The education of women and girls is the key to the future of Africa, a survivor of violent atrocities in Uganda and a former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize insisted.
Jolly Okot-Andruville spent parts of two days telling her story—and recounting the plight of civil war-ravaged central Africa—to members of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
“I grew up in northern Uganda … in a strong Christian home,” Okot-Andruville said. “My father was a choirmaster, and I taught Sunday school from age 12. It was very peaceful. We could travel almost anywhere the way we wanted.”
But that peace didn’t last. Fueled by tribal and regional conflicts and intensified by government corruption, civil war broke out in Uganda in 1986.
“I was in high school, thinking about my big dream. I wanted to become manager of a big company,” she recalled. Instead, rebels captured her as she walked home from school, and they forced her to join them.
Forced to kill
“I had an AK-47” assault rifle, she said. “My ‘job’ mainly was to collect money from people, to collect food from people.” The rebels also forced their captive soldiers to kill people they knew. “That was the system they used to make you not even think of going home,” she explained.
“During the day, you were a soldier. At night, you were being raped by different commanders.”
After two years, Okot-Andruville escaped and returned to her family. The rebels targeted her father for execution, but she covered him with her body, and they did not shoot. Still, they abducted him, and she heard they scheduled him to be killed.
Two nights later, she and a cousin took their rifles and rescued him. The next night, they began walking to a Catholic mission, where they sought refuge.
Later, rebels ambushed a bus on which they were traveling. “Everyone riding on top of the bus was killed,” she reported. “My father and I survived. We were left for dead because we were soaked in (the victims’) blood.”
When the rebels linked Okot-Andruville to her father’s escape and realized the pair still were alive, they killed 21 of her cousins. “My father said he wished he had died,” she said, but she determined God spared her for a purpose.
Okot-Andruville returned home and completed her education. She went to work for organizations whose mission is to help the weakest and most vulnerable Africans—the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, OxFam, Doctors Without Borders and InterAid International.
She gained international attention for helping found Invisible Children, an organization that helps children who also had been abducted. Many of them had been kidnapped by the infamous Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, who started a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army—child soldiers forced to abduct other children, whom Kony trades to the government of Sudan in exchange for weapons.
Okot-Andruville’s commitment to protect and educate children led to her nickname, “Mama Jolly,” pronounced Jo-Lee. It also earned her the Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005. “I did not know what the Nobel Peace Prize was,” she said with a laugh.
Later, she founded WEND (Women Empowerment Network and Design) Africa, a nonprofit that helps other women who have been abducted—most of them as children—during 30 years of civil war.
Many of the women were held for 10 years or more, she said. Yet they still are young.
“Their children have no fathers,” because they are the result of repeated rapes by rebel commanders, she explained. Upon their return to Uganda, the women and children live with stigma because of the atrocities that mark their lives.
Blessed … and blessing
“I feel blessed. I went back to school. I am alive. The only scars I have are a bullet wound on my leg and a memory,” Okot-Andruville said. “For them, they have a permanent scar; they have children against their will. They are in their mid-20s and early 30s and younger. I must help them.”
She begins by teaching them to read and write, and then helping them learn a trade. Most are tailors, but they cannot compete with established tailors. So, they make bags, which she sells on frequent trips to the United States.
Okot-Andruville currently works with 13 women, “but there are hundreds” who suffer the same plight, she said.
Selection for the WEND program is need-based in a sea of need.
“I choose women by their level of vulnerability—how high their traumas are, how many children they have, and how capable they are,” she explained. “I cannot solve all the problems, but the little I can give makes a difference.”
The rehabilitation WEND provides builds on a spiritual base, she said. “We emphasize Christian values, and we let them work.” She also teaches microfinance, which empowers the women to provide for themselves when they leave the program. And in addition to making the bags, they also farm.
She also helps the women’s children get an education. School is not free in Uganda, but their bag business provides funding to place the children in schools.
The women in Okot-Andruville’s program have overcome their former stigma, she said. “This particular group of women I work with are considered successful, because they earn money,” she explained. “Their children go to the best schools in northern Uganda.” She makes certain the children attend schools where their background is not known, so they are not branded as the offspring of rape by rebel commanders.
While Okot-Andruville has helped 1,800 women and supported their 4,500 children in school, many more suffer, she acknowledged.
Africa needs education
“The challenge is lack of education. Women are not educated,” she said. “The reason Africa is suffering is women are not educated. Less than 1 percent of them have received education through high school. They live on less than $3 per month.”
Their poverty makes them susceptible to corrupt politicians, who buy their votes for salt and soap and whose corruption perpetuates the cycle, she stressed.
WEND’s biggest need is “to help hundreds of kids finish their education,” she said. Her dream is to found a model school that offers high-quality education for students whose parents can afford to pay. The tuition for every 10 children would provide a scholarship to support an 11th child whose family cannot afford school.
“Education is power,” Okot-Andruville said. “I have seen girls who had no shoes. They got education, and now they are doctors.”