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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.

Christine Akello with her children.

In Peya, a small village outside of Gulu in northern Uganda, Mrs. Christine Akello is rebuilding her life as well as the shattered lives of 12 children. She provides for her own two daughters, her brother's five children, three cousins and two other girls.

Christine's husband, Mr. Nono Benson, died in 1997 from an HIV-related illness. Christine later learned that she was also HIV-positive. "When my husband died, his brothers chased me off because I only had girls, and girls weren't important," she said.

After being forced off her husband's farm, she moved to the Koch-Goma internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, where she lived until 2007. "Life was very difficult because we couldn't farm. We just depended on the food donations," said Christine. They were only able to eat once a day, and all they had were beans and ugali (corn meal porridge).

One day while working in a field collecting food for their family, Christine and her daughter, Cavin, were captured by rebel soldiers. They used Christine as a porter to carry things they looted from villages they attacked. "Life in the (rebel) camp was very difficult," said Christine. "We depended on the mercy of the commanders. When you laid down at night, you weren't sure you would get up the next morning," she added.

Christine was able to escape two weeks later when the rebels went on a looting run. The Ugandan government had set up an ambush. When the shooting began, she dropped to the ground and prayed. Many people, including rebels, soldiers and captives were killed in the crossfire. "I survived by God's mercy," Christine said.

Cavin was not as lucky as her mother. She was raped by the rebels and spent an entire year in their camp. When she came home, she was carrying her baby.

Those years were a nightmare. The family was under constant pressure. "People were living all the time in fear. We didn't plan for the future, because we weren't sure we would make it to tomorrow," Christine said.

The Koch-Goma IDP camp was dangerously overcrowded, and although there was a healthcare center, "There were far too many people in the camp for the clinic to manage," said Christine. Her health was terrible, because until 2008, Christine was not taking antiretrovirals to combat the HIV, so she was often sick.

Then Christine heard about Heifer International. Heifer was helping families by providing them with bulls and plows so they could clear land to rebuild their farms. To receive a bull, you had to be willing to move out of the camp and start farming. Christine was happy to leave the camp. Her father helped her relocate where she would be able to participate in the project.

With her father's help, she built two houses and a cow shed. In October 2008, Christine and four other families received four bulls and a plow that they shared. Together they began clearing land and planting rice.

Christine with one of the family's calves.

On November 27, 2009, Christine received a dairy cow from Heifer. "I had never even dreamed of having a cow," said Christine. Now she is producing three gallons of milk per day, and that is their primary source of income. Christine also received a variety of seeds: onion, cabbage, tomato, calliandra, eggplant and Napier grass.

Christine sold alcohol made from corn meal when she lived in the IDP camp to earn money, but it was never enough. Everything she earned used to pay for salt, school books and other essentials. Now she earns $860 per year selling milk and additional income from selling peanuts, eggplant, spinach, jackfruit, mangoes and avocado, for a total annual income of about $1,215.

Christine has participated in many Heifer-sponsored trainings: hygiene, HIV awareness, fodder and pasture management, dairy management, plowing, Heifer's 12 Cornerstones, and others. Christine's favorite Cornerstone is Improved Animal Management. "If you practice this Cornerstone, your animals will be healthy," said Christine. "If your animal is healthy, it will provide more milk and live longer."

Two of Christine's sons collect fodder for the family's livestock.

According to Christine, Heifer is a very different type of organization. While other NGOs brought animals in for families in northern Uganda, they just gave them away. "There were a lot of things we didn't know," she said. "If the animal was just brought to me without any training, it would have been dead long ago."

She believes the trainings Heifer provided were a crucial part of her success. "The project is going in the right direction. We have moved from one to three meals each day. It is a sign that things are getting better," said Christine. While their typical meals are simple, just peanut paste and spinach, they eat chicken every Sunday, beef twice a week, and they have three meals per day. "We now have a balanced diet," said Christine. Perhaps best of all, Christine feels much healthier. "I have a lot of energy, and I'm now very healthy," she said.

Two of Christine's children cut fodder
for the family's livestock.

Christine is proud to have completed her Passing on the Gift requirements. In 2010, she passed on a bull, and in March 2011, a heifer. "As we received an animal, it is a blessing to pass on to another family," she said.

Now she has begun to plan for the future. She had to give up her hopes of going to school when she was very young, but Christine wants all of her children and adopted children to finish school. Even though school fees for so many gets expensive, Christine is happy to pay whatever it costs. She pays for their uniforms, pens, books and paper. "If they study, they will get employment and become self-reliant," she said.

She knows firsthand that Heifer's assistance is transforming lives, and she sees it in her community. "For the people who have already received, there has been a big change in their life, but there are still many families who have not yet benefited, and their lives are still very difficult," said Christine. "People were in the camps for such a long time, and they lost their property, so if more support can come, it will help them to resettle."

Christine has a modest request: "Please don't get tired of helping us."

Two of Christine's daughters wash dishes
outside their home.


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.