PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 9

Today is International Women’s Day, so naturally my mind immediately begins to focus on the women I met in the Oula and Mungula Refugee Settlement Camps.

While sharing with someone about my recent trip to Uganda, I told about my role in the Trauma Healing Training. I give leaders in the community the tools they need to assist them as they help others deal with their trauma. The person asked about the kind of trauma these women experienced, and I thought, “Well what trauma haven’t they experienced.”  And yet, their resilience and spirit shine through horrors that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I wish I could share all of their stories, but today, in honor of International Women’s Day, I want to share the story of Mary Achol Akech Kuol. Mary is married to Daniel, a former “Lost Boy” whose story I shared several years ago. Daniel fled Sudan as a child, walking with other lost boys as they were trained to be warriors, even as lions attacked them and governments turned on them. Daniel works as an organizer for SSLCD and during our recent trip, Mary joined him while we were in Adjumani, so I had a chance to hear her journey, and I am honored to be able to share it.

Mary was born into trauma. She was her mother’s third born child, but the two sons born before her did not survive. Her oldest brother died of yellow fever and the next son died of a waterborne disease as the family was fleeing their village during the war with Sudan, before South Sudan became an independent nation.  Mary’s mother, a Nubian, was separated from her family, so they didn’t have the close connection of extended family as they moved around.

The first years of her life involved her family moving from refugee settlement to refugee settlement throughout South Sudan. Her father was a soldier, and he didn’t want to leave his family, so they would follow him wherever he was sent. That meant a peripatetic lifestyle, staying some places a few months and others a few years, but eventually moving on, either because he was reassigned or because the war got closer and they were attacked.

Mary described in vivid terms what it was like during those years of war. She said that wherever they went, they would dig a hole around the village, which was to serve as their protection. If they were awakened by bombing, they would all immediately run to the hole. And these holes were horrible. They were often filled with putrid water, large frogs and dangerous snakes.

But in spite of that, they were the only source of security. So every woman and child in the village, as well as men who were older, would pile into these holes, as all of the men who could fight stood their ground. And there they would wait. Wait as injured people died around them. Wait as children succumbed to disease. Wait as the acrid smell of bombing and fighting surrounded them. Wait until the burning had ceased and the bombing had ended, when they could emerge and flee to another location.

Mary spoke of how traumatic this was, how you had to remain quiet, in case of attack. No matter how jumpy you were, you couldn’t cry out. And of how, even years later, there are nightmares because of how traumatic it was. Because you never knew what the enemy soldiers would do to you if they found you.

Eventually, a peace treaty was signed between Sudan and South Sudan, paving the way for nationhood for South Sudan. By this time, Mary’s father was a chaplain in the army and she had three more brothers and two sisters.

After the peace treaty, her father moved the family to Gulu in 2009, when Mary was 13, so that they could all attend school. Because they had been fleeing war their whole lives, none of the children had a chance to study or learn. Her father had a good job as a chaplain, and he was able to provide for their education at last.

Mary took to learning like a fish to water, moving through the system very quickly and by the time she was 19, she was able to sit for her Senior Level (high school) exams. But then her father lost his job and they couldn’t stay in their rented house in Gulu and couldn’t attend school because there wasn’t money for tuition.

So the family had to move to a refugee settlement in Bweyale, Uganda, as her father returned from South Sudan to be with the family. They had hoped to get a free education in the refugee settlement, but unfortunately only the youngest could attend primary school. Eventually, the family saved enough money to send Mary back to school so she could finish her Senior Levels.

Mary did well. Very well. So well that she was selected by the Windle Trust to go on to university with a full scholarship. Mary wanted to be a nurse, but the trust would only pay for her to attend a teacher’s training school. So Mary entered the Gulu Primary Teacher’s College in 2017, where she not only got room and board but also money on which to live.

However, after one semester there, she met Daniel, who wanted her to be his wife. Daniel’s family knew Mary from the Bweyale Settlement. They knew what an upstanding, moral young woman she was. So he took her to her father, asked to marry her and paid the agreed upon dowry. (It involves a certain amount of money and usually some cows and other livestock.) She had to leave college and her scholarship behind to marry Daniel.

Mary and Daniel have a child, Emanuel Bul, who is 4, and she is happily married, even though she and Daniel are not able to live together. But her dream of going to college never faded. So now, Mary’s mother and sisters help with raising Emanuel, and Mary was able to get another scholarship from the United Nations to help her finish her college, which she will do in December, with an associate’s degree.

But she is not done with learning. She wants to continue her education. She plans to go back to Gulu to finish her degree in procurement and logistics management. Mary says that growing up in the midst of war, she wants to be “a strong woman who can do things on her own.”  And I have no doubt she will.

On this International Women’s Day, I want to honor Mary and so many women like her, who have been raised in trauma but who refuse to let that define them. Women whose resilience and spirit outshines the horrors of war and being surrounded by hunger and disease. Women whose determination allows them to keep forging their own path. Women who make a way where there is no way, trusting in the power of God to keep them moving ahead.

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