Interviewer: George Kitsaras
Editor-in-chief / Psychologist / Doctoral researcher
Next to the brief description of her life, the following interview is the first detailed and exclusive interview conducted in December 2016.
Jolly Okot Andruvile, Jolly, thank you for your making time to answer my questions. We will start our interview with women of course. The first thing I would like to ask you is how do you see women’s education evolved throughout the years? Do you believe that we are now in a better, same or even worse position regarding women’s education, based on your country and own perspective?
Basically, I will say that for my generation when I was growing up, very few women had access to education mainly due to cultural beliefs that considered educationa taboo issue for women. A few decades ago, and even still today, women were destined to get marry and provide wealth to families through dowries. For example, in my family I was the first ever woman to achieve the level of education that I did. I was also the first woman ever in my family to drive a car. And because of those, progressive for that time and area, things and the fact that my parents had only daugthers and no sons my mother was perceived as the “mother of a prostitutes” in my local community. As a result people, like my cousins, were asking us: “when are you doing to get married to make some money out of you?”. On top of that we had to face with things such as being fed on one meal a day and walk without shoes. Even though things were extremely difficult and my mother was perceived badly in the community she had support from my father who was also the first person to receive education from his family and for that reason he tired to provide education for us as well. Now people in our community view me and my sisters as rolemodels, because my family, despite the fact that we were all girls, managed to achieve things. Now all girls in my family know how to drive, have moved to better houses and have improved their living conditions. But this is not the case everywhere. For example the other day I was visiting a village in the North of Uganda, my village by chance, and there young girls are still forced into marriage in the age of 13-14 resulting in no adequate education. On top of the cultural beliefs that hinder access to education for women, there is also the issue of money since education in Uganda is not free. Therefore families often prefer to marry their daughters in a young age instead of sending young girls to school in order to make money out of them (through dowries). Despite the ongoing difficulties I can say that in the past 3-4 decades things have indeed improve overall but still in terms of higher education only around 1% of women manage to achieve it.
Is that extremely low 1% access to higher education for women a general pattern across the country and the wider region or is it more concentrated to the North of Uganda and more rural areas?
Well as you know, Uganda is divided in 5 regions: north, south, east, west and central. That 1% that I mentioned regarding access to higher education in particular is more prevalent to the North of Uganda due to many issues including the long-term war conflicts in the region. In other areas of the country, especially in the central areas and in urban settings of the country you may even now see a 40-50% of women accessing higher education. Definitely in the North and rural areasin general that percentage drops dramatically.
“There is going to be no change in Africa until women are empowered, able to have a strong voice and self-sufficient.”
Remaining inissues affecting women I would like to talk about women’s rights in general. What are the main challenges that women face in your area, country and/or the world in general?
Well, worldwide the main issue is that women feel inferior to men. Only few women around the world occupy positions of power. As for the biggest challenge in Africa and Uganda in particular that is with regards to girls having limited access to education as discussed before. Also, women are limited to positions that are considered gender-appropriate. For example 15 years ago when I was driving my car around the country many people, men in particular, would be surprised to see a girl driving a car. Today, even though things are improving society is not yet fully accepting women taking specific roles like bus drivers, engineers, technicians and other roles considered to be traditionally male.
Another challenge, that few actually realise, is with regards to politicians and people in power around Africa refusing to step down from their positions by taking advantage of women. That system operates as follows: the majority of countries in Africa have a higher percentage of women in their population due to the extended and devastating wars that cost the lives of many men, on top of that women in countries like mine have limited rights with no right to own land and own property. Given the higher percentage of women in the population in elections around Africa more women than men will cast votes. Since women have limited rights and feel disempowered corrupt men in power and leaderstake advantage of that by providing themwithmarginal and non-significant money or improvement in their lives. Then these women will be morewilling to vote for those corrupt politicians to continue to rule the country or the region. Now, and by continuously exploiting the system, corrupt men in power force women to remain in their disadvantaged and low income position in order to be able to use them whenever is convenient. As a result a vicious circle that disempowers women and limits their human rights while maintaining non-progressive governments in the region has been established.
Finally another issue is polygamy, which is mainly a cultural rather than religious issue in Uganda where the majority of the population is Christian. In many rural areas of the country you can have up to 80% of the population having polygamous marriages but still in urban areas a lower yet significant part of the male population follows that practice. In polygamous marriages men share a number of wives with each them in effect supporting and working hard to provide to their man by for example walking kilometres at the time to fetch water for him and taking full responsibility for the household leading to an extremely hard and inhumane life. Additionally, and given that each man shares many women, each one of them have significantly less rights as compared to married couples.
Overall starting from access to education for women to polygamy and corrupt male politicians taking advantage of women around Africa women’s rights have still a long way to go. For me, education will always remain the most important step because you can clearly see in areas where women have access to education, they feel empowered and things are different.
“I felt cheated and betrayed in the way people portrayed us.”
Moving on, I would like to ask you about your current work with women who have been through terrible situations for example being taken hostages, tortured and raped. How is it working with women who have been through things as you did in the past?
I find working with women who have been through horrendous experiences both hard and beneficial. The hard part is when I realise the potential these women have, the difficulties that they have been through, the issues that they still face and the limitations in their lives. As I have said in the past, I feel blessed because even though I have been through all these terrible experiences I at least escaped and returned back to my community without a child and I then managed to go straight back to school, study and ultimately improve my life. Meanwhile the majority of the women that I work with during their captivity they became pregnant and they now have children, from the people who raped and tortured them for years, to care about. As young mothers they, unfortunately, have limited to no chances of getting back to school and therefore start improving their lives through education. Also I feel sad when considering some individual cases, for example one of the women was raped and became pregnant by Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) notorious commander and one of the most wanted people in the world for crimes against humanity. Now her children, and Kony’s children, are asking questions about their father resulting in extreme pressure for the mother who has to explain everything that happened to her and what Kony has done to million of people in Uganda and the region. These children cannot fully understand the magnitude of Kony’s actions and therefore are wondering why their father is the most wanted man in Africa and why he is not at home with them. In another case a child of woman who was raped during captivity left home and joint the rebels. All these issues create a difficult environment for the mothers while developments where young children join the rebels can result in a new wave of violence and devastation for the area. All these issues make anyone who cares about these women and our region and country extremely sad.
However and despite all the difficulties, the beautiful part of working with these women is the chance to reshape their fortunes and help them to achieve the most that they can. Often I share the story of my mother with these women. My mother came from an extremely difficult background and despite never having formal education she managed to support us and put us to school providing us with a better future. Through my work with these women I am trying to empower them to take initiatives to improve their lives despite the lack of education through providing them with employment, craft and technical skills. It is important to note that all these women were abducted on the age of 11-12 and they remained in captivity for years being tortured, raped, forced to fight and gave birth to many children, in some cases up to 5. Once away from captivity, those women were terrified and lacked dreams and hope. Now, and through the work that we are doing, these women are able to take care of their lives, their children, their health and most importantly they are becoming self-sufficient with an interest for what is happening in society and even around the world. Therefore the most incredible thing about my current work with these women is witnessing the change in their self-confidence and level of empowerment. Which is an incredible important step for a better future because there is going to be no change in Africa until women are empowered, able to have a strong voice and self-sufficient.
Apart from feeling sad for the things that these women are going through and the possible danger for the stability of the country, have you experienced any emotional difficulties when working with women who have been through the same experiences as you?
All of us who work together, since we have been through the same experiences, speak in a way our own “language”. We are able to better understand one another since we share a unique and unexpected bond. Moreover, all of us who work together have been wounded from gunshots while being held in captivity. In my case the bullets went through my body with no long-term health implications. Unfortunately in some other cases the wounds were much deeper, created serious and long-term health issues and some women even still carry the bullets in their bodies because doctors were unable to remove them. Working with those women and seeing their everyday struggleas a result of their wounds reminds me of the time when I was forced to fight alongside the rebels with all its negative connotations. Also witnessing all these women going through the same stages of adapting to their new lives as I did can result in memories of my difficult and dark periods. Occasionally, I feel sad when seeing some of the women having difficulties adjusting to their new lives and at times I’m still affected by symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) mainly flashbacks that occur whenever I visit my village where many of my relatives and friends were killed by the LRA as a retaliation to my escape. Those days can be more challenging but I’m trying to cope with negative feelings by reflecting to the positive things that have happened following my escape from captivity and the work that I have done with all these women.
“All around the world wars came to an end and countries prospered only through dialogue.”
In WEND (Women Empowerment Network Design), where you work with the women you described above the main approach is designing and creating bags that capture the personal stories of the maker in a therapeutic as well as creative process. How did you come up with this approach and do you see that creative process as a ritual women go through in their healing process?
My decision to adapt this approach starts all the way back when I started Invisible Children and it reflects in a way my own story. When through Invisible Children I visited many areas and started sharing my own story I noticed that on one hand I was helping and empowering people to overcome their own personal difficulties but on the other hand I was getting help myself. So when I started WEND, I felt that a similar approach of sharing one’s story could be beneficial for those women. Also, and since education is a hugely important element for me, I realised that without empowered mothers (the women that I work with) there will be little chance for their young children to receive quality and lasting education to help them with their future lives. Therefore we started to visualise those creations that reflected each woman’s personal and difficult story and we actually started from smaller bracelets rather than bags. In that process each woman designed the item and had personal input in everything from colour to the final look of the product. Those bracelets with the personal stories and struggles of each woman were really successful and we then decided to expand to bags that could also provide a bigger canvas for the stories. In a trial we did for the bags with just 8 women I also noticed that people were buying the bags more willingly and they were feeling more attached to them given the story behind them. That was really important given that WEND is a social enterprise that helps women and we need to have an income in order to provide all the support that those women need. So for that additional reason I wanted to continue with the approach of sharing one’s story through the creative process.
Continuing to a different group of questions, more on a reflection of your past work, I would like to ask you about the many different projects and initiatives you have been involved over the years. Is there a project in particular that you feel closer to your heart and is there a project that didn’t go according to plan?
The project that I feel most proud of is the Legacy scholarship and mentorship program that I started. Through that program, so far, thousands of children who didn’t have money, didn’t have hope and didn’t have even shoes to wear received quality education. As a result, today, everywhere I go I proudly see people who were benefited from the program working in good quality jobs, in banks, in hospitals, in schools with their lives completely changed forever. I also feel proud for the schools that I built around the North of Uganda. Schools that will be there for many years and they will provide good education to the local population. As for projects that didn’t go according to plan these involve initiatives that I took with refugees especially in the South Sudan region where I felt that there was more to be done particularly regarding their education. Another project that I would have liked things to be different is of course «Invisible Children» where I felt cheated and betrayed in the way people portrayed us. In my opinion, if those people bothered to include us, Ugandans, in the process of making their landmark video and campaign KONY 2012, things could have been different. That video was for months the most watched video on YouTube, it resulted in millions and millions of funds for Invisible children and it also involved a series of celebrity endorsements. However and despite the success of the video it would have been better to tell the story from a Ugandan rather than American perspective since after all the whole story was about Uganda and its people struggle with the LRA. Also I personally felt let down from the Americans who in a way behaved like they discovered the whole story even though I was the one who brought them to Uganda and I was the one already working on Invisible Children. So I believe that by assuming a more prominent role and by not focusing on a single story like in KONY 2012 things would have been possibly better for that initiative. That is why now in my current work in WEND I focus more on the shared experiences rather than the story of just one person.
Since you already mentioned some of the pitfalls in your past attempts and since you also touched on the issue of people wanting to help communities in countries like Uganda actually ending up possibly causing harm, what will be your advice to those who seek involvement in humanitarian work?
Based on my personal experiences it is important to understand that we all make mistakes and those mistakes are part of the process. Also, it is really important when considering humanitarian work to take a moment to think about the locals and their real needs rather than develop our own ideas from our own perspective and then force them to a population that might be completely different from what we are used to. People who travel to Africa have good intentions and they really want to help but those intentions can quickly vanish when instead of listening to locals and their needs people decide beforehand and then just implement with little thought on issues like the appropriateness of the project for example. Therefore an important step for everyone who wants to help is to first ask: “what would you like me to do for you? What do you need?” I’ve seen people flying all the way from Asia and beyond coming here to treat malaria by provided thousands of mosquito nets to locals. Even though this initiative seems positive when the locals don’t know what to do with the nets and those people do not provide them with the necessary instructions and education the nets end up being used for fishing and other things rather than to protect them from mosquitos. That initiative would have been much more successful if those people took time to learn about the locals and then develop an appropriate intervention based on the needs of the community. Another element to consider is of course sustainability. There have been examples of people coming here to provide shoes to children. After a while those shoes will be torn apart leaving the children again barefoot. Again an initiative that seemed positive to begin with ends up being an unnecessary expensive show off.
“My legacy will carry on changing lives for the years to come.”
Going slowly towards the end of our interview, the final 3 questions will take us to 3 different time periods: the past, the present and the future. As for the past, I would like to ask you for HEALS (Health Education Arts Literacy Sports), your past landmark project. Within HEALS you employed play therapy, art therapy and other forms of therapeutic processes that emphasised the connection between the psyche and the body. What was the reason for that approach and was it based on cultural and traditional heritage of Uganda?
At the time when I developed HEALS, there was a big contrast in our community with children who had to walk kilometres everyday for accessing their school on one hand and children who were less disadvantaged on the other hand. During that period I noticed that despite their sharp differences once you placed a ball in front of those children, no matter whether they are disadvantaged or not, the “ball rule” made every single child equal. Therefore through game, or play therapy if you wish, those children became equal away from their differences and they engaged in a dialogue in order to get to know each other better. Also when disadvantaged children were betterat sports than the advantaged ones that little thing gave them a boost of confidence. Alongside those play and sports approaches dance and music played an important role in HEALS. Of course even though we are in Uganda we are still influenced by western music. For example at HEALS we used to have hip-hop and rap in our program. However and given the presence of abusive and bad language in those songs we took that opportunity to develop our own songs focusing on positive values like education and human rights. Even though we used western music and dances Ugandan traditional music and dances remained in the core of all dance and music related elements within HEALS. We taught children their own heritage through music and dance and that helped them to find multiple and diverse ways of communicating and sharing their stories. Moreover, the arts element of HEALS helped us to gain a better understanding on the emotional difficulties those children faced with in their lives. For example, in many cases when we asked children to paint whatever they wanted you could clearly see issues of domestic violence, aggression and violence in general, fear, sadness or even malnutrition with children drawing empty pans and pots. Apart from helping us identify problems arts helped us to witness through drawings the journey those children took from all those negative and sad emotions to a better place. Nowadays, and years after HEALS started, those children who were involved still continue to explore arts, dance and sports in their lives an evidence of how important and long-lasting effect those non-traditional therapeutic approaches can have in people’s lives.
As for the present, given the number of armed conflicts around the world, what will be you message for those directly affected by the devastation that war brings and for those who maintain and support armed conflicts?
To those caught up in armed conflicts I will repeat the same message that I still say to people from my own region and local community who have also experienced decades of armed conflicts and devastation. That message is: you should never give up; if I gave up, I would have never put in education thousands of people, I would have never helped to rebuild my community; I would have never helped children who were night-commuters [walking kilometres at night to access their schools and avoid capture by rebels]. Also, you should never lose hope despite all the difficulties that you go through. For me it is also important for those caught in the middle of conflicts to document and share their stories and experiences for future generations. For all those involved and supporting conflicts the only thing I have to say is that war was never a solution to any problem. All around the world wars came to an end and countries prospered only through dialogue. I also wonder what makes those people support and maintain conflicts that destroy their own countries in places like Syria for example. I know first hand that the devastation caused by war takes generations to be rebuilt and that should be clear to all those who don’t seem to bother and they continue to fight. Peace is the only solution, victims of conflicts should prioritise and maintain peacekeeping efforts while those fighting should realise that only with peace their countries will be able to move forward.
Finally, what does future holds for Jolly? What are your next plans for helping those in affected by years of wars and conflict in your country?
For my future, first of all, I would like to see my children growing up, continue their education and also continue the work that I have started in helping our community. Additionally, my last major plan includes the construction of a trade school. Even though I hugely appreciate academic education and I have dedicated a lot of my effort for that I understand that not everyone wants to follow higher education for their future. Hence I would like to have the opportunity to create that trade school that will help more women receive training and skills that are still perceived as traditionally male-dominated. Of course the trade school will be open to men as well in order to help them achieve better lives and learn skills and professions that are considered traditionally female like nursing for example. That will most likely be my last project for my community and even if I cannot achieve it in my lifetime I would like my children to continue my dream. I am confident that no matter the outcome of that final project my legacy will carry on changing lives for the years to come.
Your possibly last major project makes for a nice closure to our interview since we started from education, women’s education in particular, and we finish with education that plays such an important role in your work. Jolly thank you for your time.
With special thanks to:
Ellen Rushfort, Elizabeth Oglivie & Caitlin Shirley from Manchester Global Health Society and Team Gulu for introducing and helping organising the interview.
Anahita Sharma from Manchester Global Health Society for her contribution to the interview questions.
Maria Polykreti from Animartists for her contribution to the interview questions.