Forty years ago, in the small village of Awere, Uganda two young adolescents were growing up under grass thatch roofs. One was a smart, poor young girl with old shoes on her feet, the other a rambunctious young boy with fire in his eyes. Both had very different destinies. The boy, Joseph Kony, would grow into a war monster with revenge for the south in his heart. He would turn the gun and machete against his own people, the Acholi tribe, and kidnap young boys and girls from their villages in the middle of the night. The girl, Jolly Grace Okot, would go on to be the most prominent female to rise from her clan, a symbol of peace and honor for the Acholi people. Both fight in a battle against time, as the war edges on its 25th year in Uganda.
Never did I imagine I would be sitting in front of this great woman of Africa in a living room in Southern California. Her story is of hope for women and children in Northern Uganda and she is reshaping history with her hands and her heart.
Author Garrett Glick with Jolly Okot.•
Jolly, you grew up in a family where the majority of your siblings were girls. What was that like in Northern Uganda?
The majority of us were girls, but we had two brothers. One passed away and one remained, but still we were the majority and we were girls. We were bigger girls and the boys were little. For me that was a very challenging time. First of all, families that had boys undermined us. They thought that for us, since we were only girls that my mother would end up with a bunch of prostitutes in her house.
People in your village said that?
Yeah, even my uncles said to my mother, ‘you don’t deserve to stay in our family, because you are a curse to this family, because you have only girls.’ As such, we had difficulties going to fetch water and firewood, because you’re worried that you might meet a group of boys and they will beat you up and you don’t have a brother to defend you. It happened so much.
People would attack you?
Yeah, people would beat us because we are only girls. Either they would make fun of you, you know like talk sexual language. They would say, ‘come on and sleep with us.’ So if you say, ‘No!’ then they will come and beat you up. One day I remember there was a boy who came and said, ‘You, I don’t think I can even sleep with you, because you look so ugly.’ Then he came and started beating me and water that I was carrying on my head came and fell down. My father came and scared him away. These events were very difficult for us and we stayed with a lot of fear. We stayed in a situation where we felt that we were so vulnerable to abuse. I even remember one night we were sleeping in the house, and someone sneaked into our house and entered the house. All of a sudden my three sisters and I woke up and saw that there was a man in our house, so we started making an alarm and this guy broke the door and ran.
While all of this was going on, how did your parents, your mother and your father instill value in yourself? Even though there were people in the village that were demeaning you.
Especially for my dad, he valued education so much. I think he was very exposed to the outside world. My dad grew up a lot with the British and he went through the British training. I would say that he valued children as children. Besides, especially for me, people used to call me a walking stick, because I am always with my dad. My dad was very proud of us. For my mother, it was a challenge, because everything was a struggle for her. However, they were very positive and my mother used to boast that, ‘even though I have only girls, these girls will help me in the future.’ You know naturally enough in that culture, when you have girls and they get married definitely you will receive cows.
What are some of the accomplishments that you have made for the Acholi people, especially the women?
I would say for the last fifteen years I have done a lot for Acholi people. First of all, being in a family of girls I was fortunate enough that I got a job at an early age and that helped me so much to support, you know? I lived as a role model for many girls. I started in my own home by paying everyone in our home in school. These were all girls and I put them through high school and university.
Were you disrespected in the classroom too for being a girl? Did people tell you that your education was worth less?
In the classroom, I was so bright that I would be number one. I was always first or second position in class and definitely boys will want to beat you. ‘How can you beat me? I am a man.’ That was also a challenge. Since that time, I have done a lot for girls. Since 2003, when I finished paying everyone in our home in school I started supporting other girls in school, because that is the only way. Today as I talk, I still support a lot of women in many ways. I am a member of two village savings and loans associations where women can come and save money and work. I help twenty women to make paper beads and I help them to sell the beads in the markets and the US. I have done a lot for women and being a woman and being successful has encouraged so many girls.
It has been a good influence on their lives.
Yes, it has been a good influence, because my family grew up with nothing. We used to go for casual labor when war came. We would go and dig ditches and get a quarter dollar for a days work and that is what we would use for food. My mom was very miserable, but I changed that from our home. Definitely being the first woman from our clan to drive a car changed a lot. In Africa in those days women were not supposed to drive or put on trousers, you know?
What did people say when they saw that?
When they saw that, people started following girls and today the proverb goes, "When you educate a girl, you will have the money and the vehicles around you." So people have started following girls so, so much. Today when I talked with my husband, he said, "How are the scholarships going?" I said, "Oh, we got 38 scholarships." He said, "This time don’t only put girls," and I said, "Definitely, I will put many girls!" Today as I talk, I am sponsoring over 400 girls and out of the 400, I have 144 in the university and the rest in secondary.
That is amazing. How are women mistreated in times of war in Northern Uganda, especially when the villages are pillaged by the rebel forces and when some of those girls are abducted?
A woman is definitely always vulnerable. These hungry men want to have free sex and normally they get raped. Besides, when it is time for war women are the ones who stay with children. Men always run away, because during war men think that they are more vulnerable than women. I don’t know why. Men think that they will be abducted, but women suffer the most. When you have a young baby alone with you at home and you are hiding, that baby will not understand that you are hiding and make a noise or cry and the rebels will hear it. Sometimes they will try and run away and they are caught. They are either raped or killed. Some women were found pregnant, their stomachs have been slit and the baby killed. Most of these things happen and the two most challenging things have been rape and caring for children.
How do you help these women who come back from the conflict? They have seen these things, they’ve been mistreated, and some of their children have been killed.
The only thing appropriate for a woman that has been wronged is empowering them. Empowering them in the sense that they are not only supposed to work in the kitchen and make food. Women in Africa are treated as slaves, because the man will come and sit on the table and say, "Bring for me water, bring for me food." Then in the morning both of you, you and your husband, you go to the garden together. You dig the same digging. You come back home. The man will now retire and sit underneath the tree and relax. You have to make food for the man. You have to bring water for the man to shower. You have to go and fetch water. You have a baby on your back, all of those kinds of things. As such, I feel like empowering them to be to a level of contributing equally at home. The reason why African women have a lot of challenges is because they have no contribution. They didn’t go to school.
They have no other choice.
Yeah, they don’t have choice. They don’t have control of anything. Empowering those that can’t afford to go to school to do business, that is what I do.
These women in your program, do they work together amongst other women so that there is a nice community of women and they can share some of their experiences?
They do, especially the women at Invisible Children’s MEND program. Those girls have been through hard times and most of them sit together and share a lot of the challenges. They become their own counselors. They counsel one another, because the challenge of an African woman is always the same. You are being battered, they restrict you, and you are like a slave, so they sit together and talk about it.
So, they are able to support their families, but also it’s a support group.
Rwanda has one of the largest women presences in their Parliament. Do you think that it’s possible to see that in Uganda one day?
Yeah, I think it’s possible in Uganda. These days it has changed. Rwanda definitely has the largest women representation in Parliament, but Uganda equally has a good number. It is just because Uganda is such a big country. I am very encouraged by the Rwandan lifestyle, because Rwanda is one country where women have started to get a lot of respect. That is a big achievement for Africa.
You have some daughters of your own. How do you empower and encourage some of your daughters to succeed?
I personally have seen from my life that I am strong willed. I do not allow myself to be stepped on, so it took a long time for me to select a man of my choice. I definitely could not handle an African man, a man who is going to order me around to do stuff. I want a man who shares equally. It doesn’t matter whether I have money or he has money. There has to be equal opportunities in the house. I started empowering my daughters very early. My daughter, Danica, she is a very strong girl and she believes in only winning. They become very independent at a young age. Danica at the age of three was showering with no help. The same thing with Daniella, she can do everything on her own. She dresses up for school, and she understands that mommy can’t stay home. Mommy has to work so they can get an education. She is now six years old, so what I am doing for them is telling them to be completely independent. I’ve started empowering them. One thing I’ve taught them to do, you know a piggy bank? Each one of them has a piggy bank. Every year they save and in December they open. Together we drive to the bank and we save it. That has empowered them. They know that they all have bank accounts. That is how I am trying to train them to be independent girls.
How do you encourage the families of the girls to keep their children in school? Dowry is so important and doing household chores is important for the women in Ugandan communities.
I keep them in school by leading as an example. I don’t do housework. I cook only when I love to cook something. It’s not that I have to come from work and cook. I feel so empowered. I feel that I have got everything I want. What I normally want to do, especially for a girl student is to tell them, educating a girl is educating a nation. I have tried so much. I have done radio programs, I’ve done home visiting, and I’ve gone to talk to girls in schools. I feel that it is very important to encourage them. The challenge is why does an African girl get married at such an early age? Sometimes it is because of material need, you know? They are desperate. When the time of war came I had one shoe. I grew up without an underpant. As such, if I wasn’t a strong girl and a man came to me with money I would go to him. I want to tell families that girls can take the ownership of anything. In our home, everything is shared equally.
Can you tell me how you were abducted?
Okay. For me, I was in high school, 9th grade, and I was in a boarding school. When I was returning from school, because our home was so remote, there was no means of transportation. If you are lucky you would get on a tractor that was carrying food or you would get on an army truck, but there was no public transport. Normally we stop on the way and we walk for twelve miles every time you are going to school. You pack your suitcase that is about 60 pounds. You have a mattress that is about 10 pounds. Definitely on top of you, you have about 70 or 80 pounds. So you walk. When I was walking coming back home, a group of rebels had started in our homes, but I didn’t know that the rebels were there. There were no means of communication, and that made it very difficult for us to get communication that there were rebels. When I walked home, coming closer to home I met a group of men who had put up a roadblock. They put trees, leaves and branches of trees in the road. When I came closer I would hear words they were telling me. I knew the language. I was a little scared, because I had never seen something like that in our home. I heard them say in Swahili, "Stop!" I kept walking and then I heard guns. I heard people cocking a gun. I stopped and then I would hear some gun shots. "TAR!" They were punishing people who refused to support them.
This is the LRA?
No, it wasn’t at that time. It was a group of armies who ran away from the former government. So, they were shooting people’s feet. "TAR!" They would shoot and leave you to walk with it. Put a pistol to your feet, directly on your feet and it would smash your feet and you walk and you go. I got scared because they lined us up for the same thing. I thought they were going to smash my feet, but fortunately it had reached about four people and then they stopped. They said, "You see, if you don’t listen to us we will do the same." Then I told them who my dad was and I told them that I would come back and walk with them. The news reached to my father and my father came and started talking to them. He said, "No problem, my daughter will come back. Please allow her to visit home."
He wanted to make sure you survived.
Yes, so that day I walked home and the next morning I came back. You definitely have to come back. If you don’t come back they will kill you. That is how my brother died. So I came back and started the training. Everyday that you are in training some commander will come and take you for a wife at night. That is how I got abducted and you cannot say no.
After seeing the way the men treated the women it put you in a mindset to say, "I never want to go through that again and I want to empower women so that they never have to be treated like this."
Exactly! When I saw all of that, one thing that helped me a lot was that I used to love reading. I read a lot of stories about successful women. Some of them were stories like in the movies where a woman would go and kill someone. I thought, "Hmm, women can own a gun." So, with all of those challenges I went through growing up as a child, being abducted and being mistreated I developed a very strong will. With my will I want to call everything in my house mine. I developed the word mine. I am trying to use the word ours, but it doesn’t always come very easily. I have a lot of respect for my husband and he has a lot of respect for me, but those challenges are always there. Those are a few things I noticed as a girl growing up, and today as I talk I am a very strong woman. I stand to compete with men. I started my scholarship program through another organization, because I wanted my program to be affiliated with America. At first it was unsuccessful. But, when I started with Invisible Children I knew I would always have many children and school and here I am now.
Jason [Russell] always supported that vision you had? He was right behind you?
When you talk to the filmmakers they will say, ‘Invisible Children is Jolly’s dream.’ The first idea was to build a complex where I would do trauma counseling through dance, sports, and games.
Do the mentors in the scholarship program help with things like that?
In the mentorship program I have a mentorship handbook that I developed and all of those components are there. We do mentorship through sports. We do mentorship through games, dancing, and culture. We cover everything.
Being a mentor is difficult position to acquire isn’t it?
Yes, it is a difficult position to acquire, but everything we do in life is difficult. I knew what the children of Uganda were going through and I knew how to help them. So, I wanted to replicate it. One of the things that made me a powerful person was music. I am a public speaker because of singing. We have singing and debating programs through the mentorship and this builds confidence for the children.
What is it like being here in the United States and traveling? What is it like being on the road with Invisible Children as a part of the movement aspect we have here in the US? What is it like to see that and what has your experience been like so far?
It has been very challenging. One challenging bit of it as a roadie is that almost every night or two, you are sleeping in another bed. As a normal human being people say, "My pillow, my bed sheet," but you don’t have that. Another hard task is sitting in the car for such a long time, but the most exciting thing about it is the response of the people. The story in Northern Uganda inspires people. It has made me feel very happy. I appreciate Americans so much. It has been challenging to live with different people from different backgrounds, but all in all I am very pleased because it is for the right cause.
About the Author
I’m a 24 year old storyteller from North Carolina. I tell stories of those under the radar. Stories that make people think outside of their suburbs. I am driven by traveling. This started at 13 on a mission to Kingston, Jamaica. Since then I went to a liberal arts school nestled in the Appalachian Mountains and last year I moved to Seoul to experience life in the East. Experience breeds writing, so I have been stock piling journals of real characters, towns, and dialogue to unleash on the page in the near future. I hope that my writing, much like music can be a universal language that all can take from equally. Currently, my volunteer work with Invisible Children has moved my sights to beautiful Africa and I hope to encourage other global citizens to help in mending the motherland.