In 2012, at the age of nine, Daniel Okweng featured on the Trócaire Box as part of that year’s Lenten appeal. He is still bemused by the idea that a million households saw his smiling face every day for two months.
I visited Daniel and his family at their home last week, it had been six years since we last met. Daniel had then been a shy nine year old with a big smile. Now Daniel is a tall 15-year-old teenager.
Yet, Daniel is unlike other 15-year-olds you might know, because his home is a simple hut in northern Uganda and his family are among the survivors of one of the worst massacres perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during the 20 years of terror the rebel group inflicted on the region.
Daniel was 18 months old at the time when over 300 people were killed in his village of Barlonyo on 21st Feb 2004. The family then spent two years at a IDP (internally displaced persons) camp 40km away.
His mother Betty said: “There was 8,000 people in that camp. There was a lot of sickness and I was sick also. Women with babies were failing. When the time came to deliver, there was difficulty. Many children died and there was no school.”
After the 2006 peace agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government, Betty and her husband Joel and their neighbours began the cautious return to Barlonyo.
“When we come back, we find the home is just bush. There was no seed, no hoes, no food, nothing at all. We had nothing to send our children to school.”
Trócaire helped many returning families to get their farms and small enterprises functioning again and to re-establish the community structures that gave them a sense of mutual support and security.
“When Trócaire came here, we were very, very hopeless,” says Betty, explaining how the charity helped her and Joel to reclaim their farm and introduced new techniques to ensure better harvests.
The support Daniel's family received ensured that he and his siblings could go to school. Education is the most important thing for Daniel’s parents as it is the only way they can prevent their children from returning to a life of struggle and poverty.
Daniel stands with awkward stiffness, looking downwards as if trying to hide his newly gained height, but ignites into assured and graceful action when a football falls to his feet.
Daniel is a fan of the English premiership and supports Arsenal, ironically for a country that for so long was torn apart by guns, but that was in the past. Daniel is now part of a generation who run for fun, not for their lives.
Trócaire has supported humanitarian aid and development projects in Uganda since 1995 and has had a physical presence there since 2005.
It has been particularly active in the northern region, assisting communities to recover from decades of war, supporting agricultural projects, training for work, women’s rights, land rights, and access to water, healthcare and education.
Trocaire responded to the needs of the South Sudanese refugees who began pouring into northern Uganda in late summer 2016.
By the end of this year, Trócaire will have spent €365,000 to support those fleeing violence in South Sudan through local nongovernmental and local church organisations run by Ugandan personnel and encompassing all faiths.
Trócaire’s annual Lenten campaign is currently underway. And it is thanks to the generous donations that children like Daniel are doing so well.
Donations can be made online or over the phone by calling 1850 408 408.