The Story of Raymond Lubangakene Otim
Shocked and distressed by the large number of deaths from preventable disease he witnessed as a boy in the overcrowded camp to which he was displaced, Raymond imagined becoming a doctor to prevent and cure disease. In 2007, he was too poor to afford secondary school. Now, Raymond is in medical school.
Raymond Lubangakene Otim remembers a happy childhood being raised by his mother, a peasant farmer, in Oding village, Unyama sub-country in Gulu district Northern Uganda. Oding is a short distance from Gulu Town where agricultural produce was easily marketed. His father was a soldier in the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), the national army. Raymond was the third of seven siblings. When he was born on 13 January 1991, the war in Northern Uganda had already begun but many villages were not yet affected. In time, over two million people in Northern Uganda would be displaced to disease-infested, overcrowded Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. In the early 90’s, however, most people remained in their ancestral villages, hoping the war would stay away from their lives. However, like most wars, the 1986 – 2006 war in Northern Uganda targeted civilians. Women and children suffered the most.
Before the war, ancestral villages in Northern Uganda were peaceful, prosperous and culturally traditional. Fresh food was prepared every day. Elders told humourous proverbs and recounted stories and family lore by the wang oo (bonfire) at night. Children sang traditional folk songs and learned to perform cultural dances like Bwola dance and Laraka Raka. They learned how to play the drums. Some became very skilled dancers and drummers. Children helped in the garden, performed household chores and cared for their younger siblings. Youth became adept at building houses, herding cattle, cooking elaborate meals and hunting wild game. Children swam in the local river, played games with their age mates, learned about indigenous trees and knew the sounds of the song birds. Children were raised well, were attentive students in school and valued by their family and community. Parents were hard working and proud of their families Elders were held in high esteem, mediating disputes and offering wise counsel. Everyone had a role to play. So long as the stories of war seemed far away, there was little incentive to leave. Unfortunately, like a forest fire that travels and then rages out of control, the war in Northern Uganda was doing the same. Many families who remained in the village too long as the war raged on were caught unaware and suffered unspeakable atrocities.
The war swept into peaceful Oding Village
Before Raymond was old enough to start school, Oding was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group that wreaked havoc on the civilian population in Greater Northern Uganda. The LRA conducted brutal massacres against civilians, killing scores of people at a time in village raids and along roadsides. They mutilated and disfigured women, cutting off their noses, their ears, their lips. To spread terror and intimidate local populations, they hacked off limbs with machetes – hands, arms, feet and legs. Sometimes, they abducted a group and ordered them to kill one of their members, chop up the body, cook and eat it. Those who refused were killed. Few adults joined their ranks. To grow their army, the LRA abducted children, some as young as eight, average age twelve, who were forced into child soldiering. The LRA became an army of captive children in a kill-or-be-killed environment, killing out of fear of their commanders and through indoctrination.
The LRA insurgency eventually attacked in Unyama. Raymond recounts what happened:
“One day the LRA rebels attacked our village. Children were abducted. Food supplies looted. People were killed. My grandmother took us to the bush where we spent the night. The mosquitoes bit us so badly that all of us were attacked by malaria. For a year and a half, sleeping in the bush (to avoid being killed or abducted) became part of our lives.”
Like Raymond’s family, even after an LRA attack, some families opted to sleep in the bush at night to avoid being killed rather than be displaced. Despite fear of the LRA, many people resisted going to the camps, knowing their village would be destroyed by the rebels and all their livestock and property taken. Families also did not want to become dependent on food aid and lose their dignity.
However, as with most families, sleeping in the bush with so much fear and discomfort could not go on forever. The handwriting was on the wall. It was time to abandon Oding village for the safety of the nearby Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Unyama. Overcrowded and disease-infested as they were, and subject to LRA attacks, IDP camps were protected by the national army. It would be safer than remaining unprotected in the village.
The power of extended family, and appreciation of cultural diversity
Raymond’s mother and siblings headed to Unyama IDP camp but Raymond’s Aunt Hellen who lived in Kiryandongo district south of the Nile River’s Karuma Falls where it was relatively safe offered to take Raymond.
“We lived in a village called Bunyama,” Raymond recalls. “What I liked most was creativity and playing football and helping my aunt with domestic chores. My aunt was like a mother and a role model in my life. She took me to a nearby village school called Kiwala Primary School, where I started my Primary One.
“Bunyama village is composed of many tribes and many different cultures coexisting harmoniously. For the first time, I was away from Acholiland. I appreciated the power of tolerance, respect and appreciation of different cultural heritages of Uganda. Bunyama village was a classical representation of my vision of a peaceful Uganda. All my friends there were pupils from diverse cultural background. We enjoyed the traditional dances and interschool competitions.“
I loved being in primary school
“When I joined Kiwala Primary School, I loved education and being in school. I was away from the sleepless nights back home in Oding village and the fear of LRA attacks. As I progressed in primary school, I enjoyed reading story books and my exercise books. I always studied hard and had a love for learning.”
Back to the War Zones
“In 2005, I returned to Gulu from Kiryandongo and joined my parents and siblings living in Unyama IDP camp under very difficult situations. My family experienced a lot of things. There were scarcities of food supplies. My family like all others depended entirely on food supplied by World Food Programme and often, the allocated food supplies were not enough to feed our family.”
Returning to the war zones was a difficult but eye opening experience for young Raymond.
“I was sad about the way events were happening. The killing of my uncle by the rebels made me sadder.”
Witnessing deaths in the camp – Imagining my role as a doctor
“My experience as a war victim living in Unyama IDP camp had a profound impact on my career choice to become a doctor. While living in the camp I saw firsthand children, women, men and the elderly succumb to preventable and curable diseases – something which shocked me. I personally lost many close relatives and friends. They did not have to die. From then, I started nursing ambitions to a career which brings me closer to humanity by serving them directly- by treating their physical bodies and mental beings. I imagined my role as a doctor, saving lives.”
“What Raymond and his family and almost two million people in the camps endured was painful,” explains Denis Owor, UMECS Field Coordinator who worked in the camps as a food monitor during the war. “The camps were overcrowded and unhygienic. Social norms broke down. Water-borne and air-borne diseases attacked the most vulnerable, especially infants, young children and the elderly. Infants and children died in large numbers from diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, and other diseases. Elders were sidelined. The traditional roles of family members were hard to maintain. Women became depressed as they could no longer properly feed and care for their families. HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases spread like wildfire. People were traumatized by their ordeals and camp conditions. Family structures broke down. Drinking was rampant. For the most part, camp conditions were a public health and mental health nightmare. We should never have to endure conditions like that again.”
In 2006 when I was still in primary school, I was determined to become a doctor
“When the war ended in 2006, I continued to explore a career in medicine. I discovered the alarming rate at which Ugandans are suffering from cardiovascular related sickness which can be corrected and treated but due to few specialists and poor equipment, they are often referred to international hospitals at costs which no ordinary citizen can afford. As a result many die. Becoming a cardiovascular surgeon is one of the specialties I am thinking about.
“I wanted a career where I can pay back to the community through dedicated service to save lives. I saw this in practicing medicine. Now that I am in medical school, my dream shall become reality.”
Medical School? In 2007, Raymond was too poor to afford secondary school
Despite his dream, heading to medical school was not part of Raymond’s reality when he returned home to the war zones after finishing Primary 6 in Kiryandongo
Now living in an IDP camp, Raymond continued primary school at Highland Primary School in Gulu where he completed Primary 7 – twice.
In Raymond’s words:
“Due to lack of school fees for secondary education, I wrote P.L.E twice, in 2005 and 2006, staying in school as long as I could. My family was destitute. I did not even have the slightest hope of ever joining secondary school before UMECS came to my rescue.”
February 2007 – Raymond in his family’s IDP windowless camp dwelling three days before UMECS enrolled him in Senior 1 at St. Joseph’s College, Layibi in Gulu
Enrolling Raymond in UMECS Northern Uganda Education Programme
UMECS Executive Director Charles Onencan (then Country Director) remembers the day he and UMECS team members went to Unyama IDP camp in February 2007 to meet Raymond and his family: “Raymond was recommended by school and community members to join the Northern Uganda Education Programme. He was war-affected, hailed from a vulnerable household, was displaced to an IDP camp and was determined to make a difference with his life through education. Our society is filled with millions of boys and girls like Raymond who yearn to become fully educated, at least through secondary school and beyond, but most never get there because of the expensive costs of secondary education. Had we not accepted Raymond into the programme, he would have joined the 80% of school-age youth who never complete secondary school. They remain poor and uneducated, fighting for survival. Raymond walked the extra mile through his sponsored secondary school education, preparing for medical school. As with all of our students, we were prepared to sponsor Raymond’s higher education programme. His being awarded full scholarship for medical school is a tribute to Raymond’s hard work and determination.”
My UMECS-sponsored educational journey
“With the complete support of UMECS I went to St. Joseph’s College Layibi a historical school in Northern Uganda where I completed my O’ Level. I emerged as one of the top five students in the district. In addition to Layiby’s history of strong academic performances, the school equipped us with skills in wood work, metal, and technical drawing. The school also produced great sportsmen.”
March 2008 – Raymond at St. Joseph’s College Layibi being visited by UMECS team. From left, Raymond Lubangakene, UMECS Executive Director Charles Onencan (then Country Director) and Joel Ojok, UMECS Director of Counseling and Guidance
“Raymond was not only one of the top performers in the district while he was at Layibi, he was the number one ranked student at Layibi during his four-year O level programme,” notes Joel Ojok, a counseling practitioner, trained educator and UMECS Director of Counseling and Guidance. “Many students are gifted and talented like Raymond. Few work as hard as he does. Raymond is smart, yes, and so are many students. Raymond’s success comes from his hard work, his sense of accountability and complete focus.”
“We almost always send our students to secondary school in cohorts, schools that are a good fit for each cohort. The cohort becomes a support team for each student and allows us to shepherd our students to become peer mentors. Students are accountable to each other, to UMECS, their school and communities. It has been a successful formula for our students,” explains UMECS Field Coordinator Alex Cardo Okello, a former secondary school deputy head teacher. “Raymond has been an exception to this rule because we decided to send him to the top performing schools which is difficult to send a cohort since most of our students are coming from challenged backgrounds. In that sense, Raymond is a category of one.”
“Following my O-level programme at Layibi, UMECS and I decided I should enroll at Uganda’s top secondary school for my A-level programme which is St. Mary’s Boarding Secondary School Kitende in Kampala,” says Raymond, describing the trajectory of his education. “It is considered the country’s most competitive school. If one does well there in the right subject combination, it improves the chances of admission to medical school. St. Mary’s Boarding Secondary School Kitende is a mixed (girls and boys) boarding school with students from different countries and diverse backgrounds. The school provides an all-around education with committed and caring teaching staff members. I took the subject combination of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics to improve my chances of being admitted to medical school. There was a lot of difference between my O’ Level and A’ Level schools in many ways. Layibi was a serious minded school but Kitende was an educational experience at a new level. Every student is preparing for top university admissions.”
“Raymond performed well at St. Mary’s Kitende,” exudes UMECS Education Field Coordinator Anthony Ojok, a former secondary school head teacher. “He actually was one of the top scorers in the country, scoring all A’s in what is considered the most difficult subject combination. How he performed at St. Mary’s Boarding Secondary School Kitende is a good indicator of how he will perform in medical school.”
The role of UMECS in my life
“UMECS has helped me in so many ways,” notes Raymond, “rescuing me after P 7 to continue my education, paying my school fees, providing scholastic materials, school and personal supplies, keeping my family involved in my education. UMECS made me who I am today, a promising medical doctor in the making. I dedicated my secondary school education to preparing for medical school admission. I now have a lot of work ahead of me at medical school.
“I am proud to be a UMECS student, not only because they sponsor me and others in secondary school and higher education but because of their impact in our communities through school-based programmes of guidance and counseling and promoting peace in Uganda.
February 2011. UMECS Executive Director Charles Onencan counsels, from left, Raymond Lubangakene, Okello Mark and Rachel Abalo Scovia at UMECS Secretariat as they prepare to enroll in their A-level schools in Kampala
“UMECS officials are my mentors. All these years, UMECS has guided and mentored me, helped me to become who I am.”
Raymond as a change agent and role model
“We are exceptionally proud of Raymond,” UMECS Executive Director Charles Onencan emphasizes. “He has a long road ahead of him at Makerere University School of Medicine and Surgery. Five years in Medicine and Surgery and two years as a resident. Along the way he will make additional decisions as to the type of medicine he will practice as he becomes exposed to medical specialty options. We believe he will become a top medical practitioner and have the kind of health impact as a change agent that is needed in our communities and throughout our society.”
Margaret Akech, UMECS Peace Education Coordinator is likewise proud of Raymond: “Our communities need more doctors and health care professionals to address many unmet healthcare needs. Peace takes many forms and that includes having access to proper health care. Raymond will not only make a difference in health care in our communities, he will inspire others to become doctors and nurses. Our youth are positively influenced by role models, and Raymond has already become a role model for his peers, for this generation.”
As this story goes to press
- 30th May 2013, the New Vision newspaper announces the names of students who were awarded full government scholarships to universities in Uganda. Raymond Lubangakene Otim was awarded a full scholarship to Makerere University School of Medicine and Surgery.
- 7th September 2013, Raymond began his first semester as a medical student at Makerere University School of Medicine and Surgery.
- We will continue to report Raymond’s progress in his ongoing educational journey from the war zones to medical school graduation. War and poverty affected children really can become doctors and make a difference in the lives of many if provided the opportunity.