In northern Uganda, hope springs eternal

Uganda, August 4, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Akello with her daughter in northern Uganda's Pader district. Photo: Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps

As the brutal twenty-year civil war in Uganda has unofficially ended, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have exited Pader — a district in the country’s northern Acholiland — which was for many years at the epicenter of atrocities committed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Pastoralist warriors fomenting tensions in Uganda’s eastern Karamoja region now beckon many aid efforts, as do protracted conflicts in neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But while the days of abduction and murder at the hands of the LRA have ended in “post-conflict” Pader, a long and arduous road to recovery remains. Land disputes between returning Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have replaced battles between Ugandan forces and LRA rebels. The teacher-to-student ratio in Pader schools often hovers at 1:100. Additionally, northern Ugandans face unprecedented unemployment numbers, as well as few prospects for income generation.

These issues acutely affect youth. A staggering 83 percent of young people in Uganda are currently unemployed— a devastating figure which brands the country with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. Yet, despite all of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles to economic and social stability, hope remains.

Just ask Akello.

She is a soft-spoken twenty-year-old living in the Lira Palwo sub-county of Pader district. Akello is an entrepreneur, the mother of three young children and a child soldier once abducted and pressed into service by the LRA.

She is also a participant in Mercy Corps’ Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), which operates in Pader with support from the W. Glen Boyd Charitable Foundation. Through YEP, Akello received a small grant to help grow her fish business. She’s also involved in the program’s Life Skills training, which engages youth in dialogue on topics such as HIV/AIDS, the dangers of early marriage and the importance of effective communication.

Although reserved, Akello is not shy when vocalizing the ways in which the grant from Mercy Corps has allowed her to expand her enterprise. She now buys her fish in bulk and has diversified her business by selling both small and medium-sized fish. She is also devising plans to begin another small enterprise.

This is no tiny feat in a district where 75 percent of individuals report no cash income. Her husband, a farmer, is supportive of her entrepreneurial drive. “My husband is very happy,” Akello told me, smiling. “And he’s proud of our new income.”

Mercy Corps believes in the power and potential of youth, particularly those transitioning from conflict to post-conflict environments. Because of this, our doors have remained open since our Pader office began work in 2006.

Akello is just one of more than 1,000 youth (ages 14-30) benefitting from YEP, a program which aims to ensure that war-affected youth in northern Uganda are empowered economically, through an increased ability to earn an income, and personally, through an increased ability to make critical life decisions and healthier choices. Yes, Mercy Corps also has teams working in Karamoja (as well as Sudan and Congo), but we continue to work with vulnerable youth in Acholiland, recognizing that these young individuals have the capacity to transform their society and bolster the economy.

Through resilience and courage, and with a little guidance and support, Akello is just one of many young individuals leading the way.