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Heifer Uganda's office in Gulu, Uganda.

Editor's Note: I believe, at this point, it is impossible to be an organization with field operations in Uganda to avoid discussing our work in that country and our role in helping rehabilitate families affected by the conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Allied Democratic Forces–both insurgent groups–and the Ugandan government. Over the next several days, we'll talk here about our work with families in northern Uganda and share stories from families who have gone from being victims of the conflict to thriving in what is actually a very fertile part of the world.

Original story by freelance writer Christian DeVries. Photos by Russell Powell, courtesy of Heifer International.

Coo Pe is a small village in Gulu district in northern Uganda. Today, Coo Pe has a population of only a couple thousand people, but during years of conflict (1986-2008), the population was as high as 62,000.

At the beginning of the war, this area had no name, and there were only a few families living in scattered huts. When rebels came to "recruit" men from this area, the women would tell them "Coo pe," which means "No men," and so their village was named. Later, Coo Pe became an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.

Mrs. Lawac Florence (25) was only 7 years old when her father was killed by rebels for no reason other than he was a man. when her mother died of cancer a few years later, Florence went to live with her uncle, who was later also killed by rebels.

In 1998, she moved to Coo Pe. She had no one to pay her school fees, and no school to attend anyway, so her education ended in Primary 6 when she was 12. She spent the next eight years living in the IDP camp. "Life in the camp was not easy," said Florence. But she made friends and even met her husband. In January 2001, Florence and Mr. Otema Fred (27) were married.

Fred was also 12 when his family moved to Coo Pe. The rebels had raided his village and burned his family's house. During the raid, his uncle was killed, and Fred was shot in the leg and back. He spent the next month in a hospital recuperating before moving to Coo Pe. His older brother was taken by the rebels and forced into service for two years. Even after the raid, his family didn't want to leave their farm. They tried sleeping in the forest and working the land, but it was too dangerous. When they fled to the camp, they took only the clothes on their backs, a few pots and pans, and blankets.

"We lived in that camp for 10 years, and it was not easy," Fred said. Even after moving to the IDP camp, Florence and Fred didn't feel safe. The rebels frequently raided Coo Pe and the surrounding area. They abducted children, burned and looted, and took any food they found. In Coo Pe alone, they kidnapped around 5,000 children between the ages of 9 and 15. "They said that those age groups were easy to indoctrinate and wouldn't be as likely to escape," Fred said.

Soon after they were married, Florence gave birth to their first child. "Raising children was difficult. Sometimes food aid was delayed," she said. Aid workers provided them with beans and maize, but it was only enough for them to eat once per day.

Florence and Fred now have three children, and Fred's younger brother also lives with them.

Peace talks began in 2006, and although the war was still going on, Florence and Fred were among the first group of people to risk leaving the camp. Fred felt that they had no choice. They needed to feed their children.

They moved back to Fred's parents' land, but had to completely restart the farm. "We didn't have anything when we moved back here," said Fred. The huts had been burned, there were dead bodies and bones form the fighting, the land was overgrown. But worst of all, they had to clear landmines before they could begin planting. They began by planting cassava, maize, beans and sweet potatoes, but farming wasn't easy.

Fred didn't know much about farming, so things were only slightly better living outside the camp. "When we moved to the camp, I was still a young boy. I was still learning how to farm, so my knowledge of farming was interrupted," he said. Fred struggled to pay school fees and medical bills for his family. "They would fall sick quite often," he said. Food was always scarce. "Even buying them clothing was very difficult," Fred added.

Twice a day they could eat vegetables and beans, and three times per month they had a little meat, but these meals weren't balanced, and it was never enough. It seemed like they were always hungry. "If you visited us before, you would have seen the children dressed in rags and crying for food," said Fred.

Florence and Fred's oldest daughter feeds the family cow, Flora.

On April 23, 2010, Florence and Fred received a Frisian heifer from Heifer International. They decided to name her Flora, after Florence. Since her arrival, Flora has produced two bull calves and lots of milk. "Before, my children didn't even know what milk looked like," said Florence. "This cow has made my family happy." When the bulls are old enough, they will be sold, and the money will be used to buy a heifer that can be passed on to another family. In addition to the heifer, their family also received cement, seeds and medicine for tick control.

As part of the Heifer project, Fred participated in a variety of trainings, including livestock management, environmental protection, soil and water conservation, gender and HIV/AIDS awareness, vegetable growing, hygiene, and Heifer's 12 Cornerstones. While Fred doesn't have a favorite Cornerstone, he is a big believer in Passing on the Gift. "The first step in Passing on the Gift is passing on your knowledge to someone else. Your neighbor needs to have the knowledge that you have acquired so their life can also be changed," he said.

Before participating in the project, Fred and Florence owned no animals. Now they have 31 animals (one cow, one bull, one local cow, three goats and 25 chickens) and lots of manure. "The manure has helped me in my vegetable garden and on my fruit trees," said Fred. The orange and mango trees Fred planted were barely growing and produced no fruit until he started using manure, and they have tripled their onion harvest.

Florence and Fred pose with their three children.
Florence and her son work in the family garden picking okra.

Now they are able to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and they get lots of protein from milk, beans and peanuts. They eat three meals per day, typically consisting of sweet potatoes and vegetables with milk. Eating properly has improved the children's health. "The milk they are taking now is boosting their immune system," said Florence. "The problem of malnutrition is no longer there," said Fred.

The dramatic increase in their income has also been a large impact of the project. "This project has really helped to fight poverty in my family," said Fred. Prior to the project, Fred worked as a laborer to earn money. "Before it was very challenging. My wife was always pushing me to find work and get money. It caused a lot of quarreling," he said. Florence remembers how hard Fred worked to try and provide for his family, but "even clothing the family was difficult for him," she said.

A full day of clearing land earned Fred only $1, and even that work was hard to find. In a good year, Fred earned a total of $116 working as a laborer and selling some maize and cassava.

Now, Fred earns $1,290 a year from selling milk. "There is now a very big milk market here," he said. He grows and sells onions, maize, okra and eggplant. In total, Fred earns $1,566 per year. Florence is glad for their increased income. "He is not so stressed," she said. "Now he is a happy man."

Fred attaches a container to his bike to
transport his goods to market.

Florence and Fred have used this new income to pay for food, school fees for all of their children, to buy a bicycle, chairs, a local cow (for meat production), chickens and goats. Education is very important to Fred and Florence. "A person who is educated has a lot of information and can get a good job," said Fred.

"I'm now trying to forget the past," said Fred. "The worries and the pain we felt is going. The bitterness is gone."

"I want to say thank you to Heifer, because your support has really helped me," said Fred. "Your support has not been in vain." Unfortunately, there are many more families who need Heifer's help. "The people who were affected by the war are too many," he said. "Heifer is currently able to help a small portion of the total number affected." He added, "If there was more support, then more people could be helped out of this dire situation."

In Fred's opinion, when donors choose to support Heifer International, they are giving to a unique organization. "When I compare Heifer with other organizations, I see a very big difference in sustainability," said Fred. "The people that Heifer trains can sustain themselves and become totally independent."


Brooke Edwards

Brooke Edwards is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and started working at Heifer International in 2009 as a writer. She and her husband raise two daughters in a house way too small for their four pets. They spend a lot of time sweeping.