Tuesday, November 15, 2011

“They Told Me It Was Impossible”

“When we began taking in the girls, the ones with the little children, they all told me I was crazy.” The lamp created soft yellow shadows upon Alice’s face as she spoke from across the darkness. “They told me it was impossible; that the girls who got pregnant were a lost cause. ‘How could you possibly have a girl with a baby in class?’ They asked, but look at us now, five years out, and our girls are owning businesses, working as nursing assistants, tailors, and even teachers.”

Alice is the Founder and Director of the Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF) which runs the Pader Girls Academy (PGA), a school that caters to young women who—largely for reasons related to the war—are unable to attend mainstream school. Most of PGA’s 315 girls were abducted by the LRA and became child mothers as a result of forced marriages. Others became mothers at as young as 12 years old because of the notoriously rampant sexual assault which occurred in the IDP camps of Northern Uganda.

I met Alice on my very first day in Pader. When I arrived, it was mid-morning, and a crowd gathered in the town’s soccer field for an Independence Day celebration. Out of curiosity, I went to see the festivities, choosing the last remaining seat which was serendipitously next to Alice.

Alice is an anomaly in Acholiland. At six feet tall, other Ugandans tease her about being “American height,” though her perfectly spoken Lwo, refinement, and taste in bright African dress testify to her Northern Ugandan ancestry. In a society with few female leaders in the public sphere, Alice assails gender norms: she is outspoken, works outside the home as Director of two successful organizations, and remains unwed without biological children despite being in her mid-30s.

Locals call her “Auntie” as a sign of reverence, testament to her importance in the community and exceptional gifts, being both intelligent and compassionate. She interprets her firmly rooted Christian faith as requiring Christ-like love for the meek, and her natural genius has allowed her to accomplish amazing feats without advanced educational training.

I now live in Alice’s compound which offers an open invitation to anyone in need. Among the regular residents is an HIV-positive child, a deaf teenager, an abandoned woman with children, and a constant stream of guests from nearby villages coming to enjoy a free meal and loving company.

The founding of CCF was itself an extraordinary endeavor, requiring courage in a hostile environment. The very idea of educating unwed, child mothers went against Acholi culture and customs. “You will encourage promiscuity!” people criticized. “These girls should be at home with their children, made responsible for what they have done!”

“You know, Jesus never judged,” Alice told me one night as we discussed the motivation behind PGA. “Take the story of Levi where Jesus dined with the sinners, or that of the prostitute where he said ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone.’”

Indeed, the girls of PGA need compassionate support, and they have found it in Alice, the teachers at PGA, and the staff of CCF.

In the weeks since I first learned of PGA and the women’s empowerment work of CCF, I’ve become increasingly inspired to support Alice’s work, to become a part of the lives of the women at PGA and the children impacted by CCF’s programs. As part of PGA’s Peace Club, I am working with the young women to create a foundation of personal peace, to serve their community, and create love and joy for themselves and others. At CCF, I am working to document the organization’s work in child protection, HIV/AIDS, and women’s issues in the region. As part of this, I will be leading a media campaign next year that draws attention to the plight of women in the region and the projects that encourage change and foster hope.

The preacher at PGA's church asked all those in need of prayer to come to the front.

Students of the Pader Girls Academy

PGA Peace Club girls acting out school bullying.

Alice with Mary, a Director at the MacArthur Foundation who chose to provide seed funding for PGA.

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