Fighting for an education

May 29, 2004

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MUKONO, UGANDA – Her name is Grace and this is her story.

Grace, whose full name is Akallao Grace Grall, was born in a hut in 1981 in a northeastern Ugandan village. Her father left the family, but she went school because a kind uncle paid her fees. After her uncle died, Grace feared she’d never finish grade school and, like most Ugandan women, be destined to work in the fields. She was ecstatic when her absent father sent her to a convent high school, St. Mary’s.

Her bliss ended on Uganda’s Independence Day, in 1996. Fighters in the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda’s cult-like rebels making global headlines, arrived at St. Mary’s with torches and machine guns. On orders from fanatical LRA leader, Joseph Kony, they kidnapped 140 girls.

The guerrilla fighters led the girls into the muddy night. A persistent nun later convinced the young thugs to release 110, but they kept 30, including 15-year-old Grace, as their “angels.” Girls from St. Mary’s were known to be bright, and the LRA wanted clever offspring for future soldiers.

The LRA, which abducts more children than any army worldwide, has forced some 14,000 children into warfare since 1984. Grace gave up trying to escape after seeing a girl beaten to death. She was taken to nearby Sudan to fight.

The commanders, the girls’ so-called husbands, provided nothing. Food came from raiding villages. Or from rats, leaves, roots or, in worst cases, soil. Water was miles from camp. Grace was so malnourished that she was given up for dead and buried alive in a shallow grave. She escaped.

Six months on, Uganda’s army crossed into Sudan and raided their base camp. Hundreds of Kony’s young recruits were cut down. Somehow Grace for the last time. Eight other girls rode with her through various hostile turns, eventually on top of a tanker truck, to return to Uganda.

“I’ve seen heads smashed. I’ve seen people beaten until their sockets swallow their eyes. I’ve survived hunger. I’ve survived burial alive and assaults,” she said. But seven months after her abduction, she arrived in safety. It was Good Friday.

Since then, Grace has continued to pursue all she ever wanted. An education. She’s recently shared that message in schools across the United States, at the annual meeting of Amnesty International and, most recently, on Oprah.

How amazing that this young woman first went to hell, then college. And how mysterious that some people flower in the harshest of places, while others die in the best. Why, for example, are one-in-four Ontario students not finishing high school this spring as expected? Why, according to Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development figures, is Canada’s high school drop-out rate, in fact, significantly higher than the industrialized-nation average?

Grace hasn’t blamed her poverty, but she’s poorer than most. She hasn’t blamed her ethnicity, gender or social background, but they’ve all worked against her. She hasn’t blamed her parents, but they haven’t always helped. She hasn’t blamed her abusers, but she’s been violated in ways we can’t imagine. She hasn’t blamed her government, but its politics nearly killed her.

Grace hasn’t blamed any schools or teachers or high tuition costs. She’s simply moved on. It was at Uganda Christian University, near Uganda’s capital, Kampala, where I had the pleasure of talking to Grace. She had recently graduated, with pride. Now she’s heading into more gruelling studies and, she hopes, a career in newspaper journalism. She told me she simply wants to help her people find peace by telling their stories.

Not that university is for everyone. There is such a thing as an educated idiot. A couple of the brightest, most influential people I personally know are high school or university dropouts. Besides, Canada desperately needs more skilled technical workers.

But for most, a decent future is simply impossible without some serious schooling. And when dealing with Ontario’s school system, deflated as it seems, we’re better off not falling prey to any sorry victimization movement. It helps nobody.

And it cheapens the stories of those who actually do have it hard.

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May 29, 2004 • Posted in ,
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