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Clinton School partners with school to heal Uganda's wounds

Students work with former child soldier Okello Sam at his school and community outreach project Hope North.

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Clinton School student Stan Luker and Okello Sam image
  • Lindsey Millar
  • Clinton School student Stan Luker and Okello Sam

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].

"Also, you have a whole community that for years was traumatized and never got any counseling. There's a lot of violence. Families breaking up. Lots of killings. Basically, it's a system breakdown."

In a country full of thorny problems, reintegrating former child soldiers into society is perhaps the thorniest. Kony's diabolical method for enlisting child soldiers haunts Uganda, Sam said.

"Kony would come to a village and abduct children. First thing they do is threaten them with horror. They say to a child, 'OK, you kill that person, one of your friends.' If you refuse, then they ask your friend to kill you. So the children are frightened immediately. They do it in public when everyone is around. Then they take you for a week or so, train you, then bring you back to your village where you were abducted from and ask you to kill people. The kid then fears to come back to the village where he was abducted because he has committed a crime. The community is angry, and the kid is scared."

Sam said that other groups who work with former child soldiers only aid them for a matter of weeks before sending them back to their community. Hope North partners with NGO health workers, pairing them with former child soldiers returning to their home communities. "So this kid becomes an important link for development and health," Sam said. "He's not seen now as the criminal who came and killed people, but as a savior."

Hope North currently has 285 students. Sam divides his time running the school and fundraising. "It's very challenging to run a not-for-profit company in a country like Uganda because you're always looking for money," he said. Actors like Mary Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon and Forrest Whitaker help fund the school. (Sam, who acts, dances and plays music, appeared in "The Last King of Scotland" with Whitaker.) Other funds come from the proceeds from Sam's speaking engagements and workshops like those he recently presented in Wisconsin. But Sam wants to see Hope North grow to become self-sufficient. Stan Luker, the second-year Clinton School student who just spent four months at Hope North as part of his Capstone Final Project, worked with Sam on strategic planning to that end.

"Hope North has a lot of big ideas and a lot of people it can help, but it has very limited resources. What we tried to do was develop a plan with specifics, so Hope North can use its limited resources as best as it can," Luker said.

The school operates a small farm, a bakery that sells to students and the surrounding community and is planning on starting a soap-making project, which would allow it to market outside of the area. Expanding sales of artwork — like necklaces and paintings —is another goal.

The four Clinton School students who just left for Uganda — Kathleen Brophy, Sarah Chapman, Alex Handfinger and Nate Kennedy — will try to expand those projects. Brophy and Handfinger will focus on food and water sustainability. Chapman will work on a feasibility study for the creation of a guest lodge at Hope North (it borders Kabarega National Park). Kennedy will develop arts curriculum.

The idea, the Clinton School's Fitzpatrick said, is for the school to provide a continuous presence. "Working together we can have a real sustainable impact."

At the same time, Brophy said the goal is to make the partnership unnecessary.

"Our projects are all about working ourselves out of a job, making Hope North self-sufficient so they no longer rely on external funding."

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