, war had hardened his heart but real healing began when he started helping the former war victims.

I was curious to know why Victor Ochen and not those guys that sat at the round table for the Juba peace talks were not nominated for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.“The nomination surprised me” but the American friends service committee that was tracking his work since 2009 nominated him. This is the same committee that  nominated Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Junior, President Jimmy Carter who are all Nobel peace prizewinners. That in itself was a vote of confidence. When he read the ten-page recommendation that they had made of his work, he was amazed and yet all this time he had no clue that this committee had sent two people to Northern Uganda to scout his work.

What Victor did out of sheer compassion added him to this prestigious list. As a teenager in Abia camp that was home of over 40,000 people, he formed a peace club with his peers in the camp. This initiative angered the elders “Why are you talking about peace that you have never seen?” He was enterprising; he risked his life to burn charcoal to raise his school fees. Then later he joined secondary school and could barely afford time to do his charcoal business so he became a cobbler, he used to repair shoes of kids at school. One day he landed a big job of mending the shoes of the school football team, unfortunately that money was stolen. His hard work and favor from the teachers saw him through high school.

 Victor’s heart was home even when he worked with straight talk foundation in Kampala, interacting with the people in the field made him realize that the people of northern Uganda wanted more than hand outs but wanted and deserved more. That is when he left his job and started the African youth initiative Network. This initiative mobilizes communities especially the youth to pursue peace and human rights, reconciliation. They offer psychosocial support to the former victims of conflict, most of who suffer severe emotional pain and struggle with forgiveness, they have also supported over 5000 people with reconstructive surgeries especially the women whose lips were cut off, the initiative also supports income generating activities, have formed 100 peace clubs in schools and universities in northern Uganda and over 6000 young people have gone through the peace building and transitional justice programme.

When all is falling apart and giving up is an option, “Victory Stories like that of Michael keep me going when everything is working against me.” he remembers Michael a survivor of an ambush that left 22 people dead. Although Michael had not been abducted, he was badly wounded and his parents were only waiting for Michael’s turn to die. For what its worth, they had abandoned him to stay in a hut away from their main hut. That is when the AYINET team was visiting that Victor met Michael. He was stinking because his wounds were rotting yet his parents didn’t have any money to take him to a hospital. “I had seen a lot of cases but Michael’s case kept me awake, I took him to Lacor hospital, but buses didn’t want to take us because the stench was too much” The doctors worked hard and Michael began to recover. Several weeks down the road, Victor made a phone call to Michaels’ father. In turn, the father called the elders to prepare for Michael’s funeral. When his father got to Lacor hospital, Michael was playing with other kids in the hospital compound. “The man cried out aloud”

 About forgiveness, justice and reconciliation, he believes that before the government declares that they have forgiven anyone, the victims should have a say because they know what exactly they felt. Victor thinks that the Kony 2012 video was a blatant lie that offended the people of northern Uganda as it was glorifying war.

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Victor Ochen With UN Sec General Ban Kimoon at NATO JHQ Lisbon/Portugal in 2010

Victor Ochen

Photo Credit: Justicehub.org

Victor Ochen 2Football Victor

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. peachfire

    April 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    Great work Victor. Its amazing to to learn of these great works that you have done. congratulations on the nomination and the heavens know you deserve that award!

  2. Tuusah

    April 13, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Its inspiring for some one born in war torn areas to advocate for peace that he has never seen. I have learnt to accept whatever i go through in life because its part of my story. #AFRICAN STORY

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  7. catherinenalule

    September 25, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Love this! He’s such an inspiration & role model!

    • thisis256

      September 25, 2015 at 9:32 am

      Thank you for reading Catherine 🙂

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Collective Good

He Grew Up in Bwaise Slum. Today, Kisirisa has Educated and Empowered Young People like Him

Muhammed most commonly known as Slum Ambassador, was born and raised in Bwaise, the most deprived and perhaps largest slum area in Kampala. At the tender age of 11, he found his first job as a tap water operator. He would also carry water and pick garbage from people’s homes. On some occasions he would sell metal scrap all in an attempt to get an education, put clothes on his back and get something to eat.

“I picked interest in Computers when I was 25 years and began to teach myself at various internet cafes. I focused on creating profiles for HIV orphans and trying to see if I could link them up with potential sponsors for fees and assistance.” Mohammed says

Later, in 2009, together with 3 other young people, he formed Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD) a community based organization set out to transform Kampala’s poorest areas by empowering the young people, children and women through health, education and economic empowerment programs like vocational and entrepreneurship training.

A vocational training for youth underway at AFFCAD. (Photo by AFFCAD)

Since its establishment, AFFCAD’s primary focus was supporting orphans and vulnerable children and making awareness on health issues including HIV/AIDS awareness and adolescent sexual reproductive health. In June 2011 they established a community nursery and primary school called Excel Education Center that supports 200 children from Bwaise slums.

Todate, it has graduated 1,047 youth. This equates to a completion rate of 90%. Of those who have graduated 697 are female and 350 are male.

“AFFCAD’s Youth economic empowerment program provides the hands on skills that enable the disadvantaged youth in Kampala’s slums to transit from lives of crime and poverty to lives of productive occupation. “ He explains.

Through AFFCAD’s Bwaise Business and Vocational Institute, the targeted youth between 16-25 years participate in a 6 month vocational training program in applicable skills like Computer Graphics Design, Photography and Videography, Cookery and Bakery, Tailoring and Fashion design, Electronic installation, Hairdressing and Cosmetology, Decoration and Ushering among others.

Women during a graduation after completing the Women Business and Financial Access course (Photo by AFFCAD)

“As part of the program, the Youth are also equipped with entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy, soft and hard skills for career and professional development (How to Make it in the Contemporary Business World) and they Youth take on one month internships at the end of the training to expose them to working environments.” Muhammed explains.

In addition, the project also provides IT Training to the youth on how to strategically use ICT (including internet, social media, Web 2.0 and mobile technology) to market and sustain their business ventures.

Each year AFFCAD runs The Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, to support the business ideas developed by the youth in the program, a mentoring session and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship boot camp. Every Friday, AFFCAD invites successful youth and other leaders to motivate and inspire our youth.

Muhammad standing next to one of the entrances at AFFCAD. (Internet photo)

AFFCAD runs the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and Award, 15 winners have received micro start up grants between $1500 to $2500 to develop their business ideas, a mentoring session, and a scholarship to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the innovation entrepreneurship Boot Camp.

In August 2017, Muhammad received the 2017 Young Achievers Award for Social Entrepreneurship in recognition for his work with AFFCAD.

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Unsung Heroes

Being HIV Positive, Diagnosed with Cancer & Tuberculosis Has not stopped this Superwoman From Looking After 150 Kids in Slums

“A strong woman doesn’t give up even though her heart may feel heavy. She courageously takes one more step, then another and then another.” –Anonymous

Stella Airoldi first met Susan laker in 2009 when she first came to Uganda while doing research about post war victims and witnesses.

“I visited her house, where she was living with her 3 teenage kids. Back then I was 24 years old and Susan 26 years, so just two years older than me.  But her kids were already 9,10 and 13 years old.” Stella says.

Because Susan got pregnant for the first time when she was only 13, her kids didn’t go to school and neither did she. A soldier was responsible for her first pregnancy while she was living in a military barracks which by then, was the only safe place for her to go to escape the insurgency caused by the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda.

“Getting pregnant when I was 13 years old was so traumatizing. I lost my childhood life. I wasn’t able to go to school which made me lost my hope for living a good future. I hated my parents for forcing me in to early marriage, my growth was totally destroyed and I segregated myself from people because I felt inferior.”- Susan notes.

Susan with some of the beneficiaries of 22STARS. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

When Susan was 15 years old, she conceived again but got a miscarriage when she received a message notifying her that her uncles, nieces, a brother and sister had been mutilated and killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

“I was shocked and lost the pregnancy. After a few months, I conceived again and gave birth to a second child at the age of 16 and when the baby was 6 months, the father died and since I had nowhere to get financial help from, I was forced to  remarry another soldier from the barracks to get protection and when I was 19 I gave birth to the third child.” Susan says

In 2007, her husband was deployed to Somalia on a peacekeeping and never returned, a thing that left Susan very frustrated. It was shortly after that, that she found out that she was HIV positive, had cancer and Tuberculosis (TB). It was not until an organization called Reach Out Mbuya came to her rescue that she was able to start cancer chemotherapy and TB drugs for six months and now am on ARVs treatment for life.

She then fled with all her children to Kampala which were (and still remain) her main reason and motivation to keep going in life. Her kids were tested negative and she wanted them to go to school. She started making jewellery, which initially her kids would sell in the streets.

Susan and some of her children (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

“It was then my pastor introduced me to Stella. I was making paper beads jewellery and Stella decided to buy me jewellery on a yearly basis. At the end of 2012 when she came back to Uganda to see how I was doing, she was surprised to learn that I was going back to school by myself and I had improved.” Susan notes.

Susan has been able to buy land and built a bigger house for her family. She completed high school and did a couple of short courses to improve her skills and knowledge for example a  certificate in Clearing, Forwarding and Shipping management, Certificate in Electronics, Certificate in Counseling People Living with HIV/AIDS.

“At first, all my friends and family thought I was completely crazy starting with women who cannot read and write and I cannot even communicate with. So true, things didn’t go that smooth the first 2 years. So end of 2014 I came back to Kampala and since 2015 I am here myself 2 to 3 times a year and things improved a lot.”- Stella says.

Stella (left) and Susan during one of the jewellery making sessions (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Susan is now managing the whole team of at 22STARS jewellery that comprises of over 20 women and supporting 150 children in slums. Thanks to recurring monthly donations, she (Susan) has been cooking in Acholi Quarter every Sunday since October 2016 ( so more than 14 months!) with the help of other 22STARS group members. The group started back then to cook for 50 kids and that is now 150. They get a hot meal with either fish or meat.

22STARS is a team of artisans made up by strong women living in the slums of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda making jewellery for a living. The platform is giving women in slum areas like Susan to sell their jewellery on the international market and earn a living, and in addition war running small social programs on the ground.

“Our choice for environmentally friendly products is a very conscious one. By using 100% recycled paper, the jewellery you wear does not only look good, but it also feels good. Our beads are hand made from paper and varnished with natural products.  This makes each peace uniquely different, lightweight and waterproof.” Stella says.

Some of the 22STARS women that make jewellery (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

22STARS also uses education and entrepreneurship to empower children and their families to rise above poverty by creating long-term sponsorships for children in Uganda, and also run several community development initiatives including a nutrition program, basic needs program, small business training and micro loans program and our holistic educational program with extra-curricular activities.

“Without the help of Susan this all would not have been possible. As she knows how it feels like to sit in the stone quarry with your kids, crashing stones all day, not being able to send them to school, she is pushing very hard to help all the families over there to send their kids to school. She is so amazing how she is managing everything. Susan is a true superstar and really the strongest woman I ever met.” Stella concludes.

Stella and Susan at the 22STARS office. (Photo credit: Stella Airoldi)

Like this story or have something to share? Write to us: info@thisisuganda.org, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Uganda Innovates

Athieno Mary Lucinda is changing girls’ lives one sanitary pad at a time

She stood up in class, her classmates laughed at her. The boys said that she had slaughtered a chicken. They made fun of her for a long time. She couldn’t afford sanitary towels, the anxiety of the monthly period coupled with the embarrassment she had faced which would have destroyed her self-esteem as a young girl instead stirred her resolve.

Meet Athieno Mary Lucinda a YALI fellow, the founder of Eco-Pads a social enterprise dedicated to the production and distribution of reusable pads and environmentally friendly to girls in Uganda.

“That experience kept me wondering what I would ever do to save a girl the embarrassment I had gone through. While at university, I went to volunteer with Kadama Widows Association where I am the Executive Director now and as I interacted with the girls, they had similar challenges. I then started saving part of my stipend to make the pads and that was my aha moment.” Lucinda says.

The sanitary pads are distributed to young women in rural Uganda. These Eco-pads are Menstrual Kits that are made from very high performance fabric and provide comfort and supper protection for a period up to 12 months.

“The Eco-pads project started in 2008 as a local thing trying to just help girls in the community. In 2014 we realized we can improve on quality and start selling for sustainability and we have been growing daily from just the local community to many parts of the country with over 20 full time  and 35 part time employees.”

“I am most proud of last year when we reached 50,000 girls with Eco-Pads, the feedback from the girls attending school daily is heart-filling. The involvement of parents and the whole community in the cause is great. We have reached over 75,000 community members on Menstruation being an issue and how they support. Mentored over 10,000 girls” Lucinda says.

There are challenges that are still to be overcome. Being a local product, Lucinda’s biggest challenge has been in marketing and getting the product to be known, convincing the clients that it is a good product since it is new. The very first money that they used was grant money that they used to buy equipment and set up and buy some few materials.

Despite the challenges, she has mentors that encourage her when things are going down hill. my “Atuki Turner the ED of Mifumi, Tracey the founder of glad rags U.S, Mary Mosinghi the ED of KwaAfrica. They remaind me that I need to remain a learner and humble in whatever I do.”

At the heart of this project is the desire by Eco pads that every girl child remains in school. Eco-pads give affordable sanitary pads for girls, because many miss out of school during their menstruation. They are competing against appalling statistics 80% of Girls in Uganda are absent from school during their periods. 70% of female students reported difficulty of attending class attentively due to menstrual related problems. 90% of the poor women and girls do not use (off-the-shelf) sanitary pads, but instead improvise with unsanitary materials. Prior to their first period only 51% of girls had knowledge of menstruation and its management

“We educate girls on MHM, conduct mentorship sessions and educate the parents and teachers on the need to support girl child. We shall continue to do something regardless of the tide. One sanitary pad at a time.” Lucinda says

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