*Please note that in this post I discuss some of the horrific things experienced in Uganda during the LRA insurgency.*
Also, if you want a brief introduction to the work Send A Cow do, and why I was out in Uganda then read this post first.
Meg and Eli have a new favourite game. It involves leaping off the stairs into the waiting arms of James. Their giggles of delight are infectious as they dare each other to go just one step higher, always confident that their Daddy will catch them. Never questioning that he will be there.
Their surety comes from the knowledge that they are loved and protected, that their world is secure, that we, as parents, will provide for them and take care of them. That their future is whatever they want it to be because we will work hard to make it so.
They play and they laugh and they live a generally carefree life because of this knowledge. As a mother, this is my ultimate aim.
But what if events outside of your control took over? What if, one day, men came to your home and stole everything you had? Your livestock, your money, your food, your future. What if they took one of your children?
What if you had to flee your home, your village, your community and live in a refugee camp where food and water was scarce, where men left their wives on a daily basis because it was easier to get food as a single man than as a family, where hygiene was non-existent and rape and abductions were commonplace?
What if you returned to your family land only to discover that there was nothing left for you?
This is the story for many families living in Northern Uganda. Families who were forced to leave their homes when the LRA insurgency took place. For some context, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were a band of rebels led by Joseph Kony who occupied parts of Northern Uganda from around 1987 until 2008. The families I visited whilst I was out in Uganda had all had their lives affected in some way by the rebel insurgency. Some in the most horrific and unimaginable ways possible.
Whilst I would like to tell you the story of each farmer I met, and share the joy and happiness I felt in each community, I’d be harping on for weeks and so after much debating and writing and rewriting, I am simply going to share the two stories which stuck out to me the most during my visit.
I was amazed and impressed by each individual family that we met, the way they had worked through Send A Cow’s programme and were beginning to become established and start the long climb out of poverty but it is these two women in particular who resonated with me as they shared.
As a wife and a mother, I found their stories hard-hitting and emotional. I have carried them with me since my return and I believe that they are a fantastic representation of why Send A Cow’s work is so vital in this area of Uganda, demonstrating the real impact it can have on women who are not so very different from you or I.
Ultimately, whilst these stories make for harrowing reading they are also stories of hope. I considered just sharing the results of Send A Cow’s intervention and assistance but I thought it was important to see the start for these women. To see how far they have come, how truly inspirational they are and what can be achieved when people are given the right sort of help and when they have the determination to do better for their children and their futures.
Firstly, I met a woman called Martina Anyenko. Martina and her husband are elders in a community which graduated just under a year ago from Send A Cow’s programme. On the surface they appear to be a happy family who are working hard. Their farm is ordered and flourishing, and they are the proud owners of several good-sized mud homes as well as a large brick house with a tin roof. This is a sign that they are doing extremely well (it was almost always the uppermost wish of families we met to have a brick house with a tin roof.)
However, their story didn’t start out that way. Martina lived in a refugee camp for over 20 years with her husband after having to abandon her family farm in 1986. During the escape from their home, whilst running from the rebels, one of her children fell hard and hit his head, the result being regular seizures and epilepsy for which they received no treatment or assistance. Whilst in the camp she was subject to daily struggles to ensure that her family had enough to eat and drink. Three of her daughters were raped when they were 13, 14 and 15 whilst in the ‘security’ of the refugee camp; her 15 year old daughter fell pregnant and died during childbirth.
Whilst there her husband trained as a counsellor and worked with rescued abducted children. He was himself taken captive by the rebels for a three month period. On his return, although he continued to work with rescued children, he also sought relief in the bottom of a bottle and would often come home drunk and abuse his wife.
Martina returned home in 2009 with not just her own children to take care of, but grandchildren and the children of her brother who had died in the camp. They discovered that all of their possessions had been taken or destroyed and they had to start again from nothing.
Her experience is almost unimaginable and yet this beautiful, strong, courageous woman stood in front of us with a big smile on her face and told of her plans for the future. How, because of Send A Cow’s programme she can now send all the children in her care to school. How she has built a brick house for her family and that she hopes to open a shop where she can sell some of the organically grown produce to bring in further income for her family.
‘I didn’t go to school,’ she said. ‘But I feel as important as those who did because now I am empowered.’
Her husband shared how he had given up drinking alcohol (the strongest thing he drinks now is tea!) and is now in a true partnership with his wife. They work and adjust together, think and share together. He is proud of the team they have become.
Whilst we sat and listened to Martina and her husband share their story (which is horribly not an unusual one for those in Northern Uganda), whilst they showed us around their wonderfully cultivated and ordered farm, whilst they dutifully demonstrated how they ride the motorbike they are so very proud of; the thing that really struck me was how hard they had worked to move forwards.
Because it was their hard work which had transported the family out of poverty and created a future for their children and grandchildren.
The same goes for the next inspirational young woman I met.
Proscovia Achora is 26 years old. She has six children and her first child was born when she was just 13 years old. Proscovia was abducted from a refugee camp by the rebels and taken out into ‘the bush’ where she was forced to marry a man who was around 60 years old. Despite being married she was still regularly ‘given’ to other men.
Proscovia was rescued by the Government army and taken back to the refugee camp where, pregnant and scared, she got married again, believing that nobody would want her as she was defiled. But life in the camp wasn’t necessarily any better; she had no food and no clothes to wear and the only way she could make money was to fetch water for other people. Unfortunately her baby died whilst in the camp as she didn’t have the resources to take care of her.
On her return to Gulu with her husband, they too had to begin from scratch. Proscovia had spent almost her entire life in a refugee camp or out in the bush and had little to no knowledge of how to tend land, and how to look after herself and her family. Although she had 4 brothers, they were scattered during the insurgency and she doesn’t know whether they are alive, or where they might be.
Through Send A Cow’s programme, and the support she received from her community which is entirely made up of child mothers (young girls who were abducted by the rebels) like herself, she is now something of an entrepreneur. She is part of a music, drama and dance group which regularly do paid performances, she plays football, and is the owner of two solar panels. Local people pay Proscovia for the energy to charge their mobile phones and she also uses the solar panels to light her home.
Send A Cow provided Proscovia with a local cow in calf and she is able to use the milk produced for herself and her family, as well as selling the extra for profit which she uses to pay for her children’s education. She also uses the waste from the cow to produce fertiliser which she puts on her land to help grow crops.
Proscovia was incredibly shy, and although she said that she now feels respected and happy, she spent the majority of her time talking to the floor rather than making eye contact with us which speaks volumes about the horrendous things she has experienced. She gave thanks that not only have the Send A Cow team provided her with agricultural knowledge and the support of a community but their extension workers (those who are regularly out visiting the communities and farmers) are also trained in counselling and she has been able to receive help for the psychological trauma she suffered.
Later on in the day we were lucky enough to see Proscovia as part of the community when they performed several dances for us and it was amazing to watch her come alive. You could really see the transformation and, again, it highlighted how important the community element of Send A Cow’s programme is.
These two stories are just a tiny snapshot of the work that Send A Cow are doing in Africa. I am not going to strong arm you into believing how amazing they are (and they are…really…) because you can see that by visiting their website but instead, just as a final piece of the puzzle I want to share my understanding of why it seems to work.
Send A Cow don’t do handouts. They don’t turn up and ask a family what they need and then go away and duly raise the funds to provide the items. They don’t treat these families like charity cases who need a good scrubbing up and a bit of food and then they’ll be alright won’t they?
Send A Cow educate and equip. They start by asking what a family has, and how that could be used to create something sustainable. They encourage communities to gather together and pool resources for the good of everyone. They teach gender and social equality and the importance of working as a family unit.
Many of the families in this area have spent the majority of their lives in refugee camps, some were born and raised there. They have little understanding of the basics of hygiene and don’t know how to work for themselves. They have been used to handouts from aid agencies and so, on returning to their homes, are stuck in a hopeless cycle.
The very first thing Send A Cow does is to introduce cleanliness and hygiene such as building a latrine and using a ‘TipTap’ to wash hands. This has been shown to make a huge difference to the families and on each farm we visited we were proudly shown the latrine, the covered shower and the TipTap (being used below.)
They educate the farmers on the need to store up food, rather than selling everything they have, to ensure that even through difficult seasons there is enough to sustain their family and they encourage them to have long term plans, to have hopes and dreams for the future; something to aim towards.
I visited projects in the very early stages of Send A Cow’s intervention and ones which had graduated, like Martina’s community and I saw the impact that it can have.
These women are not so different from me, from you. They want the same things for themselves and for their children. How easily our roles could have been reversed and honestly, I don’t know if I would have had the strength of will to overcome it in quite the same way that these women have.
They are truly inspirational and, yes, I am going to do a bit of a hard sell now because I truly believe that the work Send A Cow is doing to end poverty is working, that it is sustainable and that it is important.
So if you do one good thing this week or one generous thing this festive season, I would urge you to visit Send A Cow’s website, to read about their sustainable farming projects and how they work. To donate, if you can, or buy a gift from their virtual catalogue to ensure that more families and more people like Martina and Proscovia who have been affected by war and poverty and simply a lack of resources, can be empowered, united and hopeful for the future.