Jolly Okot; an irreplaceable heroine to northern Uganda

Apr 02, 2013

It takes us less than 10 minutes on a dusty road to get to Mend, a therapeutic sanctuary for redemption, hope, healing and willpower that is nestled in a slightly plush suburb in the northern town of Gulu.

By George Wabweyo

It takes us less than 10 minutes on a dusty road to get to Mend, a therapeutic sanctuary for redemption, hope, healing and willpower that is nestled in a slightly plush suburb in the northern town of Gulu.

Upon arrival, we head out to what visibly should be a residential house, though the chugging and busy bee activities unfolding in its precincts would erase that notion.

Even before our small entourage of three makes it through the threshold, there are wild cheers, ululations and claps emanating from what turns out to be a sewing workshop. It is quite a spectacle as grown women in blue overcoats contend to embrace the lady I accompany.

What unfolds is a series of hearty and unending pleasantries in the Acholi language. In the background, high tempo Luo music is playing in and seems to complement the ensuing happiness.

The lady who is the object of all this attention moves to the stereo system and turns the volume up before she launches into a high energy traditional jig. She is joined by some of the ladies in the vigorous dancing flanked by whoops and even more ululation.

Okot inpects some of the bags made by the women

To warrant such an intriguing welcoming ceremony in these quarters, you would have to be 45-year-old Jolly Grace Okot, who is actually the first Ugandan Woman ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

The late Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, is the one who won the prize but that nomination stands as affirmation of the quantity and quality of Okot’s efforts in northern Uganda.

Who is Okot

But it was not always this pleasant. The strong willed Okot is like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of a troubled and perhaps upsetting past.

Her father was always ridiculed for having too many daughters who would probably perhaps turn to prostitution. Instead, she rose from an upsetting abduction by rebels in 1986 when she was just 20 years old to prove the naysayers wrong and champion the girl child’s rights in formerly war torn northern Uganda.

After her stint with the rebels where she collected levies and helped change old currency for the new one, she escaped their clutches and went as far as returning to school (and Okot keeps going back to school to date).

Her work

Okot has worked for nonprofit organisations like Médecins Sans Frontiers, InterAid International, Oxfam and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

But because she had first-hand experience of war in northern Uganda, Jolly was compelled to start up something that would touch her community.

In 2003, she started HEAL (Health, Education, Art, Literacy, Sports), which was a programme in which she used dance and play as a therapeutic remedy for children who had been affected and traumatized by the war.

On the side, she also started up Legacy Scholarship Programme which to date has given the gift of education to a minimum of 1500 girls in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Just this year, the programme yielded close to 100 university and tertiary institution graduates.

“One thing that I value so much is education for women. I always enjoy seeing people who are helped be successful,” a retrospective Okot says. Yet, to document all the various interventions Okot has laboured with for her people, a big book would probably be in order.

The projects

However, what made her stand out internationally has probably been her work with Invisible Children, an organisation she co-founded with three Americans.

The Organisation, which was also behind the controversial and viral video advocating for the capture of Joseph Kony, has since inception touched thousands of lives of war returnees in northern Uganda.

Through their Mend programme, returnees make unique canvas and tote bags which are sold for up to $320 (about sh800,000) abroad.

Okot inpects some of the bags made by the women

“Mend was set up to mend the wounds of people who were formerly abducted during the LRA war,” Okot says. “These are not like any other bags. Each bag comes with a fingerprint of the woman who made it to lend it a human connection. The woman’s story is also put online and on a small booklet attached to the bag.”

About 16 bags are made every day. Because of the value addition to these bags, on average, a seamstresses can earn up to sh300,000 which goes a long way in supporting their families and educating their children.

“Before joining here, I used to sleep hungry but now I feed my children; Mama jolly came up with a great product that has changed my life,” Lilly Atek a visibly elated former abductee says. Her efforts allow her to earn sh380,000, money that she would probably never earn out of this programme.

 Apart from Mend, Okot was very instrumental in the start of The Village Savings and Loan Association in which almost all the Mend seamstresses are also involved in. The SACCO gives financial counselling, gives loans to its members and explores supplementary income generating activities for its members.

Her passion

There are always small deductions done from the women’s wages but after 12 months, there is a disbursement.

“I have a passion for what I do. When you give a person who has been in situations like that in northern Uganda, they will rise to the occasion. Being abducted is not the end of her life,” Okot says.

In fact, the previous year, the women of the Village Savings loan association who are mainly quarry workers and market vendors, saved up to sh48m.

“When I hear about Mama Jolly, I feel happy and thankful. What she has done for the children and women of Northern Uganda is amazing,” says Pauline Ajok, who is also a former abductee. Ajok earns her living through Mend and is also part of the SACCO.

After touring the whole premises, it is time to go. But first, there is more dancing and byes. In those few moments, it is obvious that Okot means a lot to these women just as much as they mean a lot to her. She has been known to stop at nothing to champion her cause.

One common story told is that of her and a young prostitute. At one point, there was a rise in underage prostitution in Gulu due to the numerous hardships girls in the community faced. In one of her efforts to save these girls, Okot once had to hire a boy to go out and procure a young prostitute. When the prostitute got into the room, the boy left and it was Okot instead who appeared to talk to the girl.

That would be the best client that girl would ever have and under Okot’s tutelage, she has turned into a formidable woman.

“As someone who was once abducted and raped, I know it is not right for a young girl to sell herself. If you give her an opportunity, she can perform better in life,” says Okot, who is a wife and a mother to two boys and two girls.

That there, can only be the work of a great woman, a believer in people and of course, an achiever. Now as Invisible Children’s Ambassador for East and Central Africa, Okot intends to take her strong desire to see an empowered girl child go past the borders of her homeland.

Until that too is achieved, Jolly and her creative ideas and intercessions continue to heal the wounds of Northern Uganda and erase a bullet  ridden past.


Nominee: Jolly Grace Okot Andruvile

Age: 45

Founded: HEALS, Invisible Children, Mend, and Village Savings and Loan Association.  

Quote: “One thing I value so much is education for women”

Contact: +256-755099919

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