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Daniel was only eighteen months old when his family survived one of the last and worst massacres of a 20 year war in Uganda; a war directed by Joseph Kony, globally infamous for abducting over 20,000 children as child soldiers and sex-slaves.
His smiling face fronted a million Trócaire Boxes in 2012 and children across Ireland learned about his life, his daily routine and how his family were rebuilding their lives.
Although I am a well-seasoned traveller, the trip to northern Uganda with Trócaire is one that has stayed with me and I often reflect on it.
When I met Daniel and his family they were struggling to rebuild their farm, grow enough food, and earn enough income from their farm to live and to pay for their children’s school fees.
Daniel’s mother Betty was very focused on her children’s future. When we met at their home, two kilometres from the nearest clean water source, she told me “our hopes for the future are to see our children educated. We did not have that chance, but we want them to go forward with their education”.
As a teacher, I realise how literacy and numeracy can contribute to a child’s potential pathways in life and this was very apparent during my visit to Daniel’s small, rural school. Seeing young children walking to school along dusty roadways, often barefoot but with pristine uniforms, made me even more aware of the importance of access to high quality education in disadvantaged regions.
Children were happy to be in class and, despite the crowded conditions and lack of materials, were eager to learn. Education has the potential to transform lives and it was really encouraging to see children and their futures supported through Irish donations.
Six years on from that visit, Daniel’s smile is as broad as ever. Like many teenagers his age, he plays football every chance he gets and his favourite soccer team is Arsenal. Daniel is now 15 years old and has begun secondary school. His seventeen year old brother Emmanuel is studying to become a nurse and his two younger siblings are in primary school.
Daniel is obviously influenced by his older brother and wants to become a doctor. He recently told Trócaire, “The reason why is to support my family and my community. Because sometimes people in the villages don’t know about their health and it will be possible when I am a doctor to instruct them about their health and how they can prevent disease.”
Although the trip in 2012 was my third trip to Africa, I felt it was the first time that I got an understanding of some the history of its war-torn countries. The stories of runaway or lost child soldiers finding their way to safety by the light of a cross at the side of a mountain is one that has stayed with me. There are many horrendous accounts from kidnapped children in that area and I can only imagine the work it has taken to attempt to rebuild the families, villages and communities after such devastation.
During that visit, I also met inspiring women’s groups. Widows, mothers, survivors who came together to attempt to earn a living from the land, to support themselves, and to provide for their children. They succeeded because they worked together and were supported in their efforts by Trócaire. It was a first-hand example of how supporting women is key to supporting communities.
Although I only spent a few days with Daniel in 2012, I am delighted to hear that he is still in school and that he has aspirations to contribute to his community by becoming a doctor. I am also relieved to hear that his mother Betty has survived malaria, as her health was suffering badly that year.
It was a privilege to be welcomed to their home and community during my visit and to hear their stories of surviving hunger and war. Such stories are very far from our own everyday lives, but it instils me with optimism and pride that Irish people can support families like this to survive and flourish.