Oyere, Uganda - John Bosco Akello is an important leader in this village — deputy chief, pastor, model farmer — at a time when leadership is vitally important.
Displaced from their ancestral land for almost 20 years by fighting between the Ugandan military and the insurgent Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), John Bosco and his people are finally heading home.
In the hardest years of the conflict, people like John Bosco fled to cities or massive displacement camps. The camps and cities offered relative security from the LRA, but they were overcrowded and chaotic and led to a whole new set of problems.
Close quarters and bad sanitation meant communicable diseases spread from home to home like hot gossip. Lifelong farmers found themselves trying to find work fixing cars or hawking goods on the side of the road. Schools were overflowing with kids — in fact, I never met a family in northern Uganda with fewer than four children — so students struggled to learn in packed-tight classrooms or they stopped going to school altogether.
"The kids couldn't concentrate on anything," John Bosco says. "The camp school was very hard on them."
Negotiations between the government and the LRA haven't yet yielded a peace agreement, but the LRA withdrew from northern Uganda in late 2006 and people finally feel safe moving closer to home.
And that's how the village of Oyere was born. All over northern Uganda, families are leaving the huge "mother camps" of the war years and moving to transitional villages like Oyere, whose 1068 residents all originally come from within a mile or so of here.
"Just about all the families here are actually working on their own land, even if they haven't moved back to their original homes," John Bosco says. "That's my family's land over there," he notes, pointing toward the south.
To help these long-displaced families move home, Mercy Corps is investing heavily in Ugandan transit villages like Oyere.
The agency trains five female hygiene promotion officers per village, who teach mothers how to keep their families healthy, and then funds the construction of permanent latrines and water bore holes to maintain sanitary conditions.
Roads for tomorrow - and cash for today
The 50 or so most vulnerable households nominate a family member to participate in "cash-for-work" programs in which Mercy Corps pays workers a day-wage to complete basic infrastructure projects — roads, embankments — that the community sees as a priority.
"We are building two roads: one that gets us better access to the market so we can sell our crops and one that makes it safe for our kids to walk to school," John Bosco says. "This will make the situation here much better."
The returning farmers — who have nothing, after years in the city or the camps — are equipped with seeds and shared tools, so they can make productive the land that has lain fallow for almost two decades.
"We've got hope now — I am 100 percent that the situation will be better for my kids than it is right now," John Bosco says, surrounded by his four children, and he turns around and heads back to his fields.