A Ugandan woman who keeps the gruesome story alive

The lies that Jolly Okot is able to tell, and the excuses she finds, with a look of absolute honesty makes believing what she says hard. She says she was at a breaking point when the guerrilla soldiers stopped her as she was driving in her native Uganda at night to ask why she was out so late.

The fear that Okot felt just doesn’t compute in my mind as she talks to the crowd of Invisible Children volunteers.

In a thick accent, she speaks of a truth so far removed from my own life that I initially process her story as some sort of realistic fiction, even though she is standing right before me, a survivor, speaking at a conference in 2008.

“I have for many years been struggling how I can share my moment with people,” Okot writes on her Facebook page. “As I sat in the office at night, I felt I needed to get connected to people and let them know more about me and my life.”

She tells crowds around the world of her life growing up in Southern Uganda, a region that has been claimed by a 20-year civil war, with children being stolen away to fight the fight.

Okot tells of helping young boys and girls move from local villages to the city center in an effort to be spared from the guerrilla soldiers who are known to steal boys as young as eight and as old as 14 from their families at night in order to fill army ranks.

She tells us about living in a country with a self-imposed curfew. For, as Okot explains, night fell along with the bodies of the victims of this civil war.

After the conference, Okot candidly tells the few students from my suburban Pennsylvania high school the more detailed story of her life, it makes me feel inadequate. Nobody who has cradled the bodies of child soldiers no older than her own son could smile as bright as Okot. But for Okot, resilience is inherent.

Okot can’t forget the tragedy that plagues her country, so moving to the U.S. in 2003 when Invisible Children discovered her story and living a new life was out of the question. She had to go back — she keeps going back — to spur change.

Okot now lives in two worlds. She lives part of the year in San Francisco, spending most of that time touring the country and telling her story to anyone who will listen and take it to heart. The other half of the year Okot lives in her native Gulu working with another organization in Uganda.

Okot has dedicated herself to help provide a future to the former child soldiers and their victims. “It’s not easy sacrificing your own life for others,” Okot writes.

Since living in the U.S., Okot’s life has been layered with moments of true joy and pleasure like the birth of her daughter Daniella in 2008 and a marriage in 2009.Though I now follow her work solely through Facebook, her story hasn’t lost its poignancy.

I look through Okot’s photos and I see the renewed joy of the mom with her newborn and teenage son Alleni, both of whom travel with their mom when she goes back to Gulu, and I finally realize how it is possible for Okot to smile. Here is a life that out of hell became a fairy tale that in the telling makes me smile.

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