Opeyelo, Uganda - If all had gone according to plan, Christine Adong would be sitting behind a desk right now, crunching numbers. Instead, she's standing in the midst of a few dozen displaced families, listening to their stories and offering whatever help she can.
Fate has an odd and wonderful way of placing people where they're needed most. As an ethnic Acholi who'd survived years of danger and turmoil, Christine Adong wasn't especially eager to return to the war-scarred villages of her childhood - but she did anyway. Here in northern Uganda, destiny gave Christine Adong the chance to change the lives of her people.
Answering the call
In August 2006, Mercy Corps hired Adong as its first employee in Uganda. The organization had just arrived to mount an emergency response to the worsening situation in northern Uganda - a place tormented by years of conflict between government forces and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.
Adong had been working for a European Union-funded organization as an accountant when she heard that Mercy Corps was looking for a field coordinator to help establish relief programs among northern Uganda's 1.6 million displaced people.
There was something about the opportunity - and the timing - that just seemed right.
Adong's skills certainly stacked up to the challenge, especially her mastery of English and four local languages: Acholi, Lango, Alur and Kumam. Her easygoing manner and straightforwardness quickly won her the job.
For the next few months, she helped the Mercy Corps emergency response team gain access to government officials and local organizations in Kampala, as well as in the northern cities of Gulu and Kitgum.
"We soon found out that food was the most pressing need for families," Adong remembered. "People were isolated in remote villages, cut off from supplies. They were starving. They were also without basic household items and tools."
Adong was instrumental in getting the relief program started: from helping find drivers, procuring critical supplies, arranging deliveries and liaising with local villages, she took on enormous challenges.
Nothing could have prepared her for what Mercy Corps needed her to do - except her own wartime experiences.
The uncertain years
Christine Adong was born in 1977 in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Her father worked in government. When she was four years old, she moved with her mother and older sister to their ancestral home, the tiny village of Kwonkic in northern Uganda's Pader District. There, Adong began primary school; her father visited from Kampala when he could.
During one such visit on Christmas 1985, a bloody coup brought a new government to power. Officials of the ousted regime feared for their lives. Even living hundreds of miles from the capital, Adong's family still felt it necessary to flee their village and hide from government troops. For nearly two years they were constantly moving, secretly staying with family and friends.
At some point during those years, her father was poisoned, possibly by a political enemy. His health grew progressively worse until he died in 1987. Adong moved back to Kwonkic with her mother, sister and two stepbrothers.
There was no time for life to return to normal. Soon after their return, war broke out in northern Uganda. Government troops were fighting local insurgents, which included a rebel group headed by a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Alice Lakwena. Lakwena's group, the Holy Spirit Movement, was eventually subdued and defeated by government troops, but another rebel force soon took their place: the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), headed by an alleged cousin of Lakwena named Joseph Kony.
Adong's family was again driven from their village by violence that raged between various combatants and which seemed to come from all directions. In their fight against the government, the LRA lashed out against nearly everyone, maiming innocent civilians and burning entire villages. There was one LRA tactic that terrorized the Acholi people more than anything else: the abduction of children to serve as soldiers, porters and sex slaves.
Christine Adong is a survivor of two such abduction attempts.
Avoiding the unthinkable
The first attempt occurred in February 1990. It was about 10 a.m. and Adong was studying in the classroom like any other school day. All of a sudden, uniformed men came into the school. Adong and her fellow students didn't know they were LRA rebels at first, but then they started apprehending girls. Amid the panic, Adong escaped out a window and ran from the school grounds. Several of her classmates were not as fortunate; many were never heard from again.
Christine didn't return to Kwonkic that morning, but instead traveled to Kitgum, the northernmost major city in Uganda. There she found and moved in with an aunt. Adong enrolled in a local school, where a beloved teacher first introduced her to accounting. She was a natural, receiving high marks. It was then she decided to become an accountant.
Later that year, LRA rebels attacked her new school and abducted female students. Fortunately, Adong escaped once again. When she talks about that experience, however, you can see in her eyes that she hasn't forgotten a single, panic-stricken second.
Dreaming of spreadsheets
You get the idea that, indeed, those horrifying moments are the reason that Christine Adong is today telling her story standing next to a mud hut instead of sitting behind a desk in Kampala.
Even though she's thoroughly committed to the work at hand - and to the people Mercy Corps is serving - Adong hasn't given up on that first career track. She's currently enrolled in a course to become a Certified Public Accountant, working toward the license that will validate her studies.
She'd eventually like to combine her accounting skills with project planning, to better help war-torn communities find long-term solutions to their challenges.
She's not sure when those career aspirations will be fulfilled.
"You know, it's quite difficult to predict the future," Adong says, a charming yet effortless smile on her face. "We must always remain flexible. For now, there are people to help."