Life after Kony: how Uganda’s women are rebuilding their lives

Warocho Kwan Wwawa members Aciro Grace (left) and Jennifer Atim. The women’s support group has contracts to make uniforms for two primary schools. Photograph: Aggrey Nshekanabo/Send a Cow

Support group Warocho Kwan Wwawa is helping former child soldiers overcome stigma and abuse to create a brighter future

Jennifer Atim was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was 14. She agreed to go with them to save her parents from being murdered – though they were later killed by a second group of rebels – and was “given” a husband, a 60-year-old man who raped Atim regularly and was so paranoid she would run away, he made Atim go to the toilet with him.

Atim, now 33, was one of an estimated 25,000 children who were abducted by Joseph Kony’s LRA, which is believed to have killed 12,000 people in Uganda since 1985. The Ugandan government claims the LRA has been defeated and the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps, to which many of the former child soldiers went, have been closed for a decade. But for many of these former soldiers, trauma and stigma still linger.

“People would move out the way of me and call me stupid or mad,” says Atim. “When I had asked someone to help fetch water for me, the neighbours would say: ‘Why are you going to fetch for that girl? She’s a killer, she destroys everything.’”

When she first came out of the IDP camps, Atim, along with her reunited siblings, would dig plots of land for farmers, barely making enough money to buy basics such as soap, paraffin and sugar.

Then Atim heard about a women’s group called Warocho Kwan Wwawa, which means “renovate our lives” in Acholi. Set up by the UK-based charity Send a Cow, best known for its initiatives to help smallholder farmers through training, seeds and livestock loans, the charity also employs members of the local community and social workers to help people in northern Uganda rehabilitate and reintegrate into everyday life.

A Lord’s Resistance Army fighter in 2006.
A Lord’s Resistance Army fighter in 2006. An estimated 25,000 children were abducted by Joseph Kony’s rebel fighters. Photograph: Stephen Morrison/EPA

“This was the only group where people would not stigmatise me as there were people here with the same problems,” says Atim.

One Saturday morning in Koro village, north Uganda, Warocho Kwan Wwawa members are meeting. The young are poring over swatches of fabric to turn into bags and light maroon and grey cloths for school shirts and dresses. Later there will be drums and traditional dancing as well as time to go over the account book’s tally of milk sales and raise any farming business, not to mention discussion of their next football

In addition to the money made from farming and supplying milk to the Gulu Women’s Dairy Co-operative, Warocho Kwan Wwawa has contracts to make uniforms for two primary schools; as a group they can make up to 700,000 Ugandan shillings (£158) on market day. They are buying machines to make sweaters for a further two schools and also have plans to acquire land on the roadside to set up a tailoring training centre for local women and to capitalise on passing South Sudanese trade.

Loan rates from the co-op to women in the group make new initiatives easier to accomplish. They provide loans at a 10% interest rate compared with 25% from commercial banks and 36% from microfinance initiatives. In Uganda, and in the north in particular, charitable initiatives and co-operatives are nothing new but what makes Warocho Kwan Wwawa stand out is its forward-thinking approach. The women are not just healing from their past, they are looking to the future too.

Members of Warocho Kwan Wwawa
Members of Warocho Kwan Wwawa, which means ‘renovate our lives’ in Acholi. Photograph: Aggrey Nshekanabo/Send a Cow

One of their members is Aciro Grace, 32, who was abducted by the LRA as a child. She conceived a daughter through rape, however 13-year-old Lydia does not live with her mother any more. Grace’s second husband refuses to let the child of an LRA rebel live under his roof.

Grace lives with his family, but they barely talk to her, not only because of her past but because the couple have not yet managed to conceive. She fears he will stop supporting her financially if they cannot have a child soon.

If Grace were to leave her husband she is secure in the knowledge that her friends in Warocho Kwan Wwawa would look after her, and that the money she makes through the group would sustain her.

“My husband and I have been together for five years and he still supports me but I see no future,” she says. “We cannot have a child and it’s a problem because his family talk about me. I can visit my daughter but, as her mother, she should be my responsibility. By joining the group, even though people abuse me I have somewhere to go.”