Meeting up with Betty Lalam, the founder of the Gulu War Affected Training School, was an interesting experience that surprised me on the passionate heart she had for the formerly abducted girls.
Ms Lalam, a mother of one, has since 2010 transformed the lives of thousands of girls who were once abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels at the height of the insurgency in the northern Uganda.
At her institute, located a kilometre out of Gulu Town in Kasubi village, Bardege Division, a soft spoken and passionate Lalam narrates her long walk to establishing the vocational training centre.
Ms Lalam, a Senior Two dropout, had been working at Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO), an NGO where formerly abducted persons received rehabilitation and counselling upon return from captivity, where she worked as a counsellor/caretaker.
“While working at GUSCO, I developed a heart for the young girls whose lives were ravaged by the rebels while in captivity. I had an idea on my mind that one day I would also extend a hand to them through my own organisation or a school,” says Ms Lalam.
She says in 2005, having worked for eight years and made some little savings, she resigned from her job to embark on her dream of changing the lives of child, mothers, disadvantaged girls and the formerly abducted persons.
Her move to establish a learning centre was not easy. Ms Lalam says she began from her home veranda in Kasubi were she trained about five girls in tailoring skills using her only tailoring machine.
“At first it was as if we were just passing time, but day by day training inspired many other girls in the area to join. After five months, the first set of girls acquired the skills in tailoring but more came in,” she says.
Ms Lalam explains that the area she occupied had a number of formerly abducted girls, disadvantaged girls and all she wanted was to help transform their lives by giving them life-long skills so that they integrate well with the community.
By the end of 2006, after successfully helping out about 25 girls, she became popular in the area and so were the numbers of girls who came to her home to attend trainings. By then she had two sewing machines.
“I decided to construct a makeshift classroom in my compound where the girls could attend the training. I also bought learning materials and cooking utensil so that lunch can be provided for the girls. All this was free of charge without any payment,” Lalam says.
“In 2007, after successfully training 60 students, all in tailoring, organisations started recognising my commitment. World Vision and Good Samaritan were the first to hand in help and also brought in some girls for training.”
This time around, the organisations were the ones paying for the students’ school fees, Shs300,0000 per student, something that was a relief to her. Part of the money she used for recruiting some trainers to take them through the trainings.
By 2009, Ms Lalam’s vocational training school had gained popularity for changing lives of disadvantaged girls, but they had one problem – space and permanent classrooms.
Luck, however, knocked at her door when the South African Ambassador to Uganda, Mr Henry Thanduyise, visited the region in 2009 and offered to construct and furnish permanent classrooms through Eskom Uganda Limited.
Since then, the centre has not only been training formerly abducted girls, but has become a school for both female and male, irrespective of whether they are disadvantaged or not. The vocational school has also broadened the courses they offer from tailoring to catering and hairdressing.
Ms Lalam says what pains her is when people say the establishment of the centre was a strategy for her to make money out of the disadvantaged women and girls.
Ms Lalam says although the students pay some money, it is not enough to run the school.
“We have had a few companies such as Eskom Uganda Limited and NGOs like World Vision and Comboni Samaritans that have in the past helped with financial resources. However, at the moment we are short of finance,” she adds.
Ms Lalam says the district leadership had pledged to support the school, but have since not come through.