Unyielding Hope

On the first Tuesday in November, in the year of 2008, the people of the United States of America voted for Hope. In a bold and daring move, they chose Hope over Fear.

Hope. Unyielding Hope.

Nothing inspires me more than people who offer Hope to people who need it most. So that’s what this column is all about. You see, I believe that there’s more than enough of the other stuff to go around.

Hope is what I seek.

About 18 months ago, I traveled to Africa to meet a man who embodied Hope in a way that changed how I saw the world. His name is Joseph Okumu, or Father Joe to almost everybody in the Gulu district of Northern Uganda.

Father Joe left a rather comfortable job in Rome, as a professor in the Vatican no less. He left because he had to be in Northern Uganda, with his people, during their darkest hours. A brutal civil war has raged in Northern Uganda for more than 20 years. Tens of thousands of children have been taken from their homes and turned into killing machines.

Two million Acholi people, who are traditionally subsistence farmers, have been herded into IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. Homes that were kilometers apart are now often less than a meter apart. But these people were never meant to live like this. They didn’t even know how to accept some of the aid that comes from scores of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, such as Invisible Children, Oxfam, or USAid) with offices in the region.

That’s where Father Joe comes in. He works with the local culture (being an Acholi himself) to get people to accept new ideas (such as port-a-potties). He also worked with them to keep elements of their traditional lives alive–no small task after 20 years of internment.

It would be perfectly understandable for these people to fall into a hand-out economy and mindset. But Father Joe, and others, fought to keep these people’s inherent pride and dignity intact. They kept the people farming, working, and selling.

Last year, all that work produced some remarkable results. Less than a year into a tenuous peace/cease fire, the Acholi in the Pabo camp (one of the most northern camps, near where the rebels are hiding) told the United Nations that they didn’t need food supplies anymore. In fact, the Acholi were selling their crops to the Sudanese. While still living in the camps.

Now Father Joe and the other priests have turned their attention to an even greater challenge–re-integrating the former abductees and child-soldiers who are wanting to return home, now as young men who have seen and done unspeakable acts. Men who are so full of remorse, they sometimes can’t cope with it.

So how do the priests like Father Joe begin this process? By explaining to the young men that the church and community failed them first, before all the killing started. There’s no recrimination. No desire for revenge. The only desire among the Acholi people today is to end the fighting, bring everybody back into the family, the tribe, and return to living their lives again.

That’s the power of Hope. It’s the fuel for triumphing over insurmountable odds. It’s what makes Father Joe such an irresistible force for good.

He says he would have felt guilty, had he not returned to Uganda. Personally, I would feel guilty if I didn’t share his story with as many people as possible.

I met Father Joe while working with Inveneo, who was helping im install a long-range WiFi network and solar-powered computers that connect several IDP camps. Today, Father Joe is still trying to get the Internet, telephones, and email into more camps across Northern Uganda. If you’d like to help him, you can give directly to that program by donating to BOSCO Uganda. Or you can support a variety of programs like Father Joe’s across Africa by giving to Inveneo this holiday season.

All I ask is that you find a cause that speaks to your soul. Then support it.

Mark Jordan is a writer and marketing consultant who helps out with marketing communications efforts for Inveneo, a social enterprise dedicated to using the tools of information and communications to connect those who need it most. Through Inveneo, Mark got to experience the power of hope and love firsthand in IDP (refugee) camps in Northern Uganda. Today his main focus is bringing attention to the work of amazing people who are bringing hope to those who might not otherwise have a voice.