At 16-years-old, Denis Odongo was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels from his home in Alebtong District. His father, step mother and uncle were abducted too, led away on ropes. Destination, Pader District. A long the way, his father, step mother and uncle were killed because they couldn’t keep up with the pace. All Odongo was left with were the ropes that bound him and his abductors.
After one year in captivity, Odongo escaped and tried to forge a new life in his village growing crops such as maize for survival from late 2004 to 2015.
One day in 2015, Odongo heard of a sympathiser who was interested in offering counselling and psychological support to children bornduring the war and former child soldiers. The woman whom he later came to know as Jane Ekayu met Odongo and several others like him at Coorom Primary School in Lira District.
Ekayu, among other things, offered psychological support and counselling to former child soldiers and children born to rebels. These children also received playing kits such as balls as well as participation in drama groups to rid their minds of the memory of atrocities they had witnessed while in captivity. Odongo was given two beehives from Children of Peace Uganda (CPU) where Ekayu is the executive director and founder. He was trained in bee keeping and his first harvest earned him Shs150, 000.
Starting Children of Peace Uganda
A brainchild of Ekayu, CPU was founded in June 2010. According to Ekayu, the objectives of the organisation were to follow up with children and youth that had been abducted and directly affected by the LRA war.
The intention was for a holistic approach to post rehabilitation and empowerment of the young people. Some of the children were formerly abducted like Odongo, while others were children born during LRA captivity to girls who had become sex slaves to LRA commanders and children orphaned by the war. The process also involved incorporation of children who grew up in the region after witnessing LRA atrocities and were negatively impacted by the war. Ekayu also considered the financial needs of former child soldiers, education and health.
Her inspiration stems from Rachele Rehabilitation Centre in Lira District where she worked as a social worker and counsellor from 2003 to 2006. The centre received children from the army, local leaders and others who had been rescued from the LRA by the UPDF.
“I was in charge of receiving the children and took them through counselling and medical care. There were 13 and 14 year-old girls who were pregnant and I had to help them untill they gave birth,” Ekayu says.
In the begining, Ekayu carried out family tracing but discovered that some of the children’s parents had been murdered by LRA. Whenever she placed a child at a relative’s place, they were at times overwhelmed by big numbers because some of them had homes with family heads as young as eight years as parents.
“I wondered what a child could do to become self-sustaining because they had to gain some skills and knowledge. I believe that every person was created with passion and potential to be of help to another. This creates the drive within me that is why I was able to do something for these children. That is how I started the organisation,” she says.
After some time, Ekayu recalls being joined by her social worker brother and a one Rebecca who both volunteered to help her with running the organisation. Her staff have since risen to 14.
The number one challenge for Ekayu is limited resources yet the number of children who need to be supported are overwhelming. She has a number of times had to say ‘no’ to other children and linked them to people or organisations she thinks could support them.
“The levels of trauma are very high. Listening to a child narrate to you how they were forced to kill their own parents or sibling is heart wrecking. You cannot detach yourself from the emotions and reality that come with such narrations,” Ekayu explains.
Magnitude of the war
“What the LRA did was create total destruction and discord in the communities. It created enmity that families are still dealing with. There are children who confide in me and point at fellow children who they believe participated in killing their families. But when you ask the child who is being pointed at, their response is that they were forced. I devise ways of dealing with such situations,” Ekayu shares.
Many girls returned to their communities with children fathered by rebels. To date, Ekayu says she still has to hide the identity of children who were born in captivity.
Ekayu’s intention is to build an agricultural school to be utilised by the people in northern Uganda who have not gone to school. It will involve formal and informal agricultural teaching.
Some of LRA war victims studied as far as primary five yet there is land that’s not put to use. As such, some of them hang around town to hire or sell land to ride motorcycles.
“My intention is sending these people back to the land they are selling or intend to sell to do agriculture. If they are to come to town, it should be to market, but not loiter around. They should be able to form cooperative farming groups in their areas of operation,” Ekayu shares.
She incorporates peace building because some farmers work with children who were exposed to guns and violence. It is why some of the projects such as livelihood are called farming for peace.
The women groups she works with on livelihood are known as peace savings and credit scheme while the psychosocial programme was named “choose peace.”
Under psychosocial support and peace building, Ekayu has impacted 1,600 children from different communities.
CPU has also impacted 168 under the sponsorship programme and 219 households under the apiary project and 1,028 men and women farmers under the livelihood programme who are also attached to peace savings groups.