When he was 16 and living in his native northern Uganda, Okello Sam was abducted into a rebel army, where he was tortured and made to fight. Two years later, he escaped during the chaos of battle only to find that his family had been dispersed to parts unknown by other rebels. So he made his way south to the capital, Kampala, where he not only survived, but thrived, continuing his education and beginning a career in music and theater.
By 1996 — 10 years after he was abducted — he was married, had a child and was an emerging star in the Ugandan arts scene. But tragedy once again changed his life's trajectory. His teen-aged brother and 50 other young people were abducted from a boarding school in northern Uganda by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group notorious for filling its forces with kidnapped child soldiers. The LRA later killed Sam's brother.
Sam's reaction was to purchase 40 acres in northern Uganda, protected from the fighting by the Nile River, and start a boarding school, Hope North, to shelter children from further horrors of war. The school has since supported more than 3,000 children.
Sam's story of survival and service resonated with Clinton School of Public Service administrators and students when Sam came to the school to deliver a lecture last September, ultimately leading to a long-term partnership between the Clinton School and Hope North. One Clinton School student recently returned to Little Rock after spending four months at the school. Four more students just left to take his place.
"Hope North started as an emotional reaction: There was a problem in the north I needed to deal with," Sam, 43, said in early May at the Clinton School for Public Service. He was in Little Rock for two days to meet with Clinton School students amid weeks of conducting dance and theater workshops in schools in Wisconsin to raise money for Hope North and spread the school's story. "But over the years my vision has been growing, and I've always been asking the question of [how we can achieve] sustainability."
That goal dovetails nicely with the Clinton School's philosophy, said Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick, director of international programs at the school. "It's a great partnership for the Clinton School because it provides us with an opportunity for the students to practice some of the skills they learn on projects that Okello has identified as needs. We're not going to come in and tell you what you're going to do as the Great White Hope."
Hope North not only provides children and teens with educational and vocational training, it works in surrounding communities on matters of health, agriculture and conflict resolution. There's not been any military conflict in Uganda for several years (though Kony infamously remains at large), but peace is hardly a cure-all, Sam said.
"What we are dealing with is the aftermath of a rebellion that took over 25 years. We have a generation of children whose parents were captured and they were born in the rebellion either in the Sudan or Congo — a lot of them say they don't belong to any country. You also have people beginning to return to villages and struggling with issues like land. You don't know which land used to belong to your people. You're also dealing with a community that was living in an IDP [internally displaced person] camp for over 20 years surviving on handouts from NGOs," non-governmental organizations. Now, he said, the NGOs "are saying, 'Look the war is not there, so survive,' and people are finding it very difficult. They have never been working, so it's absolutely a new philosophy to them to be able to work and feed [themselves].
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