TEAM: Northern Uganda bishop says education will provide the path to dignity

Diocese reaches out to conflict-torn region
March 10, 2007

Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng of the Anglican Diocese of Northern Uganda told the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference March 10 in Boksburg, South Africa, that education is at the heart of rebuilding his conflict-torn region.

Among other priorities addressed by the diocese, Onono-Onweng said, are providing shelter, vocational training, counseling, medical infrastructure, and evangelical outreach.

Most importantly, he said, people need education in order to stabilize and rebuild their lives.

"When children don't receive education, the community is being destroyed and has no future. When young trees are being cut down there will be no forest," he said. "Therefore we need to provide education for leadership for young people. A strong community is like a thick forest."

The diocese has established a foundation specifically to address educational needs. "Through this, people can study and become leaders of tomorrow," he said.

The conflict in Northern Uganda began soon after the then-National Resistance Army (NRA) of former President Museveni took power in 1986. Remnants of the previous government's forces fled into northern Uganda and southern Sudan and formed the Ugandan People's Democratic Army (UPDA). Several splinter groups emerged out of the UPDA and the story of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) began.

The LRA's grim trademark has been the abduction and forced subscription of children, which have been turned into killing machines and sex slaves.

The Ugandan government has been engaged in negotiations with the LRA since August 2006 when a landmark truce was signed following peace talks in the south Sudanese capital, Juba. LRA leader Joseph Kony has been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

However, the eight-month ceasefire lapsed in the early hours of March 1 because of mistrust by the conflicting parties, fuelling fears that northern Uganda could be plunged into violence yet again.

Despite the efforts of the church, Onono-Onweng identified serious limitations in implementing their programs. "Ninety-five percent of parishioners in my diocese are displaced," he said "Where can we get money from? The people right now live in chronic poverty."

Other issues involve lack of coordination and effective communication among church members, he said. "The people are being crippled and destabilized. Education will enable them to reconstruct their lives and live a life of dignity again."

A bishop for eight years, Onono-Onweng is the recipient of many awards and the founder of several NGOs that have been actively involved in brokering peace in Northern Uganda.

He showed participants gathered for the TEAM conference a video, "Rise Up and Walk: Northern Uganda emerges from gunfire," that documented the challenges of living in the context of war.

The documentary noted that for 20 years Northern Uganda has known only terror and destruction, and that statistics cannot convey the magnitude of devastation.

The number of civilians' lives claimed by the war totals 300,000 -- mostly women and children -- and at least 1.8 million people are displaced.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence is 11 percent, twice the national average, and 15 cases of suicide are reported each month.

At least 250,000 children have grown up without education so they find it difficult to find jobs.

Jacqueline Aber, featured in the documentary, was abducted in August 2001 at age 13 and only managed to escape the clutches of the LRA in 2005. She fought alongside the rebels and later was married to a rebel commander. She gave birth at 14.

Milly Amono was abducted in 1997 at age 14. The rebels took her and her father who was later killed and his body chopped up while she watched. Amono escaped from rebel captivity in September 2005, pregnant and with another young child.

At least 45,000 children commute every evening to sleep on the streets of certain towns in order to avoid abduction, the documentary noted.

The Diocese of Northern Uganda has been at the forefront of addressing not just the war, but also providing hope to a bruised people.

Through the Social Mobilization of Women Affected by Conflict (SMOWAC) project, women have been provided with heifers and ox-ploughs, which enables them to work and raise money to educate their children and meet basic household needs.

The diocese has also embarked on a project to deliver healthcare to the areas where it is most needed.

The Rev. Solomon Okeny, diocesan health coordinator, said in the documentary that the Anglican church assists up to 2,000 children every month who are infected with HIV/AIDS and/or malnourished.

Thousands of children are displaced from villages and come to the towns to find education.

Martina Kilama, who works in women's development in the diocese, said it is crucial to teach former child soldiers basic economics and how to read and write.

"As people return from the camps they are in dire need of help for shelter, clothing and basic household items," she said. "They need medical facilities and support and counseling."

Onono-Onweng broke down the educational needs of his region into five categories: gospel of freedom and recovery; education for livelihood; vocational training; health education; and education for leadership.

"Jesus Christ has power that enables people to rise up and walk," he said. "People have been crippled by war. A person who knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has the Holy Spirit, which keeps teaching this person to be wise and make sound moral judgment. Let us preach the gospel of freedom and recovery."

Education for livelihood, he said, needs to be carried into the field. "We have found it more useful to go and work with the people. We have demonstration plots in the community and plant a variety of seeds. We give extension services. We need to train good, modern practices if we want them to rebuild their lives."

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