Kampala- Although the Nobel Peace Prize shortlist is yet to be out, it has still broken a few records.
Victor Ochen is the youngest African to be nominated in the history of the prize, and only the second Ugandan to be nominated. African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), which he founded and was jointly nominated with, is Africa’s first youth initiative to be recognised.
There is a sharp contrast between the man before me and the high flying jet setter whose Facebook timeline features pictures with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“I am not a lawyer,” the 33-year-old says. A number of articles in the wake of the news of his nomination have described him as a Ugandan lawyer. “I do a lot of work with victims. I represent the victim’s side in pursuit of remedy and redress,” he adds.
Ochen, however, is an advocate of victims of conflicts rights and his work with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) victims in northern Uganda has earned him international recognition.
He has also gone places, from speaking to the UN Assembly in 2010, addressing the US Congress, to addressing the NATO summit.
His early years
Ochen, who is the eighth of 10 children his parents bore, describes his childhood in Abia, present day Alebtong District in an internally displaced people’s camp, as one of abject poverty.
“We were so poor that any dogs we kept moved away. For years, we had only one meal a day and never had salt in our food,” he says. His family was first displaced when the Karimojong cattle rustlers attacked Abia. They fled to Lira Town.
When they returned after a short while, Ochen and his twin brother Opiyo then enrolled at Abia Primary School, but he says they only made it to Primary Two before the rustlers again forced the family to flee to Lira once more.
This time, they stayed for four years, during which Ochen and his sibling were unable to attend school.
The family returned to Abia even more desperately poor than before. To be able to resume school, Ochen says he collected and sold shea nuts. By then, his age mates were several classes ahead and not to be left behind, Ochen skipped classes to Primary Five against his teachers’ and mother’s advice. “I did come in last (position) at first but I caught up,” he says.
Pursuit of education
He later went to Apac District to stay with his elder sister, sat his Primary Leaving Examinations at Awir Primary School and passed in Grade One.
But poverty was threatening his education dreams again. “We did not have a single cent to take me to secondary school,” he shares. Ochen says he turned to burning charcoal with his siblings.
“I cut a lot of Shea trees. I feel guilty about that. The tuition at Lira Town College, where I got admission, was Shs43,000 with 50kg of maize. I would sell a bag of charcoal at Shs1,500 so you can imagine how many trees I had to cut,” he shares.
By the time he joined A-Level at the same school, he had found work at Radio Lira. Ochen says he started as a cleaner, then took on receptionist duties and quickly rose to presenting a gospel show.
“I was now able to pay my school fees and that of my two siblings,” he says.
Starting his initiative
In 2004, he forewent joining university and started working with the Straight Talk Foundation. He did this to fend for his family, and says it is what opened his world. One incident in particular may have been his turning point.
“I met an elderly woman with a child at Kitgum hospital. The child’s mother had been killed in one of the attacks and the child had a bullet wound in the arm that was clearly infected. Yet they were stranded because they did not have Shs2,500 for a scan,” he says.
A moved Ochen hurried through a week’s work in one day and went back to stay in the hospital to look after the child and his elderly charge.
“The woman cried when I left after almost a week. The child was much better but I knew helping one was not enough,” he says.
Ochen started AYINET in 2005, primarily to mobilise former abductee youth to participate in peace building.
After a year of it being a briefcase organisation, he managed to convince his brother and a friend to volunteer and man the office.
“I just made sure they had sugar and tea. I would eagerly await my Straight Talk salary so I could pay for the rent and my staff’s salaries,” says Ochen.
AYINET now employs 30 people and boasts of well finished and furnished spacious offices in Lira. Its Kampala branch opened last year.
Over the years, the organisation went on to work in rehabilitating war victims, from getting them medical rehabilitation such as plastic surgery for the maimed, to psychosocial support.
“We have helped more than 5,000 people get treatment to date,” says Ochen.
Ochen later got involved in speaking for justice for the victims of the war, as well as promoting the International Criminal Court.
He was recently at The Hague on the heels of the hand over of LRA commander Dominic Ongwen to the international criminal justice body, speaking for the victims.
In 2008, he left Straight Talk and concentrated on building AYINET and furthering its mission to make peace and justice, a reality for the victims of the LRA war.
Reaction to the nomination
The father of one boy still lives in Lira, close to his own father who still lives in Abia.
He was at The Hague late last month when someone from the American Friends Service committee, which nominated him and AYINET, called and said they had something to tell him when he found time.
“I got the news of my nomination on 7th of this month at around 6.30pm,” he says.
Ochen is not celebrating yet, not even the nomination which he concedes is a feat in itself. “It brings much needed attention to people who have been ignored for a long time,” he says modestly.
“The best way to celebrate is to get more people treated,” he says. The burden is big he believes, 20,000 to 30,000 are living with the wounds and scars of war.
He never got around to joining university, though he did some distance learning and got a degree in leadership and development from the now defunct World Leadership University.
It is not for lack of opportunity though. He has had to turn down several opportunities to go study, and even lucrative job offers preferring to continue with his work.
“Many thought I would regret my decisions to turn down all those offers,” he says as he wishes me a good evening and hurries off to another meeting.
Nobelprize.org says the first step towards the Nobel Peace Prize is where the Norwegian Nobel committee receives the nominations from all over the world.
A nomination must be submitted by a qualified nominator no later than the February 1. Qualified nominators include members of parliament from all over the world, former Nobel Prize winners and board members of organisations that have received the Nobel Prize.
After the nominations are received, the committee then prepares a shortlist of Nobel Prize contenders.
A stage marked as adviser review follows. Nobel Laureates are chosen in October and receive their prize at a ceremony in December.