A life free from handouts: The entrepreneurs that rise out of the IDP camps in Northern Uganda. How a UK charity, Send a Cow, are working with victims of Joseph Kony’s regime to reconnect them with their land and their legacy.

Imagine being a teenager. Imagine being abducted and forced to become a child soldier. Now imagine you can go home. But after 20 years living off handouts in a displacement camp would you know what to do? For many people living in the Acholi sub region in Northern Uganda, this is their reality.

Historically sharing their grasslands with Joseph Kony, they found themselves caught up in the insurgency; villages divided by their alliance to either the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Museveni Government. Children were used as weapons of war. If they were lucky enough to escape and be reunited with their families, chances are they would spend close to two decades living in displacement camps. Today Acholi culture and traditions remain under threat, having been snatched and replaced with the raw human instinct to do anything to survive. The camps, which many had entered under duress, did little to offer a haven of peace. Frequently infiltrated by rebel fighters, the Acholi people saw their new homes frequently burnt down, children continued to be abducted and the killing failed to stop.

Many men turned to alcohol and promiscuous sex to provide a crutch to quieten the past and the present. While mothers and teenage daughters were trapped into using sex as a tool too; this time to gain income to provide an extra meal. The harsh realities of camp life enticed HIV and AIDS to quickly spread. As a result, many children found themselves born into camp life; until fairly recently it was in fact the only life some have ever known. For 20 years, families had no choice but to live off handouts and the disempowerment of dependency was toxic; when people could return to their land, to put it simply, they didn’t know what to do with it.

This was my first time to Northern Uganda and to what, just 6 years prior, had been a ‘no go area’ yet I couldn’t have felt more welcome. After being greeted by the roadside with song, a group of Acholi women, all living with HIV or AIDS, sat on a straw mat and introduced themselves.

They felt lucky that I was there to hear their stories, I was honoured that they would let me. As we travelled in a pick up truck to their homestead with the women in the bucky, they sang with their hearts, their souls and courage that could surely move mountains. They were the happiest women I had ever met, their smiles enticing the past to ride quietly on their shoulders so their hearts could stay open.

The contrast between past and present was difficult to witness, “It’s very painful knowing their stories, it’s not anything they chose” said Aggrey Nshekanabo, Communication Officer for Send a Cow Uganda, at the beginning of my visit. For now though it was a chance to see their homestead and the women beamed with pride as they showed me their circular huts made of cow dung and sand with a thatched straw roof, chairs and sofas built out of bricks and soil and most importantly their new harvest of tomatoes lying at their feet. Their homes were extraordinary: so simple and so cosy that I was instantly in awe of what the land and these women could accomplish and I had only been in their company for a few moments.

As darkness quickly descended, the candlelight presented an intimacy and anonymity for their stories. Balancing the fear of remembering too much with a desire to be recognised for their survival, the women’s voices lay thick on the cool night air. Some were fearful for their loved ones, not knowing if they were alive since they were abducted, whilst others spoke matter-of-factly about what had happened;

“When we were taken to the bush we were given people to kill, you had to beat them to death” said Amone Paul before adding “I do not want to think about the past, when I do I go mad”.

Ajok Florence has been left weak by the torture she endured after being abducted on three occasions and surviving for 4 years, 3 months and a day with rebel fighters; she too now chooses to focus on happier times. Her escape when she was just 12 years old has reaffirmed her faith, despite the inhumane world she has grown up in - “They took me to kill somebody, when I refused they decided that I would be killed. They took me to where they were slaughtering people. They tied me, but before they could kill me I requested to be allowed to pray. After my prayer one of the Generals decided that I could be released.”

Furthermore, the sight of this 12 year old putting her trust in God inspired the release of others; a moment she refers to as ‘God’s miracle’. Acts of Mercy lie at the core of this group, which have chosen the name Kicar Ber to represent them, meaning Mercy is Good. Whether it’s by remembering the small moments of mercy in amongst the horrific acts they have witnessed or recognising it in their own forgiveness and their acceptance of each other, the women have found a way to escape the atrocities of the past, “All we knew was to kill somebody, to beat somebody to death; I never dreamt of a life like this” says Amone. This fresh start has been made possible with the help of the charity Send a Cow, which has taught them how to tend to the land that they were once forced to leave.

Today these women are farmers, providing food and medicine for their families and an education for their children through the crops and livestock that they nurture. It’s hard to believe that a cow can be the catalyst for such overwhelming change, but it is through the work of Send a Cow that community groups like Kicar Ber have had the opportunity to take responsibility for their future; although it is quickly evident that the charity is about much more than providing a cow.

Originally set up 25 years ago when the UK Government cut subsidies to UK dairy farmers, forcing farmers to throw away milk and slaughter their cows, the idea arose to transport the milk to where it was needed; “initially the thought was how can we get this milk to Uganda, then it became how can we get the cows there too. But things have changed now, all livestock is sourced in the country so we’re no longer flying cattle around!” explains, Helen Baxton, Grants Officer at Send a Cow Uganda. Today the idea has grown and Send a Cow now work with community groups in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda passing on seeds, livestock and most importantly teachings to ensure that homesteads are safe, healthy and productive.

In Northern Uganda the charity stepped in at a crucial time, helping traumatised survivors reconnect with their land and empowering them to reclaim their future when the arrival of peace had seen other NGO’s leave. “When we were in the camp we were not planning for anything. Time and again you just think of your death. But now we are planning for the future. We have a plan, we have our vision” explained Okol Job who is now earning 6,000 Ugandan shillings a day (approx. £1.50) with the milk he gets from his cow. But Aggrey admits that inspiring confidence and self belief in Okol’s group was difficult. With people feeling angry and bitter they were distrustful of the charity’s intentions and meetings often took place on the roadside. With many suffering from alcohol abuse there was a breakdown in family and community relationships, “we were challenged, we thought is this the community we’re going to work with? But we believed change had to happen”. Now three years on, that same group is showcasing their homestead as a teaching venue for other communities to learn from.

Send a Cow is based on the simple idea of sharing farming techniques and knowledge to communities in need so that they can become self sufficient. Within the first few weeks farmers are given the tools to grow their own vegetables and build a pit latrine, instantly improving their nutrition and sanitation, “a sick community is a poor community” explains Aggrey.

Teaching basic life skills is a core part of the charity’s work, from explaining how animal droppings can fertilise the soil, how intercropping can confuse pests and how a chimney can keep a hut smoke free, these teachings are passed on from one community to another, “they’ll see the changes being made and they’ll start to adopt those changes because the benefits are so obvious” says Helen.

In addition to the teachings, livestock is also shared when the first calf from the cow donated by the charity is passed onto another homestead, ensuring that the wider community becomes linked; bonded together by their actions for change. Once homesteads are established, Send a Cow advise members to pay membership fees into a community bank account to protect their homestead should a harvest fail or a community member need an emergency loan to cover medicine costs or pay for a funeral. “Because Send a Cow was initially set up by farmers who are business men and women, it’s a model that works” says Helen. The strengthening of communities, the reintroduction of trust between people is a vital aspect of the work that Send a Cow does. In the displacement camps the Acholi tradition of looking after each other was eroded as friends and neighbours fought and squabbled over food and water supplies; now, like the people to their land, trust and security is returning also.

But there is still much more to do. Whilst the charity can be proud of beneficiaries to their programme who are now doctors and teachers, it is a bitter irony that 80% of the farmers who Send a Cow work with have no authority over the land to which they tend because they are women; “whatever is produced from the land is appropriated by the men” explains Aggrey. But by encompassing the Acholi traditions of drama and music, Send a Cow are beginning to open up the discussion on gender equality.

“Now we look at each other as somebody with equal rights, we sit down and budget together, how much should be for medication, how much for education, how much should be saved. We used to take women as our property. Because we would think, we have taken a wife, we have taken some wealth to their family members, so we would take our women as our property” explained Okol.

Women are also the focus of another area of concern for the charity; that of gender based violence. In a land which has been infiltrated by violence in unimaginable ways, the violence women experience within their homes is considered a normal part of life by both sexes. But whilst the victims, the women also provide the gateway to the solution, their farming status offering a reason for Send a Cow to visit their homes and teach on a very basic level that it is not practical to hit the woman who tends to your land. “It’s getting people to look at what’s going on in their households and to see why that’s not necessarily the best way to help their family move on from what they’ve been through” explains Helen.

Much more than agriculture, Send a Cow is about social development. It offers a long term solution rather than a quick fix and it puts the onus for change firmly with the people who need it. Whilst the trauma of the past can never be erased, Send a Cow has offered the Acholi people a future full of possibilities.

Women who were once shunned by their community for having HIV or AIDS and seen as nothing more than “moving coffins” are now successful business women. Alwoch Flora is proud to tell me that 8 people so far have paid her 5,000 Ugandan shillings (approx £1.25) to teach them how to build an energy saving stove. But being able to raise livestock, grow successful crops and be invited into her neighbours’ homes is not something Alwoch, a widow with HIV, ever expected. “Many people are surprised by the change in me” she says with a smile, as she passes me a pen to sign her visitor’s book. As for Okol’s homestead, they are now busy preparing a large order of ground nuts, made possible by the brick store they have just opened to keep their harvest safe and secure. For the first time in a long time, their future is literally in their hands, all because a charity showed them mercy by giving them the tools to help themselves.