June 6, 2014 | By Roger Thurow

The Lessons of Aboke

Aboke, Uganda - At St. Mary’s secondary school for girls, lessons literally grow on the trees.

Philosophical statements and encouraging aphorisms, painted in white letters on green pieces of sheet metal, hang on the trees that ring the central courtyard: “Trees make our environment beautiful”; “Be proud of your school and environment”; “Learning to know is my dream and pride.”

Then there are the lessons of basic humanity:

“Stop Violence!”

“Promote your rights.”

“No Justice, No Peace.”

“If we promote peace we shall make a difference in the world.”

These are the lessons of Aboke for the world.

Before the recent abductions of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by the marauding forces of Boko Haram, and the global campaigns of outrage (#BringBackOurGirls) that have followed, there were the raids against schools and villages in northern Uganda by the ruthless followers of warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, who captured children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. One night in October 1996, the kidnappers barged into some of the dormitories of St. Mary’s and fled with 139 schoolgirls.

One of the nuns at the school pursued them deep into the bush. The kidnappers had also stolen bags of candy and snacks from the school; the trail of empty wrappers led the way to their camp. The Sister demanded the return of the girls, but the leader of the abductors insisted on keeping 30 of them. She was told that if she persisted on the return of all the girls, she would leave with none; they would all be killed. So 30 remained in the bush; most of them eventually escaped.

The school almost closed, but it persisted in the face of terror and sorrow. “When I came here 13 years ago, it was a very sad environment,” says Sister Susan Nganga, now head of St. Mary’s. “When you entered the compound, you felt the sadness.”

For years, the students and teachers also felt vulnerable, under threat of renewed attacks. “People were traumatized,” Sister Susan recalls. “There was a time that if the door banged because of the wind, we all jumped. We thought it was a shooting.”

Her task was to change the environment of sadness and fear, begin a recovery. Eventually, Kony and his forces fled Uganda; they are now presumed to be in a neighboring country in central Africa. The region of northern Uganda began a slow recovery, rebuilding homes and schools and businesses, but also rebuilding trust and a sense of security.

The students at St. Mary’s rallied around sports teams. They started a peace club. The teachers added courses on reconciliation. They hung the lessons on the trees.

On a recent Saturday morning, I found the students diligently doing their weekend chores. They were cutting the grass with machetes, using brooms made from branches to sweep the dirt pathways among the trees, washing clothes and hanging them to dry on bushes. Always, the signs were nearby. “If we promote peace, we will come out on top,” proclaims a palm tree.

There was also work being done in the fields, with the girls taking turns tending the crops. Agriculture—nourishing the students—has been one of the vehicles of recovery.

“We have a very big farm,” Sister Susan says, “about 50 acres.” It has become a symbol of renewal for the school and the surrounding villages. Most of the local residents are poor farmers. “Whenever they used to plant big fields, the rebels would come and take it,” she recalls. “If they built a new house, the rebels would come and destroy it. They didn’t know how to plan for the future. For the students, we teach them that now that it is peaceful, they can start to think about tomorrow. That’s why we have the fields.”

Planting is a belief in tomorrow, the harvest provides fuel for the future. The school farm yields a cornucopia of vegetables and fruit, including maize, cassava, kale, eggplant, popcorn, paw-paws, mangoes, bananas, and sweet potatoes.

The sweet potatoes are of the orange variety, provided by the Harvest Plus biofortification program which highlights minerals and vitamins naturally appearing in staple crops. The orange sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A, and they have become regular fare in the dining hall, becoming more popular than the white and yellow varieties that provide calories but few nutrients.

“We didn’t know how the students would receive them at first,” says Sister Susan of the orange potatoes. “I asked the estate manager and he said, ‘They ate them. They are sweet. They taste good.’ ”

And they are good for the students, particularly adolescent girls. The orange sweet potatoes have become a teaching object about the importance of eating well, about healthy girls becoming healthy women, especially as they approach child-bearing years. They learn about the importance of good nutrition for mothers and their babies, most critically in the 1,000 days from the beginning of pregnancy to the child’s second birthday.

The teachers have noticed some of the girls carrying orange potatoes to class for mid-day snacks. “They know the orange potatoes help give them healthy bodies,” says Sister Susan, who teaches science. “Last week, our students did a blood donation and the person (in charge) talked about what builds good blood. The girls are aware of balanced diets, they know about the value of good nutrition.”

Such knowledge is one of the building blocks of recovery. One strong generation gives birth to another. This is one more lesson of Aboke.

“To destroy a place can take days,” says Sister Susan. “But to recover takes years.”

Archive

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The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

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Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

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Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

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Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

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Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

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This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

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Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


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Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

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Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

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Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

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Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

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Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »