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Uganda: Lessons of Aboke

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A lesson on a tree at Aboke St. Mary's secondary school. Image by Roger Thurow. Uganda, 2014.

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A lesson on a tree at Aboke St. Mary's secondary school. Image by Roger Thurow. Uganda, 2014.

ABOKE, Uganda — At St. Mary’s secondary school for girls, lessons literally grow on the trees.

Philosophical statements and encouraging aphorisms, painted in white letters on green pieces of sheet metal, hang on the trees that ring the central courtyard: “Trees make our environment beautiful”; “Be proud of your school and environment”; “Learning to know is my dream and pride.”

Then there are the lessons of basic humanity:

“Stop Violence!”

“Promote your rights.”

“No Justice, No Peace.”

“If we promote peace we shall make a difference in the world.”

These are the lessons of Aboke for the world.

Before the recent abductions of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by the marauding forces of Boko Haram, and the global campaigns of outrage (#BringBackOurGirls) that have followed, there were the raids against schools and villages in northern Uganda by the ruthless followers of warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, who captured children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. One night in October 1996, the kidnappers barged into some of the dormitories of St. Mary’s and fled with 139 schoolgirls.

One of the nuns at the school pursued them deep into the bush. The kidnappers had also stolen bags of candy and snacks from the school; the trail of empty wrappers led the way to their camp. The Sister demanded the return of the girls, but the leader of the abductors insisted on keeping 30 of them. She was told that if she persisted on the return of all the girls, she would leave with none; they would all be killed. So 30 remained in the bush; most of them eventually escaped.

The school almost closed, but it persisted in the face of terror and sorrow. “When I came here 13 years ago, it was a very sad environment,” says Sister Susan Nganga, now head of St. Mary’s. “When you entered the compound, you felt the sadness.”

For years, the students and teachers also felt vulnerable, under threat of renewed attacks. “People were traumatized,” Sister Susan recalls. “There was a time that if the door banged because of the wind, we all jumped. We thought it was a shooting.”

Her task was to change the environment of sadness and fear, begin a recovery. Eventually, Kony and his forces fled Uganda; they are now presumed to be in a neighboring country in central Africa. The region of northern Uganda began a slow recovery, rebuilding homes and schools and businesses, but also rebuilding trust and a sense of security.

The students at St. Mary’s rallied around sports teams. They started a peace club. The teachers added courses on reconciliation. They hung the lessons on the trees.

On a recent Saturday morning, I found the students diligently doing their weekend chores. They were cutting the grass with machetes, using brooms made from branches to sweep the dirt pathways among the trees, washing clothes and hanging them to dry on bushes. Always, the signs were nearby. “If we promote peace, we will come out on top,” proclaims a palm tree.

There was also work being done in the fields, with the girls taking turns tending the crops. Agriculture—nourishing the students—has been one of the vehicles of recovery.

“We have a very big farm,” Sister Susan says, “about 50 acres.” It has become a symbol of renewal for the school and the surrounding villages. Most of the local residents are poor farmers. “Whenever they used to plant big fields, the rebels would come and take it,” she recalls. “If they built a new house, the rebels would come and destroy it. They didn’t know how to plan for the future. For the students, we teach them that now that it is peaceful, they can start to think about tomorrow. That’s why we have the fields.”

Planting is a belief in tomorrow, the harvest provides fuel for the future. The school farm yields a cornucopia of vegetables and fruit, including maize, cassava, kale, eggplant, popcorn, paw-paws, mangoes, bananas, and sweet potatoes.

The sweet potatoes are of the orange variety, provided by the Harvest Plus biofortification program which highlights minerals and vitamins naturally appearing in staple crops. The orange sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A, and they have become regular fare in the dining hall, becoming more popular than the white and yellow varieties that provide calories but few nutrients.

“We didn’t know how the students would receive them at first,” says Sister Susan of the orange potatoes. “I asked the estate manager and he said, ‘They ate them. They are sweet. They taste good.’ ”

And they are good for the students, particularly adolescent girls. The orange sweet potatoes have become a teaching object about the importance of eating well, about healthy girls becoming healthy women, especially as they approach child-bearing years. They learn about the importance of good nutrition for mothers and their babies, most critically in the 1,000 days from the beginning of pregnancy to the child’s second birthday.

The teachers have noticed some of the girls carrying orange potatoes to class for mid-day snacks. “They know the orange potatoes help give them healthy bodies,” says Sister Susan, who teaches science. “Last week, our students did a blood donation and the person (in charge) talked about what builds good blood. The girls are aware of balanced diets, they know about the value of good nutrition.”

Such knowledge is one of the building blocks of recovery. One strong generation gives birth to another. This is one more lesson of Aboke.

“To destroy a place can take days,” says Sister Susan. “But to recover takes years.”