Liberty students embrace Ugandan counterparts
November 16, 2010
By Laura Geggel
At age 19, Okema James Laula isn’t much older than the students at Liberty High School, but he has already lived through a civil war, lost his father in an attack when he was 3 months old and, when his family had nothing, worked odd jobs near his home in Uganda to put himself through school.
Now, in his gap year before college, Laula is traveling the United States, raising awareness about problems facing Ugandan students through the nonprofit organization Invisible Children.
About 400 students listened to Laula’s story Oct. 28 in Liberty’s theater, where they watched a documentary, “Go!” that followed a group of American students who traveled to Uganda to meet the students Invisible Children supports.
The American students immediately made friends with their Ugandan counterparts, but were distressed when they learned that many of their new friends lived in internally displaced person camps and stayed with extended family because their immediate family had been killed in the civil war.
One girl named Gloria revealed she had HIV and, at one point, said she felt like she had lost the will to live, a sharp contrast from her ebullient voice that had risen with the Americans as they all sang “Lean On Me.”
“She was bawling her eyes out,” junior Julie Do said, adding, “I keep thinking back to Gloria’s face when she was crying and talking about all of the stuff she has to go through, and she’s our age.”
The American high school students saw the difference the money from Invisible Children’s Schools for Schools program had made — remodeling and rebuilding schools and paying for student scholarships.
The documentary explained how Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, had used child soldiers to fight for his cause. His army killed families and destroyed schools so that children would have no other place to go except into his ranks.
Kony has since left Uganda, but is terrorizing neighboring countries, according to the documentary.
In their freshmen year, Liberty students learn about conflicts in countries like Uganda and Sierra Leone. Some students read “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” by Ishmael Beah, an autobiography of a child forced to be a soldier after his family is murdered by the opposition in Sierra Leone.
Education is the first step to taking action, Laula said.
“We believe it is young people who can stand up and say, ‘We don’t want this anymore,’” Laula said. “We believe education is the only way to sustain peace in Uganda.”
The Liberty students in Diversity Club have decided to get involved, and are participating in a fundraiser this spring. If Liberty raises enough money, it could send a student to the Invisible Children summit in San Diego, or even to Uganda.
After the movie, several Liberty students asked Laula questions about his life and gave him hugs of support while dozens more queued up at merchandise tables, buying crafts from Uganda and T-shirts made of Ugandan cotton.
The American government gave about $20 million to Uganda and other African countries through the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, and Invisible Children volunteers urged Liberty’s students to give more.
Senior Mclane Harrington, co-president of the Invisible Children Club, who helped organize a book drive for Uganda last year, called the documentary “amazing.”
Jessica Johnson, the teacher adviser for Liberty’s Invisible Children Club, said it is important for teenagers to choose a cause that speaks to them, so they can think in a more global mindset, rather than just what they’re going through in their high school.”
When senior Steve Richmond turns on the news, he is used to hearing about tragedies abroad. And though the civil war is now over in Uganda, the country is still in dire need.
“Invisible Children has taken on that issue in a way that is easier to relate to,” he said. “I walked away from the movie with a sense of empowerment and wanting to get involved.”
On the Web
Learn more about Invisible Children here.