Educating Akello

One man’s effort to help a Ugandan girl stay in school shows the complicated issues involved with Western aid.

Richard Dowden| March 2007 issue
Too small to reach the seat, she cycles with one leg sticking through the frame of the old-fashioned bicycle and stops in front of me, blocking my way. She greets me with full African solemnity, looking straight into my eyes, and says, “Please help me, sah.”
Her long green skirt and bright white shirt say student, but it is late morning and she is not in school. I guess what is coming next: “I beg you please sah. Help me for school fees.”
I have just come from one of the encampments where people of northern Uganda, some 2 million of them, have been imprisoned since the early 1990s. Strangely beautiful from a distance, they consist of hundreds of traditionally built circular huts of mud and thatch. Jammed together without sanitation, they are sprawls of squalor, breeding disease and hopelessness. Known as “displacement” camps, they are home to a population that has been forced into dependency and for some, almost 20 years of purposeless, barren days.
The people are kept there as protection from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the vicious insurgent group that has terrorized this region for two decades. But according to a World Health Organization report, there are 1,000 more deaths a week in the camps than the norm for the area. Not even at its murderous worst did the LRA achieve that rate of killing. The solution is killing more people than the problem. An end to this war is tantalizingly close – but that’s as it has been so many times over the last 20 years.
As I leave, I am caught between tears and rage – more likely to punch someone than to pay their school fees. I am walking to try to calm down. “Please sah. You can help me,” pipes up this tiny dark girl with huge solemn eyes. “What is your name?” I ask, stepping around her. “Akello Corine.” She swings the bike around and follows me. “What about your family?” “I live with my grandmother and brothers. Our mother and father they died from AIDS.”
I saw a thousand girls like Akello Corine in the camp I have come from. And there are many camps scattered across northern Uganda. She says she is 15 – though she looks more like 10 – and was at secondary school until she was turned away because she could not pay. Her only source of income is the old bicycle, which her elder brother uses as a taxi. That brings about 1,000 Ugandan shillings a day – about 30 pence (60 cents U.S. or 45 euro cents). School fees are 148,000 shillings a term.
I have paid school fees in Africa before, but only for children of families I know well and can stay in touch with. I am not going to hand over a full term’s school fees to this girl in the street. Anger at the suffering created by a pointless war has gouged any kindness out of my heart. But an idea is growing in my mind. I have recently been asked to be a trustee of a small charity for education in Uganda that gives scholarships. The awards go to children, mainly girls, who have done well in primary school but cannot afford to go to secondary school.
I suggest to Akello that she write in my notebook her details and the name of her school, class and headmaster. But I can’t escape that easily. After writing all this down she hands back my notebook and says firmly, “It is better you come with me now.” I tell her that I am in a hurry and have no money. I suggest that I write a note to the headmaster which she can take to him. I will tell him I will find someone who could pay the fees. “It is better that you come now,” she says. Her blunt demands are beginning to penetrate my dishonest replies. I hate being seen in Africa, as writer Paul Theroux put it, as a “wallet on legs,” but I feel guilty for lying about having no money on me. Most of all I am simply overwhelmed by her determination.
We set off for the school, which is about a mile away, through another squatters’ camp. People give us knowing looks as they see a middle-aged white man accompanying a small schoolgirl. Akello is unconcerned, telling me that all she wants to do is to study. She repeats the ghastly fate of her family. I look around us at the idle camp. The only ways a girl in her position could earn money for school fees – or even for survival – are brewing beer or prostituting herself.
We are stopped at the school gate by a guard – employed not to protect the school from attackers but to keep out scores of children desperate to study. As we are ushered into the headmaster’s office, Akello rushes forward and kneels in front of his desk, averting her eyes. Her voice, which had been clear and strong when speaking to me, becomes a barely audible whisper. This girl is smart. She knows that when you address white people, you must look them in the eyes and speak boldly. You don’t have to show servility as you do with your Acholi elders.
The headmaster of Kitgum Town College is surprised by the arrival of a white man accompanying an excluded pupil. A pleasant young man with the same name as Uganda’s most famous poet – Okot p’Bitek – he started the school in town with a group of teachers a few years earlier. They bought a piece of land on the edge of town and built two single-storey blocks of classrooms and dormitories. But the science laboratory is unfinished and has no equipment, and there is no library. The school has 800 students, of which 360 are girls, though as everywhere in Africa, the dropout rate among girls is high.
He checks her story and place in class. She had not lied to me, or even exaggerated. I ask if there is anyone local who could support her. “There are thousands like her.” He shrugs. “We can only keep those who pay.” I explain how we met and that her boldness and determination had impressed me. His expression suggests he may not share my admiration. He says she should not have troubled me; he had already chased her out of school many times. I describe the charity and how it could help his school. We would, I say, fund students and build a library and a laboratory. Finally I pull a $100 note from my pocket and hand it over. School fees for more than a term.
I cannot describe the effect on Akello’s face. No lottery winner goes through such a transformation. Her name is suddenly inscribed in the book of life. Forty million African children are not in school, according to last year’s Commission for Africa report. This one is now rescued, rewarded by chance – and a little desperate determination. She did not waver from the moment she met me. A frisson of joy instantly purges my anger and depression. I have played fairy godfather. It seems so easy.
But delivering education in Africa is not as simple as it appears. Despite the huge thirst for it, the continent will not reach the goal, laid out in the United Nations’ millennium development agenda, of universal primary education by 2015. It doesn’t take much to build a basic school in Africa, and I have never heard of an African child not wanting to go to school. But children have roles to perform within the family – digging, harvesting, looking after cattle and, for girls, taking care of younger siblings. In some families these duties come before school, even though in Uganda, primary school has been free since 1997. Schools are crammed; children have to walk miles to reach them and often spend all day without food or water. Another problem is that teaching is in English – Uganda has at least 30 local languages.
Children find it hard to learn in a strange language. Only half of Ugandan children finish primary school and only a quarter go on to expensive secondary school, which only about 4 percent complete.
Even when children have passed through school, there are problems. Most Ugandans still lead rural lives, but as elsewhere in Africa, school is the escape route to the town and a job with a desk. But such jobs are few, and most dropouts drift to the towns and pick up casual work or sit idle. To return to the village with no money would be shameful. Education does not integrate old ways and new; it deepens the division.
A week after my return to London, Akello emails me from an Internet café in Kitgum.
I would like to give my appreciation to the almighty God for His Gudiance to us all. How are you over there? Here in Uganda we are fair. I would like to appreciate you for what you have done to me and I beleive I will now study since your blessed hand has touched me. Richard I personally have a lot of problems which makes me not fullfil what you want for me.
Eg: opening an Account with some money. Since the connection between us is poor and our headmaster could not tell me what you tell him. Therefore if you are able, you send me some money to open an account which need Uganda Shillings 20,000 and if possible you also buy for me a phone for easy communication between us.
As I told you, I have a brother and he stopped with his studies last year because of financial problem. And he is the one now taking the responsibility for me though his earning is poor. So I also apeal to you that, if you can assist him or you can connect him to somebody like you, it will be of great appreciation.
The headmaster of Kitgum town College is not efficient. Worse of all he did not give me any thing you left for me. He also denied me to read the letter you send to me. You can use this E-mail address of mine if you want to send any thing.
Please relpy me soon.
May God bless you all. Yours Faithfully
Akello Corine
I am not worried about the request for money for her brother. She would not be human if she did not try to get for him what she has achieved for herself. I write back saying I want to see how things go with her before taking on her brother, and ask if she needs extra money for food, books and uniform. I tell her that I have asked Mr. Bitek to give her the change from the $100 to keep her going.
A couple of days later I receive this email from Mr. Bitek:
KITGUM TOWN COLLEGE AS YOUR BIG FRIEND IN UGANDA IS SO GRATEFUL FOR YOUR INPUT IN SUPPIRTING THE VULNEABLE GIRLS CHILD EDUCATION ESPECIALLY IN THIS WAR TURN AREA OF ACHOLI SUB-REGION. PLEASE FIND HERE THE NAMES OF THE FEW SELECTED GIRLS WHO ODNRLY NEED YOUR SUPPORT
He certainly isn’t making much effort to sell the school’s ability to teach English. I explain that the trust will do the selecting, not the school. We have been warned that if we leave it to the schools, only the teachers’ children will all get free education. He replies:
I’m so so greatful for the trust you have put in our school. Indeed you have beccome a great friend to Kitgum Town College. AKELLO CORINE is now settled and we will do every thing possible to make her study as you have promised. What you requested I have given her. Remember I sent the names of the twenty grils but you can now sellect as we have agreed on phone to reduce to ten. May God bless you!!!!
A few days later Akello emails to say she hasn’t got the money. She returns to the plight of her brother:
Richard my brothers name is Ochola James, and he is 17 years old and he was a student in senior four but unfortunately he did not sit for his examination due to financial problems. This was worsened by the death of our parents in the year 2000 which left three of us to be picked up by relatives. If its possible let him sit this year for his Examination which requires him to pay registration fees of Ush [Ugandan shillings] 8000 for 10 subjects and school fees as well.
Soon afterward Akello emails me again, in some distress, saying Mr. Bitek has still not given her the money. Reluctant to use Western Union – they take 24 percent on £50 – I write back asking if she can find another way of receiving money. Meanwhile I again ask Mr. Bitek to give her the money and whatever else she needs, and promise to reimburse him. A week later Akello replies, saying Mr. Bitek is still refusing to give her the money, and is threatening to force her to leave the school.
Is she telling the truth – or is she trying to get more money from me to get her brother into school? Who am I to believe? Kitgum Town College seems organized and principled, and the teachers highly motivated. But what do they think of me? A white man walks into their school from nowhere with one of their ex-students in tow, dishes out dollars and offers a library and a science laboratory. Then he disappears. Why should they believe anything I say?
I again email Mr. Bitek. I spell out bluntly what is on offer if they look after Akello. Then I get an email from an Owot Fred, a director of the college. He says he has followed up on Akello’s case with the headmaster, and it now seems she has disappeared. The teachers “suspect she has eloped with some man.”
Taking a chance on Akello’s honesty, I tell the director that Akello has not disappeared but has been forced away from school through lack of funds. I ask him to find her and let her back into the school.
Mr. Owot replies that Akello’s brother has come to the school to collect her possessions. He has told Mr. Owot that their grandmother has died and Akello has developed mental problems. She has had to be taken to another town for treatment. He promises to keep me updated. Akello’s brother, Ochola James, soon makes contact by email saying she asked him to contact me.
Ever since we have been controlling her at home because she can run away from home if not well looked after but now the condition is now worse. This started some days after the death of our grandmother last month. To this we are praying to God to help her in her sickness.
Again the questions. Is Ochola James real or has someone got hold of Akello’s email to try to squeeze money out of me? I send a message asking what exactly the doctors have said and what medicine is required. Another message arrives, saying they have taken her to the hospital but that she has been turned away because they had no money.
Then a message arrives from Mr. Owot. He tells me he has found Akello, who has told him that she suffered mental problems after the death of her grandmother and was taken to a medicine man. She has told Mr. Owot that she plans to return to school in May, and he promises me that he will provide her with money and guidance.
My relief is tempered by Akello’s next message. She says she is still sick and needs to travel more than 200 miles to get medicine. Through gritted teeth I phone Western Union and send £50.
Not long thereafter, I am emailed by an NGO that I had asked to try to find Akello. They say Akello is three months pregnant and living with her boyfriend in a refugee camp, having left school after refusing to sit her exams.
I send the message to Akello. Ochola replies a few days later, apologizing for not getting to the Internet cafŽ for a few days due to “rebel activities.” He attributes the pregnancy story to the school; they invented it to make me drop her and adopt their list of students. He also suggests it is probably a made-up list so they can take the money for themselves. He adds that Akello is hoping for more money for medicine.
Do I trust her brother? Do I trust the head? Someone is telling lies.
Then comes an email in Akello’s familiar voice with the hospital evaluation. She had been diagnosed with epilepsy and malaria. The doctor referred her for follow-up, and she went to the government hospital in Kitgum. Not having money – I should have sent some sooner – she was dismissed and went more than 250 miles to Masindi to visit a traditional healer. The message ends: PLEASE AM NOT PREGNANT AS SOME ONE TOLD YOU BUT AM SICK.
But why should she go to Masindi to visit a traditional healer when there would be plenty closer to home? Josephine, a worker from the charity, is to visit Kitgum. I send her all the details and ask her to report back. I am pretty sure Akello has been telling the truth but there are many unanswered questions.
A few days later, Josephine breaks the news: She has seen Akello and she is pregnant. Ochola James is not a brother but the father of her child, and they are living together in the camp.
My first reaction is anger. I believed her, and I was wrong. Now I have to apologize to the school, for doubting them. But I lied to her too and compared to the all-or-nothing world Akello inhabits, my humiliation is a petty matter.
That evening there is an email from Akello:
Dear, I really have been delivered from my problem. Only I need to tell you that am unworthy to my sponserer. I and James we are planned to meet the Josephine because we wanted to deliver to her the right things. So I feared to tell you the truth since I feared that you may abandon me since I lied to you. Please forgive me. I told Josphine the truth now and she will give you all facts. Forgive me and James and look for a way of helping me and James
God bless you
There is also an email from Caroline, the charity’s director:
She has been lying to you from day one but that does not mean she is a bad girl. Josephine would like us to give her another chance once she’s delivered. This may be hard since there is no one to take care of the baby. Also school is hard and boring and does not ensure future prosperity so Akello may opt for being a wife and mother.
So Akello has another chance if she can take it, something that does not happen often in Africa. I suppose you could say Africa itself has been given another chance with the commitments made last year by leading industrial nations at the G8 conference: debt relief, a doubling of aid and a host of other measures. But only when you walk down the street in a place like Kitgum and become involved in helping do you realize just how tough, how close to the edge, life is there. And how tough the people are too.
I have no doubt Akello will find a way of getting back to school. This time she won’t blow it. Will she?
Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society, a British organization promoting African causes. Formerly, Dowden was the Africa editor of The Independent and The Economist.
This article was adapted with permission from the British magazine Prospect (Aug. 2006), http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.
 

Solution News Source

Educating Akello

One man’s effort to help a Ugandan girl stay in school shows the complicated issues involved with Western aid.

Richard Dowden| March 2007 issue
Too small to reach the seat, she cycles with one leg sticking through the frame of the old-fashioned bicycle and stops in front of me, blocking my way. She greets me with full African solemnity, looking straight into my eyes, and says, “Please help me, sah.”
Her long green skirt and bright white shirt say student, but it is late morning and she is not in school. I guess what is coming next: “I beg you please sah. Help me for school fees.”
I have just come from one of the encampments where people of northern Uganda, some 2 million of them, have been imprisoned since the early 1990s. Strangely beautiful from a distance, they consist of hundreds of traditionally built circular huts of mud and thatch. Jammed together without sanitation, they are sprawls of squalor, breeding disease and hopelessness. Known as “displacement” camps, they are home to a population that has been forced into dependency and for some, almost 20 years of purposeless, barren days.
The people are kept there as protection from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the vicious insurgent group that has terrorized this region for two decades. But according to a World Health Organization report, there are 1,000 more deaths a week in the camps than the norm for the area. Not even at its murderous worst did the LRA achieve that rate of killing. The solution is killing more people than the problem. An end to this war is tantalizingly close – but that’s as it has been so many times over the last 20 years.
As I leave, I am caught between tears and rage – more likely to punch someone than to pay their school fees. I am walking to try to calm down. “Please sah. You can help me,” pipes up this tiny dark girl with huge solemn eyes. “What is your name?” I ask, stepping around her. “Akello Corine.” She swings the bike around and follows me. “What about your family?” “I live with my grandmother and brothers. Our mother and father they died from AIDS.”
I saw a thousand girls like Akello Corine in the camp I have come from. And there are many camps scattered across northern Uganda. She says she is 15 – though she looks more like 10 – and was at secondary school until she was turned away because she could not pay. Her only source of income is the old bicycle, which her elder brother uses as a taxi. That brings about 1,000 Ugandan shillings a day – about 30 pence (60 cents U.S. or 45 euro cents). School fees are 148,000 shillings a term.
I have paid school fees in Africa before, but only for children of families I know well and can stay in touch with. I am not going to hand over a full term’s school fees to this girl in the street. Anger at the suffering created by a pointless war has gouged any kindness out of my heart. But an idea is growing in my mind. I have recently been asked to be a trustee of a small charity for education in Uganda that gives scholarships. The awards go to children, mainly girls, who have done well in primary school but cannot afford to go to secondary school.
I suggest to Akello that she write in my notebook her details and the name of her school, class and headmaster. But I can’t escape that easily. After writing all this down she hands back my notebook and says firmly, “It is better you come with me now.” I tell her that I am in a hurry and have no money. I suggest that I write a note to the headmaster which she can take to him. I will tell him I will find someone who could pay the fees. “It is better that you come now,” she says. Her blunt demands are beginning to penetrate my dishonest replies. I hate being seen in Africa, as writer Paul Theroux put it, as a “wallet on legs,” but I feel guilty for lying about having no money on me. Most of all I am simply overwhelmed by her determination.
We set off for the school, which is about a mile away, through another squatters’ camp. People give us knowing looks as they see a middle-aged white man accompanying a small schoolgirl. Akello is unconcerned, telling me that all she wants to do is to study. She repeats the ghastly fate of her family. I look around us at the idle camp. The only ways a girl in her position could earn money for school fees – or even for survival – are brewing beer or prostituting herself.
We are stopped at the school gate by a guard – employed not to protect the school from attackers but to keep out scores of children desperate to study. As we are ushered into the headmaster’s office, Akello rushes forward and kneels in front of his desk, averting her eyes. Her voice, which had been clear and strong when speaking to me, becomes a barely audible whisper. This girl is smart. She knows that when you address white people, you must look them in the eyes and speak boldly. You don’t have to show servility as you do with your Acholi elders.
The headmaster of Kitgum Town College is surprised by the arrival of a white man accompanying an excluded pupil. A pleasant young man with the same name as Uganda’s most famous poet – Okot p’Bitek – he started the school in town with a group of teachers a few years earlier. They bought a piece of land on the edge of town and built two single-storey blocks of classrooms and dormitories. But the science laboratory is unfinished and has no equipment, and there is no library. The school has 800 students, of which 360 are girls, though as everywhere in Africa, the dropout rate among girls is high.
He checks her story and place in class. She had not lied to me, or even exaggerated. I ask if there is anyone local who could support her. “There are thousands like her.” He shrugs. “We can only keep those who pay.” I explain how we met and that her boldness and determination had impressed me. His expression suggests he may not share my admiration. He says she should not have troubled me; he had already chased her out of school many times. I describe the charity and how it could help his school. We would, I say, fund students and build a library and a laboratory. Finally I pull a $100 note from my pocket and hand it over. School fees for more than a term.
I cannot describe the effect on Akello’s face. No lottery winner goes through such a transformation. Her name is suddenly inscribed in the book of life. Forty million African children are not in school, according to last year’s Commission for Africa report. This one is now rescued, rewarded by chance – and a little desperate determination. She did not waver from the moment she met me. A frisson of joy instantly purges my anger and depression. I have played fairy godfather. It seems so easy.
But delivering education in Africa is not as simple as it appears. Despite the huge thirst for it, the continent will not reach the goal, laid out in the United Nations’ millennium development agenda, of universal primary education by 2015. It doesn’t take much to build a basic school in Africa, and I have never heard of an African child not wanting to go to school. But children have roles to perform within the family – digging, harvesting, looking after cattle and, for girls, taking care of younger siblings. In some families these duties come before school, even though in Uganda, primary school has been free since 1997. Schools are crammed; children have to walk miles to reach them and often spend all day without food or water. Another problem is that teaching is in English – Uganda has at least 30 local languages.
Children find it hard to learn in a strange language. Only half of Ugandan children finish primary school and only a quarter go on to expensive secondary school, which only about 4 percent complete.
Even when children have passed through school, there are problems. Most Ugandans still lead rural lives, but as elsewhere in Africa, school is the escape route to the town and a job with a desk. But such jobs are few, and most dropouts drift to the towns and pick up casual work or sit idle. To return to the village with no money would be shameful. Education does not integrate old ways and new; it deepens the division.
A week after my return to London, Akello emails me from an Internet café in Kitgum.
I would like to give my appreciation to the almighty God for His Gudiance to us all. How are you over there? Here in Uganda we are fair. I would like to appreciate you for what you have done to me and I beleive I will now study since your blessed hand has touched me. Richard I personally have a lot of problems which makes me not fullfil what you want for me.
Eg: opening an Account with some money. Since the connection between us is poor and our headmaster could not tell me what you tell him. Therefore if you are able, you send me some money to open an account which need Uganda Shillings 20,000 and if possible you also buy for me a phone for easy communication between us.
As I told you, I have a brother and he stopped with his studies last year because of financial problem. And he is the one now taking the responsibility for me though his earning is poor. So I also apeal to you that, if you can assist him or you can connect him to somebody like you, it will be of great appreciation.
The headmaster of Kitgum town College is not efficient. Worse of all he did not give me any thing you left for me. He also denied me to read the letter you send to me. You can use this E-mail address of mine if you want to send any thing.
Please relpy me soon.
May God bless you all. Yours Faithfully
Akello Corine
I am not worried about the request for money for her brother. She would not be human if she did not try to get for him what she has achieved for herself. I write back saying I want to see how things go with her before taking on her brother, and ask if she needs extra money for food, books and uniform. I tell her that I have asked Mr. Bitek to give her the change from the $100 to keep her going.
A couple of days later I receive this email from Mr. Bitek:
KITGUM TOWN COLLEGE AS YOUR BIG FRIEND IN UGANDA IS SO GRATEFUL FOR YOUR INPUT IN SUPPIRTING THE VULNEABLE GIRLS CHILD EDUCATION ESPECIALLY IN THIS WAR TURN AREA OF ACHOLI SUB-REGION. PLEASE FIND HERE THE NAMES OF THE FEW SELECTED GIRLS WHO ODNRLY NEED YOUR SUPPORT
He certainly isn’t making much effort to sell the school’s ability to teach English. I explain that the trust will do the selecting, not the school. We have been warned that if we leave it to the schools, only the teachers’ children will all get free education. He replies:
I’m so so greatful for the trust you have put in our school. Indeed you have beccome a great friend to Kitgum Town College. AKELLO CORINE is now settled and we will do every thing possible to make her study as you have promised. What you requested I have given her. Remember I sent the names of the twenty grils but you can now sellect as we have agreed on phone to reduce to ten. May God bless you!!!!
A few days later Akello emails to say she hasn’t got the money. She returns to the plight of her brother:
Richard my brothers name is Ochola James, and he is 17 years old and he was a student in senior four but unfortunately he did not sit for his examination due to financial problems. This was worsened by the death of our parents in the year 2000 which left three of us to be picked up by relatives. If its possible let him sit this year for his Examination which requires him to pay registration fees of Ush [Ugandan shillings] 8000 for 10 subjects and school fees as well.
Soon afterward Akello emails me again, in some distress, saying Mr. Bitek has still not given her the money. Reluctant to use Western Union – they take 24 percent on £50 – I write back asking if she can find another way of receiving money. Meanwhile I again ask Mr. Bitek to give her the money and whatever else she needs, and promise to reimburse him. A week later Akello replies, saying Mr. Bitek is still refusing to give her the money, and is threatening to force her to leave the school.
Is she telling the truth – or is she trying to get more money from me to get her brother into school? Who am I to believe? Kitgum Town College seems organized and principled, and the teachers highly motivated. But what do they think of me? A white man walks into their school from nowhere with one of their ex-students in tow, dishes out dollars and offers a library and a science laboratory. Then he disappears. Why should they believe anything I say?
I again email Mr. Bitek. I spell out bluntly what is on offer if they look after Akello. Then I get an email from an Owot Fred, a director of the college. He says he has followed up on Akello’s case with the headmaster, and it now seems she has disappeared. The teachers “suspect she has eloped with some man.”
Taking a chance on Akello’s honesty, I tell the director that Akello has not disappeared but has been forced away from school through lack of funds. I ask him to find her and let her back into the school.
Mr. Owot replies that Akello’s brother has come to the school to collect her possessions. He has told Mr. Owot that their grandmother has died and Akello has developed mental problems. She has had to be taken to another town for treatment. He promises to keep me updated. Akello’s brother, Ochola James, soon makes contact by email saying she asked him to contact me.
Ever since we have been controlling her at home because she can run away from home if not well looked after but now the condition is now worse. This started some days after the death of our grandmother last month. To this we are praying to God to help her in her sickness.
Again the questions. Is Ochola James real or has someone got hold of Akello’s email to try to squeeze money out of me? I send a message asking what exactly the doctors have said and what medicine is required. Another message arrives, saying they have taken her to the hospital but that she has been turned away because they had no money.
Then a message arrives from Mr. Owot. He tells me he has found Akello, who has told him that she suffered mental problems after the death of her grandmother and was taken to a medicine man. She has told Mr. Owot that she plans to return to school in May, and he promises me that he will provide her with money and guidance.
My relief is tempered by Akello’s next message. She says she is still sick and needs to travel more than 200 miles to get medicine. Through gritted teeth I phone Western Union and send £50.
Not long thereafter, I am emailed by an NGO that I had asked to try to find Akello. They say Akello is three months pregnant and living with her boyfriend in a refugee camp, having left school after refusing to sit her exams.
I send the message to Akello. Ochola replies a few days later, apologizing for not getting to the Internet cafŽ for a few days due to “rebel activities.” He attributes the pregnancy story to the school; they invented it to make me drop her and adopt their list of students. He also suggests it is probably a made-up list so they can take the money for themselves. He adds that Akello is hoping for more money for medicine.
Do I trust her brother? Do I trust the head? Someone is telling lies.
Then comes an email in Akello’s familiar voice with the hospital evaluation. She had been diagnosed with epilepsy and malaria. The doctor referred her for follow-up, and she went to the government hospital in Kitgum. Not having money – I should have sent some sooner – she was dismissed and went more than 250 miles to Masindi to visit a traditional healer. The message ends: PLEASE AM NOT PREGNANT AS SOME ONE TOLD YOU BUT AM SICK.
But why should she go to Masindi to visit a traditional healer when there would be plenty closer to home? Josephine, a worker from the charity, is to visit Kitgum. I send her all the details and ask her to report back. I am pretty sure Akello has been telling the truth but there are many unanswered questions.
A few days later, Josephine breaks the news: She has seen Akello and she is pregnant. Ochola James is not a brother but the father of her child, and they are living together in the camp.
My first reaction is anger. I believed her, and I was wrong. Now I have to apologize to the school, for doubting them. But I lied to her too and compared to the all-or-nothing world Akello inhabits, my humiliation is a petty matter.
That evening there is an email from Akello:
Dear, I really have been delivered from my problem. Only I need to tell you that am unworthy to my sponserer. I and James we are planned to meet the Josephine because we wanted to deliver to her the right things. So I feared to tell you the truth since I feared that you may abandon me since I lied to you. Please forgive me. I told Josphine the truth now and she will give you all facts. Forgive me and James and look for a way of helping me and James
God bless you
There is also an email from Caroline, the charity’s director:
She has been lying to you from day one but that does not mean she is a bad girl. Josephine would like us to give her another chance once she’s delivered. This may be hard since there is no one to take care of the baby. Also school is hard and boring and does not ensure future prosperity so Akello may opt for being a wife and mother.
So Akello has another chance if she can take it, something that does not happen often in Africa. I suppose you could say Africa itself has been given another chance with the commitments made last year by leading industrial nations at the G8 conference: debt relief, a doubling of aid and a host of other measures. But only when you walk down the street in a place like Kitgum and become involved in helping do you realize just how tough, how close to the edge, life is there. And how tough the people are too.
I have no doubt Akello will find a way of getting back to school. This time she won’t blow it. Will she?
Richard Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society, a British organization promoting African causes. Formerly, Dowden was the Africa editor of The Independent and The Economist.
This article was adapted with permission from the British magazine Prospect (Aug. 2006), http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.
 

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