Seeing and speaking it all

Uganda, September 23, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Elizabeth Sung/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Olanya Morris. Photo: Elizabeth Sung/Mercy Corps

He may be just 24 years old, but his experience with traumatic events would put him within the same levels of an individual in his late 40s. That’s Olanya Morris for you.

Dressed in worn-out blue shirt, a cut-out trouser for shorts — with plenty of holes and patches — today Olanya stands tall as he does the task of translating the local dialect to some of the Mercy Corps staff from across Africa. We are doing an interview with women from his village of Odokomit, near the northern Ugandan city of Kitgum.

While I sit patiently waiting to interview him, I can’t help but notice that he is well composed and has a fluency in both languages at hand. It’s amazing that he has a good command of Swahili, which is a foreign language to him. Olanya gets done with his translation duties and has a small laugh with his community members before turning his attention to me.

Unfazed by all the activities around us — people being interviewed and photographed — we immediately start our conversation.

Olanya, the second born in a family of 11 children, has gone through it all. Together with his 10 siblings, he was forced by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to run away from home at the age of 16 to a displacement camp for refuge. He tells me that it is here that he learnt Swahili and the little English that he knows.

His troubles were not done yet: after trying to return home the first time, he was caught by the Local Defense Unit (LDU) a militia group in northern Uganda who took him captive for a month. During that time, he performed hard labor, drilling boreholes, making bricks and fetching water from long distances. It is here that he saw his friend shot and killed while he tried to escape. Olanya later escaped unharmed while fetching water for the rebels.

Life was unbearable at the displacement camp and tried unsuccessfully to flee to neighboring Kenya, but the security at the border was watertight. Olanya eventually returned to Odokomit early last year after eight years at the camp to start life a new.

It is here that he met with the women from a group called Dwog Pacu — which means “Come back home” — who were engaged in small farming activities in their one acre piece of land.

We stroll off from the rest of the community members and walk towards where he lives. Olanya shows me the little developments that he is trying to start at his family’s small farm after being given guidance from the Dwog Pacu women’s group. Excitement in him is easily seen as he shows off his projects.

Olanya’s story is one story among many that community members who have been through decades of war are now having a positive feeling for the future, thanks to the efforts that Mercy Corps has been doing in their area.

Though not a direct beneficiary of the program, Olanya says he gets his daily food ration from the farm managed by Dwog Pacu — a group of women who, after returning from the displacement camp, grouped together. With the support of Mercy Corps, they did training on farming and material support like seeds. Dwog Pacu now serves the whole community by selling the healthy produce that they harvest at a small fee.

As I wind up my conversation with him I notice that the women’s group, with their children strapped on their backs, are lined up to sing for the group of Mercy Corps staff that had come to visit them. I get the opportunity to spring Olanya’s linguistic prowess into action as he translates the song to me:

“Mercy Corps has brought something good
Mercy Corps has brought development
Has now made me plough land
All of us should hear
And learn these lessons
These lessons are good.”

I part ways with this courageous young man hoping all the best to him.