SARASOTA, Fla. (June 18, 2015) – She had heard the stories of brutality over and over, but also tales of hope, such as how a group of women survivors were helping to rebuild their community in war-torn Lira, Uganda.
Now Dr. Jody McBrien, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, is poised to make a return trip to Lira, 220 miles north of capital city Kampala, to reconnect with those women and unveil a book she co-edited with Dr. Julia Byers of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
Entitled Cold Water: Women and Girls of Lira, Uganda, the 197-page publication is a first-person telling of the women’s struggles during and after the war in which tens of thousands of children, including girls, were kidnapped to fight in Joseph Kony’s guerilla group, The Lord’s Resistance Army, which opposed the government.
Eight of those mothers and daughters recount their stories, recalling the abductions and fighting, but mostly describing their post-war lives, hopes and efforts to rebuild.
Instead of reporting and then retelling the women’s stories, Dr. McBrien asked the eight to write about their lives or provide tape recordings for transcription later. What emerges from the more than 100 hours of conversations is a collection of poignant first-person accounts of the women’s struggles and triumphs.
Among the storytellers is Emma Okite, founder of the PsychoAid counseling center in Lira.
Okite, a teacher at St. Katherine’s High School for Girls, decided to bolster her educational career after glimpsing harsh conditions at the Internally Displaced Persons camps – sickness, terrible depression, domestic violence and rape – where many who lost their homes were forced to live.
Inspired by her father, who supported her education, Okite returned to college to earn a master’s degree. Now, in addition to teaching, she operates Lira’s only counseling center where she helps many women and children left homeless and emotionally devastated by the war. Some of those displaced have also found shelter in Okite’s home.
Another chapter describes Betty Okwir’s painstaking effort to build an elementary school where none had existed in a rural, remote stretch of northern Uganda. She collected donated materials and then physically “worked alongside the men” to erect the modest three-room King Solomon School, Dr. McBrien said.
“Literally, it was brick by brick,” she said, noting that many such instances have gone unreported amid the stories of atrocities.
“There have been a bunch of books about the war years, but we thought it was important for people to understand the post-war years and how these women have become leaders in the rebuilding,” Dr. McBrien said.
Drs. McBrien and Byers, an arts therapist, are set to reconnect with the women and promote their book in Uganda for 10 days this summer.
Dr. McBrien received funding for her trips from USFSM local donors, the Women in Leadership & Philanthropy program at USF and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She first visited Uganda in 2010 to take an inventory of educational needs after the war’s end a couple of years earlier. Dr. Byers followed in 2012.
The two came to know the Lira women during many long talks with them. Struck by their resilience and determination, Dr. McBrien gradually seized on the idea for the book. The title, “Cold Water,” suggested by Dr. Byers during a plane ride from Uganda, is meant to convey the women’s rejuvenating spirit woven throughout the narratives.
“They suffered so much but became leaders in the rebuilding,” Dr. McBrien said.
In addition to her and Dr. Byers, USF Sarasota-Manatee undergrad Ashley Metelus will make the trip back. Metelus traveled to Uganda with Dr. McBrien in 2013 to conduct research into the war’s effects on children. Going there again will allow her to catch up with several students who survived the war.
For now, she’s interning on a summer research project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, studying the role of mentors in students’ aspirations.
“Of all the places I have been to, Uganda was my favorite,” Metelus said. “The people there are so very welcoming. I really felt like I belonged in that country. The positive conversations and interactions with everybody there, I never felt uncomfortable or scared. It felt like home.”
To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Education, please visit USFSM COE.