On most days, Oscar Okello can be found hunched over a metal wheel, adjusting brake cables, or simply plying his skills as a technician in Gulu, northern Uganda. With his steady, dexterous hands and sharp mind, he designs, assembles and rolls out dozens of wheelchairs made to order for aid organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, intended for free distribution to victims of war. Beneath the edge of his bright yellow T-shirt, Okello’s torso reveals the blunt stubs where his legs once were—a reminder of the time that brought him close to death.
Okello’s life-altering journey began when he escaped from a stronghold of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with his parents and 50 others on a truck. While fleeing toward his village, the truck driver lost control and struck a tree in an area that was then studded with landmines. The 16-year-old tried to hold onto a branch but fell to the ground striking a landmine. His mother died instantly, and his father succumbed to his injuries soon after. Okello was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors amputated his lower legs and fitted him with prosthetic limbs.
Left alone to care for his six brothers and sisters, Okello confronted the situation head on and relearned to walk. But the LRA returned, attacked his village and broke his prosthetics. Exhausted, and with little hope, he made his way to an organization that counseled him and linked him with the Gulu Youth Development Association (GYDA). USAID assisted with the launch of this project through funding, and provided support to build the project’s infrastructure and training curriculum that has helped GYDA to continue its work today.
Under the leadership of Robert Kilma, a civil engineer and a mechanic, the association helps abductees, former child soldiers, and people who fled the violence cope with life as they reconnect with their communities. Most of the youth displaced by the conflict grew up in camps with no primary or secondary schools; nearly 70 percent never received any formal education. To give a boost to these young adults, who are anxious to work and support their families, USAID trains them at the Gulu Association on how to work with metal, repair motor vehicles, build wheelchairs, design clothing, and construct buildings.
As a result of this project, over the last 20 years, more than 6,000 war-affected youth from northern Uganda have started their own businesses and begun to earn income for their families. Since the LRA was driven out of northern Uganda in 2005, this project has continued to help restore peace and normalcy to their communities. In partnership with other donors, USAID has also helped build classrooms and a day care center for young parents and provided educational materials and information about HIV/AIDS.
Thanks to training USAID provided in building mobility appliances, Okello is now employed full-time as a wheelchair technician for the GYDA and earns about 150,000 Ugandan shillings—roughly $70—a month, as well as a subsidized food, health and medical allowance. With a triumphant smile curling his lips, he says, “I am happy now. I can take care of my sisters and brothers, and others like me.” He has learned to lead his life with the same focus with which he steers his wheelchair around piles of spare parts and tools. Driven by his upbeat spirit, Okello plans to have his own business someday, and with USAID’s support, is working to become fully self-sufficient. He is now positive about the future because he knows he could so easily have not made it.
Displays of such raw strength and determination abound in this town of northern Uganda. Young men and women have made constructive lives for themselves despite hard luck and scarce resources. The American people, through USAID, have been heavily engaged in LRA-affected areas of northern Uganda since the 1980s, and because of this long-term commitment, we have been able to help the area in its transition from conflict to recovery to development. We remain committed to helping communities rebuild, and are working closely with our Ugandan partners to usher in a new era of peace and stability.
Podcast: Jeanne Briggs, former Team Leader for USAID’s Gulu Office in Northern Uganda, speaks here about the transformation she witnessed in the region during her two-year tour. USAID has provided substantial assistance to support post-conflict recovery efforts in northern Uganda under the Government of Uganda’s Peace and Recovery and Development Plan. The United States is committed to helping the people of the north return to a normal life.