The Story of Augustine Okot
Orphaned by the War, UMECS Student Champions HIV/AIDs Prevention, Graduates from University This Year
Until the war came to his ancestral village, Augustine Okot’s childhood was filled with the joys and traditions of growing up in the picturesque parish of Olwo-ngu in rural Pader district in Northern Uganda. The second born of five siblings, Augustine grew up with an active family life, playing games with his age mates, learning to identify local birds and wild game, hearing the stories and proverbs of the elders by the bonfire at night, helping with family chores and enjoying traditional meals cooked fresh every day. Above all, Augustine’s parents were the center of his life. “I looked upon my father and mother for everything,” Augustine reflects. “They were my comforter, my strength.”
Then Came The War
Like a cruel tornado, the brutal war in Northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda swept into his village area when Augustine was still a child. The war displaced more than two million people from their prosperous ancestral villages to overcrowded, disease-ridden displacement camps. Several hundred thousand people died during the war from horrific violence and from disease and malnutrition. Tens of thousands of women were raped and mutilated, their lips, noses and eyelids cut off as ruthless acts of humiliation. More than thirty thousand children were abducted and forced into child soldiering.
The war robbed Augustine and his siblings of their childhood innocence. Both his mother and father were viciously massacred by the LRA. He witnessed unspeakable atrocities on friends and neighbours and lost many friends and relatives. His maternal uncle adopted him but life was not the same. He was terrified of being a total orphan, his life had been turned upside down and he mourned for his parents.
Augustine’s uncle was compassionate and wise. Although not formally educated, he encouraged Augustine to work hard in primary school and to stay focused on his education. He would say: “Do not cry for what you cannot get. But work very hard and you shall achieve your goals. Time will come when we the older generation will be gone and you shall be our ambassadors. Where we have failed you must surpass us and where we have done well you must emulate us. So take your education very seriously.”
Transformational Power of Education
Augustine completed Primary 7 in November 2004 but had no hope of joining secondary school the next year since the cost of school fees were prohibitive. The war was raging on, agricultural production in the region had come to a halt, Augustine and his remaining family had been displaced to an overcrowded camp and his uncle was too poor to help. He resigned himself to remaining uneducated like most of his peers.
Three months later, however, Augustine’s life changed again. In February 2005, in the midst of the war zones in Pader where he, his siblings and uncle were displaced, UMECS established the Northern Uganda Education Programme (NUEP), designed to sponsor war-affected children and youth in secondary school through higher education graduation. Augustine was selected to be part of the first intake of NUEP students. Today, the programme sponsors 111 war-affected children and youth in secondary school and higher education, a 9 – 11 year commitment for each student.
UMECS enrolled Augustine at Kitgum High School with a cohort of other UMECS-sponsored youth who like himself were vulnerable and war-affected. He completed his 4 year O-level programme at Pajule College in Pader and his 2 year A-level programme at Sir Samuel Baker School in Gulu in 2010.
In 2011, Augustine was admitted in the Diploma Programme at Gulu University in a cohort of eight UMECS-sponsored students in diploma and degree programmes. In Uganda, diploma programmes are normally two-years. Diploma holders are fully qualified in most professions. Once immersed in career, many resume their higher educations in shortened degree programmes. Augustine graduates from Gulu University with a Diploma in Development Studies later this year. He will work for one to two years, then return for a university degree in Social Work.
“Education transformed me,” says Augustine. “When I entered into O-level, I never knew how to speak English well and it made me ashamed. By being in school with other UMECS students, I built my confidence. UMECS staff encouraged and counseled me, my teachers helped me and so did UMECS students who were part of my cohort. By A-level, I found myself speaking English well. Education transformed me in other ways, through socialization. I learned to respect people, to choose friends well and to take the advice of friends for improvement. This is one of the benefits of education. We become positive influences to our peers.”
August 2011. Augustine Okot, in red shirt, enrolls at Gulu University. From left: UMECS Field Coordinator Denis Owor; UMECS students Denish Oranga Okello and Polycarp Oyet; UMECS Peace Education Coordinator Margaret Akech; UMECS students Augustine Okot and Mushega Ben Amanya; and UMECS Field Coordinator Alex Okello
Overcoming the Initial Challenges, Becoming a High Performing University Student
“I was not used to the new environment at university. Academic standards and performance requirements had increased. At first, I did not perform well. I knew I was capable of adjusting to a new environment. I needed to work with my support team and develop a strategy to becoming a high performing university student.
“I consulted with my UMECS mentors and advisors, and with my peer mentors at Gulu University. We are a cohort of eight UMECS students at Gulu University and we are an important peer support group to each other. We devised a strategy that led to my success.
What Augustine did was this: he applied himself diligently to his courses and sought academic assistance as needed. He studied with members of his UMECS peer cohort. He also joined student clubs and societies to further expand his world, culturally, socially and intellectually. Finally, UMECS staff and student peers monitored his progress and the success of the strategy.
The strategy worked. Augustine graduates with a high GPA in October and may qualify for a first class Diploma award. UMECS team was not surprised. Says Joel Ojok, UMECS Counseling and Guidance Director: “Augustine’s success at university, especially how he became a high performing student this past year after starting out with some difficulty, demonstrates something we have discovered in the Northern Uganda Education Programme, that students from war-affected and poor communities whose chances of getting university educations are minimal have high self-esteem when they are in university. They take their educations seriously and realize they can demonstrate their academic potential on a level playing field in the university lecture rooms. They start to reflect deeply about their upcoming roles with their communities. In a sense, university education is therapeutic as well as transformational.”
Becoming a Champion to Eradicate HIV/AIDS
During his O-level programme, Augustine became determined to champion the prevention of HIV/AIDS in his community. HIV/AIDS is rife in Northern Uganda. Everyone is personally affected by the AIDS pandemic, either being HIV positive or having multiple family members and friends who are.
Within this context, Uganda has had outstanding success in reducing very high HIV infection rates overall. In fact, Uganda is a global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS through innovative cross-cutting policies and programmes that raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention, foster access to immediate-results HIV tests, make condoms available, provide treatment including anti-retroviral regimens and reduce the stigma for people living with AIDS. Uganda reduced a double digit infection rate to less than 10% nationally. However, the war helped to spread HIV/AIDS in Northern Uganda as wars inevitably do. Consequently, the HIV/AIDS rate in Northern Uganda is unusually high and many people are HIV positive. Girls and women who are not educated are the most vulnerable. Alcohol addiction also makes people vulnerable to exposure to HIV, and Uganda has a high rate of alcoholism.
Augustine joined Pader Youth Forum as a volunteer where he was trained in community-based HIV prevention. During school-term and semester breaks, he worked with Pader Youth Forum helping to sensitize local communities and youth peers around HIV prevention, testing and care. His experiences helped him to realize the broad scope of the work that lay ahead.
My Career and Community Vision
His role as a community HIV/AIDS prevention activist reinforced Augustine’s vision of becoming a social worker.
“There is a lot of education and awareness in our communities about how to prevent HIV/AIDs. Many people know about abstaining, being faithful, using condoms, the best practices. But AIDS still spreads for many reasons. One is that alcohol is a big factor. Uneducated youth, especially the boys¸ start drinking at an early age. The effects of war and hopelessness of poverty have led to alcoholism in our communities. Once someone is drunk, preventing HIV is no longer a concern. In order to address social problems in our communities, especially HIV and domestic violence, we must find ways to prevent and treat alcoholism. There is need for counseling and guidance amongst our community members and for alcohol treatment. These are some of the needs I intend to address as a social worker.
“I see myself transforming the lives of others. I want to help the youth avoid the risks of getting HIV/AIDS while addressing underlying social problems as a community and family advocate. In addition to having an upcoming degree in social work, I will soon have a Diploma in Development Studies. I am prepared to address the development gaps in my community working with local government and community organisations.
“In future I want to contribute to the mission of UMECS in any capacity. UMECS is the reason for my educational journey for which I am very grateful.”
Education Prevents Early Marriage, Prevents HIV/AIDS
“Another of the greatest needs is the education of our children,” Augustine notes. “I know the power of education because I have experienced it but the majority of the parents in our communities are not educated and therefore they are not fully aware of the benefits of education. Most children do not finish secondary school and this affects the entire community. Girls need to finish their educations at least through secondary school. Those who do not marry early and they never go back to school. Girls who do not finish secondary school are the most likely to become HIV positive. Secondary school education for girls prevents many of the ills that otherwise will plague them. Part of my role as a social worker will be to lobby families to keep up the education of their children and sensitize community leaders, families and the youth about the benefits of secondary school education.
“Early marriage is one of the reasons girls do not continue with school and being out of school leads to early marriage. The two are related. With boys, alcohol takes over. Social workers have a role to play, sensitizing youth, their families and the community about the benefits of education.”
On War and Peace
“During the war I lost my parents who were innocently killed by the LRA rebels. I also lost many of my friends, relatives and many people in our community. We also lost much property and wealth in the form of livestock, food stuff and other property. Our culture and stable lives were damaged. I want peace to prevail. When peace prevails, there is also going to be development.
“At Sir Samuel Baker School where I did my A-levels, I participated in UMECS Peace Education and Guidance & Counseling Programme. In addition to all I learned, I was a peer mediator in our dormitory. I used to settle a lot of disputes among students through peer mediation. This programme helped our school a lot. Many students became good, and responsible.
“The culture of peace can be built by teaching people how to be tolerant, dialogue, reconcile, and appreciate the co-existence of people in a society. By bringing the conflicting parties to talk peace, the world would be a better place to live in. This is why we believe in our Acholi traditional justice of mato oput which is so strong in administering justice in my culture and tradition.”
Margaret Akech, UMECS Peace Education Coordinator notes that war-affected youth who have suffered trauma and loss are particularly committed to building peace. “War is not abstract to Augustine. He suffered severely and this is the very reason he is not passive about building peace. In addition to all else he will do, Augustine is a committed lifelong peacebuilder.”
The Power of Education in Transforming War and Poverty Affected Youth
It is no secret amongst those of us in Uganda and globally who serve war-affected and post-war communities that children and youth affected by war bounce back from their ordeals if given a chance. That chance is education and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation comes in many forms, including counseling and personal development, and education must be long term so that war-affected youth become fully educated, including post-secondary school education.
“Augustine Okot bounced back from his war-time ordeals,” notes UMECS Executive Director Charles Onencan who has known and worked with Augustine for the past nine years. “He has grown and matured and turned challenge into success. He ultimately performed well in secondary school and at Gulu University because he took his educational opportunities seriously and developed himself. Along the way, he discovered a deep passion to uplift others from their circumstances, a desire to transform the human condition and address great needs in his community. We are very proud of Augustine and his upcoming university graduation. His educational journey and the contributions he will make throughout his lifetime represent what is possible with all war-affected youth when given the chance.”
Adds Anthony Ojok, UMECS Education Field Coordinator: “The Northern Uganda Education Programme is a holistic sponsorship model. War-affected children need mentorship, guidance and counseling as they proceed along their educational journeys in addition to the financial support for their education. Both are needed together. In addition, the long term nature of the programme allows students to have the security of knowing they can reach their full potential, attain employable skills and become qualified in their chosen professions. As our students become older, they become capable of making sound and informed decisions, taking personal responsibility and behaving maturely. Augustine is an example of how our holistic model works. His success is no surprise. We believe Augustine will have a major impact in his community and as a role model, he will influence many youth to become educated and make a difference.”
Transformation of war and poverty affected children and youth is not merely a personal transition. This transformation, especially on a large scale, contributes to the development of war and poverty affected communities and to the development of the society. Education of war and poverty affected youth is a tangible investment in the betterment of the human condition. Augustine Okot is demonstrating this and as his life transitions from university to professional career, his life will be an ongoing story of community development and contribution.