When someone has been through as much as Jolly Grace Okot has, it’s understandable that they might be a little strange.
Being female in the Acholi tribe of Uganda, she and her sisters were treated as less than second class human beings. They sometimes worked hard digging ditches for 25 cents a day. It wasn’t uncommon for girls to be accosted by males of the tribe. They might then be beaten and raped.
Then things got worse.
When she was in the ninth grade, Jolly was abducted by rebels. Once in their clutches she was raped and beaten frequently and forced into illicit “marriages” with rebel leaders.
People who have survived trauma like that can be expected to exhibit symptoms, such as seeing things that are not really there.
Only one thing, Jolly Okot’s invisible children are real.
After two years in captivity Jolly (pronounced “joe-lee”) was able to escape the rebel forces.
Rather than spiraling into insanity, Jolly built on a childhood that was actually better than most women in her tribe. You see, Jolly’s father had treated his daughters well, encouraging them to value education and independence.
Jolly wasn’t “damaged” by her experiences; she was determined. She went back to school, and continues to pursue further education today. She was determined not only to overcome her past, but to work to improve life for others, especially women and children.
In 2003, she started HEAL (Health, Education, Art, Literacy, Sports), which was a program in which she used dance and play to help children who had been affected and traumatized by the war.
Invisible Children is another program Okot started to help children orphaned and displaced by the horrors of war. Mend is an extension of that program. It is a therapeutic sanctuary for redemption, hope, healing and willpower which is based in the northern town of Gulu. There they make handbags to sell.
“Mend was set up to mend the wounds of people who were formerly abducted during the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) war,” Okot says. “These are not like any other bags. Each bag comes with a fingerprint of the woman who made it to lend it a human connection. The woman’s story is also put online and on a small booklet attached to the bag.” The bags are sold internationally and the women who make them receive pay that can make a huge difference to their families.
“Before joining here, I used to sleep hungry but now I feed my children,” said Lilly Atek, one of the women Okut helps. “Mama Jolly came up with a great product that has changed my life.
Mama Jolly also helped start The Village Savings and Loan Association and SACCO, which give financial counseling, offer loans, and help members develop income generating ideas.
Okot explained, “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.”
Pauline Ajok, who is also a former abductee, earns her living through Mend and is also part of the SACCO. She said, “When I hear about Mama Jolly, I feel happy and thankful. What she has done for the children and women of Northern Uganda is amazing.”
In school, Jolly worked hard to improve a naturally superior intellect. She usually outscored the boys in her classes, which didn’t help her popularity with them. They would tell her, “How can you beat me? I am a man.” She didn’t let that hold her back.
When she was able, she took a job and continued her efforts. She started by seeing to it that all of her siblings got an education. With that accomplished she started to help other girls go to school.
Ms. Okot started up Legacy Scholarship Program which has given the gift of education to more than 1500 girls in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. In a 2010 interview, she said, “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.”
Jolly not only helps other women to do their best, she sets the highest standards for herself and her family as well. She and her husband have four biological children and have adopted four others.
Former abductees have a high incidence of HIV infection. The four children Jolly and her husband adopted were found as babies, still in the home with their mother, who had died of AIDS. In fact, two of them (twins) were found still trying to nurse from their dead mother.
Okot says she is truly blessed by God that she escaped from the rebels and has tested negative for the HIV virus.
Jolly spoke more of the plight of women in war-torn northern Uganda. “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.”
She pointed out, “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.”
“One thing that I value so much is education for women. I always enjoy seeing people who are helped be successful,” Okot says.
Jolly Grace Okot has also worked for nonprofit organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontiers, InterAid International, Oxfam and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2005 she became the first Ugandan woman ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
You can check out WEND Africa on facebook. WEND AFRICA is Women Empowerment Network Design. It is a nonprofit organization begun by Jolly, that provides opportunities for employment, education and empowerment to war-affected mothers.
You can also find Jolly’s facebook page at, ”Jolly Grace Okot Andruvile”.
In my next post, I will share one group’s trip to Africa to help brighten the lives of some of Jolly’s Invisible Children.
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