The day the rebels took Lumule, Uganda, they sneaked into the village and rang the college bell. Attendance had been sporadic within the months earlier than the takeover: a bell signalled class was protected to attend. Children gathered their books and headed over excitedly. A couple of noticed the gunmen; others have been too late.
Lumule-born Dennis Okwera was among the many group of youngsters who received prepared for varsity that day. He would have gone with them had his grandmother not stopped him; the bell didn’t ring because it usually would. “She sensed something wasn’t right,” says Okwera, now in his early 30s. He left Lumule to remain along with his aunt and brother, Chris – first in Gulu, a metropolis within the north, then shifting south-east when the preventing intensified. Before this, a lot of his childhood had been spent residing along with his paternal grandmother. Okwera’s father had fled for the UK earlier than Lumule’s takeover; his mom moved away after the divorce.
Today, Okwera is a profitable mannequin. He has labored on campaigns for manufacturers similar to Dunhill, Alex Eagle and Wales Bonner, and featured in quite a few magazines, including HTSI. He’s additionally a biochemistry graduate, a skilled plumber and builder, and has helped put three of his cousins in Uganda by way of college.
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Okwera joined his father within the UK, alongside along with his brother, within the early 2000s. Life wasn’t a lot simpler: the household had no everlasting residence, a requisite for the boys’ training. It wasn’t till Okwera began modelling – at first sceptically and later in earnest – that his funds stabilised. Today, Okwera lives modestly in south-east London, in a “box flat”. Most of his earnings have gone again to Uganda – shopping for a home for his mom, from whom he was estranged for 22 years, paying his cousins’ college charges and supporting the broader group with college books, pens, sanitary merchandise and different incidentals. More just lately, he has funnelled his earnings again right into a newly registered charity – the Lumule Foundation – which he launched in 2022. The aim is to “empower the people of [his] community”, and finally the remainder of northern Uganda. Until just lately, the undertaking was completely self-funded by Okwera. He estimates he has spent round £40,000 of his personal cash up to now.
Okwera’s early reminiscences of Lumule are clouded by the Lord’s Resistance Army, an organisation answerable for abducting greater than 67,000 youths – amongst them 30,000 youngsters – through the 1987-2008 civil warfare in northern Uganda. It is estimated that round 1.6 million folks have been displaced by the battle. “We slept outside in the bush,” says Okwera of how he and his brother averted pressured conscription. “You had to be ready to run.” Two of Okwera’s cousins have been captured on the day of the college rebellion; neither has been heard from since.
Today, says Okwera, Lumule is “peaceful”. Most of the preventing led to 2006 however instead are ugly scars, destroyed buildings and a near-total lack of infrastructure. Other penalties are much less tangible. “From 12 years of age you were a child soldier with a gun in your hand – you had to prove you were worthy to lead,” says Okwera of the nation’s former troopers. “Those boys are now back from the war and having children. How do we help those children with the trauma their parents are going through?”
For Okwera, the reply lies in Lumule main college. “Only through education will we see a change over there,” he says. “Had those rebel leaders been to school, they would not have started the war.” First he despatched the books, pens and faculty provides; now he’s tackling grades and attendance. Around 700 pupils from the realm’s 17 villages – Lumule included – have signed up for sophistication up to now. School additionally affords the younger wives and youngsters of former troopers a protected atmosphere. “It’s so unfair that these children are paying the price for what their parents went through,” says Okwera.
Prudence Atukwatse, govt director of AFFCAD Uganda, a youth-focused charity primarily based in Kampala, agrees that training might be key to Uganda’s restoration. “Education is empowering,” she says. “Girls who are in school have a low risk of teenage pregnancy and will produce fewer children – they will have manageable families but can also fight better for their rights. Skilling youths is a prerequisite for shifting power.”
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Attendance is lowest amongst feminine pupils. Many keep at dwelling when they’re menstruating. Others have youngsters of their very own to take care of (the common age of a first-time mom in Uganda is round 19). Alongside the college, Okwera has opened a well being hub, providing sexual-health recommendation, help for younger moms and a movement of formulation and sanitary merchandise. The hub can even function a house for Okwera’s aunt Joyce. “She’s been battling HIV for a number of years now,” he says. “But she’s doing all right.” Joyce was essential in serving to a lot of Lumule’s youngsters – Okwera and his brother included – to flee the warfare. She now wards the hub at evening.
The greatest undertaking to this point is the college’s new kitchen, which opened with a village occasion in June. The journey was Okwera’s second go to to Uganda since launching the inspiration. His first was in August 2022, greater than 20 years after leaving. Landing in Entebbe International Airport – a strip of tarmac amid the tropical lakes and emerald forest – he felt the primary waves of a surreal homecoming. “It was weird,” he says. “I’m still trying to soak it all in.” In Lumule he was reunited with Joyce and, quickly after, his mom. Says Okwera: “She [felt] like [she’d] missed out on my entire life.”
Without the brand new kitchen, a lot of the youngsters wouldn’t be capable to eat till supper time. “Afternoons are a struggle in the schools because the children are starving,” says Okwera, who hopes Lumule will function a blueprint for different faculties. The basis has supplied 4 cooks, a cabinet filled with provides and 10 acres of land to develop corn, beans, greens and candy potatoes. The first harvest will probably be prepared in February, in time for the brand new time period.
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Okwera addressed his visitors at a fundraising occasion in September – amongst them singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, rapper Tinie Tempah and tv presenter AJ Odudu – carrying a wise Wales Bonner swimsuit. The basis, he stated, is about sharing his “small wins” and his “big wins”. After leaving Uganda, Okwera spent many months residing in non permanent lodging. Now he’s settled, he needs others like him to expertise “what freedom feels like”.
The basis has been rising sporadically since its inauguration, with tasks stopping and beginning in line with Okwera’s checking account. He runs by way of a guidelines of issues he must work on: one minute he’s on plumbing; the following he’s outlining plans to purchase the village a communal motorcycle. All of his updates are delivered with the identical light tone and indulgent optimism. “He is not very organised,” says jewelry designer Houda Ghazal, Okwera’s shut pal and director of the inspiration. But he’s “very reliable”. No matter how fanciful a aim sounds, Okwera appears to get it shifting. When we first spoke in February, he had raised £6,000 of donations from a GoFundMe web page. Eight months later, he’d raised greater than £36,000.
Ghazal has helped arrange an official donation system, overhauled the inspiration’s web site and is now working with Okwera on quite a lot of fundraising alternatives. A group of trustees has been established, amongst them architect and textile designer Foday Dumbuya. Running a charity in Uganda, Ghazal has found, is not any easy endeavor. The extent of the nation’s impoverishment – 47 per cent of Ugandan households dwell in multidimensional poverty – implies that many charities are susceptible to corruption. The lack of fundamental facilities, in the meantime, is overwhelming. When the village pump breaks – on Okwera’s final go to it did so 3 times – Lumule will be with no clear supply of water for as much as two days. Children are particularly susceptible to ailments similar to cholera, which stays a persistent lethal menace.
“Not even the government is in the position to provide adequate social services,” provides Atukwatse. “The vicious cycle of poverty is like wildfire in late summer.” She stresses the necessity for a brand new charity to “build trust and create community ownership”; tasks are prone to turning into political, and expectations are excessive from a “community that is still struggling to recover from a long period of armed conflict”.
Okwera can’t save Lumule alone. Currently he goals to common three journeys a yr to the village. He’s straight concerned in rebuilding efforts. Joyce, one among his uncles, a cousin and 7 group volunteers are there to assist with deliveries and admin, however the bulk of the labour requires outsourcing. A solar-powered system to repair the defective pump has been quoted at £12,400; a eating corridor to accompany the brand new kitchen is available in at £31,000. Okwera has additionally needed to rent a safety group to safeguard the college. “I’m broke most of the time, to be honest with you,” he says.
Slowly, nevertheless, the inspiration’s community is increasing. Photographer Campbell Addy met Okwera “many moons ago”; he was the primary mannequin to be shot for Addy’s publication Niijournal. “He made me realise how beautiful the fashion industry can be,” says Addy. Hunza G co-founder Georgiana Huddart is equally “moved” by Okwera’s work, whereas artist Philip Colbert was “more than happy” to donate. “There could be the potential for us to collaborate on an artistic level in the future,” provides Colbert, who has just lately revealed a contemporisation of Michelangelo’s incomplete masterpiece, Manchester Madonna. All three creatives have been visitors at Okwera’s latest fundraising dinner, an occasion that raised greater than £5,000.
Now that the inspiration is working in an official capability, actual modifications are going down. Nobody misses college any extra – the free meals alone are incentive sufficient – and predicted grades have shot up dramatically. This yr, 41 of round 120 college students will go on to secondary college. For them, this brings new challenges: the closest college is seven miles away and requires alternate lodging. Part of Okwera’s eventual aim is to make this subsequent step doable for all those that need it. “Next year’s primary [school] leavers will be a massive number,” he says.
In addition, extra lecturers have moved to Lumule, whereas former villagers have returned for the primary time for the reason that warfare. In shopping for the 10-acre vegetable plot, Okwera has created a undertaking that everybody within the village can contribute to. “It’s about empowering these kids’ parents also,” he says. “This is their thing. They own it.” For each resolution made, a consultant from every of the realm’s 17 villages is current: “Everyone is really involved.”
There’s additionally one thing in place for younger moms for whom college is now not an possibility. After Okwera sourced 12 stitching machines and a set of model heads, a 20-person entrepreneurship programme was launched. Applicants select from three pathways – stitching, hairdressing or magnificence – and obtain a grant of 1 million UGS (round £200) to kickstart their careers. Okwera plans to broaden the programme to accommodate much more college students; the price of doing so is round £8,000.
Okwera’s “ultimate dream” is to construct a group centre for the younger males who have been kidnapped. Set for 2024, the area will provide counselling and an opportunity to study new expertise. Outside will probably be a soccer floor – the primary sports activities area the village has had. “Anyone who wants help can come,” says Okwera. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re from northern Uganda or from the west.”
But these desires are on maintain till he finishes his different tasks. Okwera’s imaginative and prescient is unwieldy, formidable and sometimes overwhelming. “It’s a hard job – I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admits. Nevertheless, he stays decided and optimistic. “All I know is that I want to change this community’s life.”