Uganda’s Warrior Girls
| September 10, 2007
Yes, this slight, shy girl talking with me in the schoolyard killed four people. The rebel soldiers had given her the dictum so many warrior Ugandan children live under: “Kill, or we will kill you.” She tells her story in a rapid-fire, hushed monotone—as if rushing to deliver a memorized passage from a tale too awful to really think about. And that it is. She is only now 16 years old: as an 11-year-old soldier she killed grown men. I don’t give her name because life is still too dangerous for her. Abducted from her school by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a small child, she is now rebuilding her life in northern Uganda—a student at a boarding school for girls in Kitgum, near the Sudanese border. In the run of her life, she managed to escape from the brutality of the rebel army only to return to her village to find her parents dead.
For some 20 years the LRA attempted to tear down the Ugandan government to replace it with one, it said, based on the Ten Commandments. In the name of those religious principles it kidnapped more than 20,000 children, who made up the bulk of their fighting army that slaughtered and maimed and destroyed life in a swath across Uganda in the north.
I spent nearly three weeks in Eastern Africa this summer—Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda—countries that surround the magnificent Lake Victoria. Everywhere in Africa, the compelling story is one of its women and girls: what has happened to them, how they can survive.
The most moving of many emotional encounters was with the repatriated girls. By now, we’ve heard stories of boy soldiers but fewer accounts of what happened to the girls, although we know that rape and servitude—as well as murder—are part of the tale. I spoke with several LRA survivors—still frightened and uncertain—and not so easily re-integrated into “civil” society. Some of the girls nestled against me for comfort while recounting their years of rampage as hostages and “wives” of the LRA, leveling villages, making sure to leave no survivors—man, woman or child.
This part of Uganda was home to the “night commuters.” For years, thousands of children walked miles from their villages to the safety of the towns to prevent being snatched by the rebels. Nearly two million people were moved from their homes into camps to be protected by government soldiers. As we walked through these camps of the internally displaced, talking to residents, it was clear that all here are prisoners, too. There is no work; they are far from their farms. The unimaginable, never-ending landscape of huts represents intensified illness and suffering, with consuming rates of AIDS.
Peace talks have staggered along for several years, and an uncertain ceasefire is in effect. Eager to return to their homes in this period of relative calm, people are cautiously moving out of the camps. Still, we were not allowed to fly our small plane the three hundred miles from the capital city of Kampala into Kitgum without armed guards.
I traveled to Africa with a group led by a friend, Bill MacArthur. We were looking at projects supported by one of the longest running health organizations in Africa, AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation.) Bill serves on the AMREF/USA board and also engages in significant personal philanthropic work around the world.
Originally known as the Flying Doctors, AMREF was founded 50 years ago by three doctors, Michael Wood, Tom Rees and Archie McIndoe. They flew small planes into African villages to perform medical procedures. Last year, the fleet of planes and doctors departing from a hangar near their Nairobi, Kenya, headquarters took care of nearly 20,000 patients.
And AMREF’s on-the-ground services have reached hundreds of thousands more, with projects in East Africa, South Africa, Somalia, Sudan and other countries. Ninety-seven percent of the health professionals are African. For its work in areas of HIV/AIDS, fistula, malaria, TB and water sanitation, AMREF won awards from the Gates Foundation, among many others. On this trip, hundreds of villagers in remote Tanzania greeted us—to show off the recently installed water pump that meant children would not die, women and girls would not spend their whole days carting water for the family. In a sex education program for primary school children—where issues of protection are fully discussed, and meant to be shared with parents—students stood tall and demonstrated that they were fully informed.
The girl’s school in Kitgum is an example of projects AMREF supports. Westerners might pause at the sight of 100 girls sleeping in one dormitory room—double- and triple-decker beds under nets—or the massive cauldron in the yard where food is prepared. But they should be impressed, even envious, that in this remote part of the world, teaching 900 girls math and science is the mission.
Only a small number of the girls are former soldiers, struggling to re-adjust to life without pitched battles, but all of the girls’ lives have been stunted by fear. As I walked through the classrooms, I saw open algebra and geometry books. When I ask the girls what they want to be as adults, they answer, doctors, nurses, accountants—one girl wants to be a journalist. I ask a head teacher how they’re doing: “Making progress. Making progress.” AMREF works with World Vision, OXFAM and other organizations that give scholarships to girls whose families cannot afford the small tuition.
Seeing something so positive, girls so hopeful, made me hopeful, too, about the future of Africa—even as images of starvation and sickness and war in its present are impossible to erase. But everywhere you go in East Africa, there are children in school uniforms—bright pinks, yellows, blues—by the hundreds, walking barefoot along the sides of roads to school. Therein lies one solution. And in countries where whole families live on less than $300 US a year, we can participate in the solution.
Deep in the countryside of Uganda we visited with several grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans. One has lost eight of her children to AIDS. She now cares for 25 children and grandchildren. AMREF has built a home for the children—she farms to feed the huge family, and grows coffee beans for barter. On a previous visit Bill MacArthur, moved by the grandmother’s struggle, began supporting six of the older children in a nearby secondary boarding school. To ensure that they are educated, no matter what happens to him, he has taken care of their expenses for several years into the future. Knowing that Bill is visiting, the six, in their crisp school uniforms, have come home to thank him. As we sit on the floor along the walls of house, the oldest boy stands and speaks for the others. In a surprisingly confident voice he says, “Bill MacArthur, I say a prayer for you every day. And I’ll say a prayer for you every day until the mighty Lake Victoria runs dry.”
There is much work to be done in Africa…and there is so much we can do.
In October The Guardian will begin running a long series of profiles of AMREF’s work in Uganda in its paper and in videos on the website.