THING THAT HAPPENED
South of the Nile River, near
the remote trading center of Bweyale in Northern Uganda, sits the tiny campus
of Hope North Vocational and Secondary school. With no phone, Internet or
reliable transportation, the school is an island in a vast sea of African bush.
The students here are a mix of former child soldiers, orphans and abjectly poor kids, displaced by
the 22-year old civil war in Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)
and the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UDPF). The teachers are mostly rookie
educators fresh out of Ugandan universities - some of whom look not much older
than the kids. Their teaching tools amount to little more than their own wits
and a scattering of out-dated textbooks. With seldom enough money to pay the
staff, house the kids and buy school supplies, operating the school is a juggle
of compromises. But deficiencies or not, the school is the only chance these
kids have to escape their tragic histories. Embedded within this story of
tenuous survival at a small school in the African bush is a larger exploration
of a powerful concept... the concept of hope.
The Thing That Happened begins
with Okello Kelo Sam (Sam), the founder and director of Hope North, driving
through the scattered detritus of Northern Uganda. Through his voice over, we
learn that his brother’s kidnapping and murder, and a subsequent massacre at
his own village, (all at the hands of the LRA) drove him to act in response.
The scene abruptly shifts to dawn on Hope North’s campus. As the rhythms and
rituals of morning unfold, we quickly realize the sparseness of this place...
porridge is ladled by a woman wearing a baby strapped to her back, trousers are
pressed with a coal-fired iron and a discarded automobile rim is “clanged” to
signal the start of the school day. It’s quickly apparent that like the
students, the campus is making do in its tattered, broken or otherwise
By all appearances, the dusty
campus is a constant symbol of wanting. But ironically, their isolation from
the outside world leaves the students largely unaware of what they’re lacking
here. And for the most part, the sparse conditions are a step up from the
squalor and confusion of their pasts So they buck up... diligently attending
classes, playing soccer and subsisting on a never-say-die attitude that seems
pervasive in Uganda.
Personal accounts from
teachers put their day-to-day challenges as educators into stark reality. Among
them, intermittent electricity, no computers and roughly 4 textbooks for 150
students. Compounded by the school’s isolation and need, they know that
teaching here is far from ordinary. But the teachers are driven by a sense of
responsibility to educate the next generation of peacekeepers and leaders. And
turning from the challenges at Hope North would set a bad example for the kids
they’re working so hard to rehabilitate.
War stories from three of the
students collectively outline the experiences of innocent victims; an orphan, a
witness and a perpetrator. These candid personal accounts paint a gripping
picture of personal loss, unthinkable violence and forced killings; the
byproducts of a war these kids were all too young to comprehend.
The Thing That Happened takes a final turn as we
reconnect with Sam amidst giraffes and elephants on the African savannah. The
serenity of these scenes becomes symbolic of Sam’s vision to create peace
through education. Sam ultimately arrives at Hope North and is met by a throng
of dancing, singing and drumming students as we witness the human spirit
exposed amidst an energized tribal celebration. The scars of war are healing
here. Against the odds, the school is having an effect on these students. As we
see these kids emerge from their unspeakable experiences, it becomes clear that
their story-the story of Hope North-becomes a metaphor for personal identity,
the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of hope.