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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.

Mr. Olum George Patrick was born on his grandfather's land, just two and a half miles from where he lives now. He left his family's land in 1980 and purchased his own land in 1985 in Peya, Gulu District.

Olum George Patrick in his garden.

But trouble started for the Olum family in 1986. George Patrick was a tanner by trade. He bought skins and hides from people in the villages around Gulu, then tanned and sold the hides in town. The rebel army did not want people doing business or going into town, so they came to his house.

The rebels accused George Patrick of spying for the government. The rebel soldiers beat him mercilessly, only stopping when they thought he was dead. George Patrick was unconscious for a long time, and the beating severely damaged his mouth and jaw.

The rebels took all of George Patrick's livestock and money. "We lost all our property," said George Patrick. Over the years, the rebels killed many of his relatives. They took everything from him.

Later, when they found out he was still alive, the rebels came back and arrested him. They took him to their camp for interrogation. The rebel commander fined him two goats and ordered George Patrick to stop selling hides, or he would be killed. He knew they meant it.

George Patrick had to find day labor to earn money, which was nearly impossible. In 1987, the rebels found him a third time. They accused him of attending militia training and working with the Ugandan army. They marched him back to their base where he was given a trial. George Patrick thought the trial was just for show; he was certain they had already made their decision. "Before you got there, they had already talked, and you would find they had already passed judgement," he said.

He thought they probably had spies at the meeting, so George Patrick confessed to attending one training to learn about the government, but he had refused to join and hadn't taken the gun they offered. "Because I didn't take the gun, they didn't kill me," said George Patrick. They released him, and he knew he was lucky to be alive.

His family's life had become a nightmare. "Every morning, every hour, every day you saw someone get killed. Killing was rampant," said George Patrick. The rebels kidnapped his younger brothers. His family had suffered so much, so in 1989, they moved in with a niece who lived just outside Gulu. At first it was safe at her house, but soon the rebels grew bolder. In 1996, George Patrick moved his family to the Ongako internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, where they lived until 2008.

In 2000, George Patrick met Esther while doing road construction.

Esther Olum picks peppers.

From 1986-1996, Esther lived with her family on their farm. During the war years, they would sometimes sleep at home and sometimes in the forest. "Things were so unpredictable. Sometimes we would spend a whole week or a whole month sleeping in the bush," she said. Her family was eventually ordered by army soldiers to move to Ongako IDP camp in 1996. They were told that anyone not in the camp would be considered a rebel.

Life in the camp was only marginally better. "The only advantage of the camp was being able to sleep inside a house away from the beating rain," said Esther.

In the same camp, George Patrick and his family were sleeping in a small hut surrounded by 15,000 other families. Crowded together so closely, it was inevitable that diseases would be widespread, and malaria, diarrhea and scurvy were just part of the problem. "Sickness was too rampant," said Esther. "Sanitation was the worst," said George Patrick. Over the course of two months in 2000-2001, Gulu and the surrounding area was hit with Ebola.

Esther was constantly worried for her family. A relief organization came once a month to give them ground maize, sorghum and cooking oil. She saw the people tried hard to help the IDPs, but it wasn't enough. They could only eat one meal per day, and they never had meat, unless someone killed a wild pig, deer or antelope. Esther and George Patrick managed to borrow some land near the camp where they planted a small kitchen garden, making them luckier than most.

While still in the IDP camp, Esther and George Patrick heard about an organization that was helping farmers who wanted to rebuild their lives through agriculture. Heifer International was providing families with bulls and plows so they could return home and clear land. Esther and George Patrick were excited to join and began attending Heifer trainings every Tuesday in 2007.

Esther and George Patrick with one of the family cows.

They continued to live in the camp until 2008, when they moved home and began clearing their land. Heifer partnered them with four other families who lived nearby, and together, the five families shared four bulls and a plow. Over the war years, the forest had recaptured the land, so the farmers spent much of their time during those first months creating pasture and crop land. They also had to build new homes, because the old ones had been burned to the ground.

One of their first priorities was building a shed and corral for the dairy cow that Heifer had promised. Once each family had a shed and grew grass to feed a cow, they were given a purebred Frisian Holstein.

It took them an entire month to build their cow shed, but ultimately they did it, and in June 2009, they received a dairy cow as promised. They named her Mama Samba, which means Mother of the Garden, because her manure makes everything grow so well. "She is the flower of my compound," said George Patrick.

Esther and George Patrick's daughter and grandson
feed fodder to one of the family's cows.

Esther was really excited to receive a dairy cow. She knew that the milk would be good for her children to drink, and they would be able to sell extra milk to earn income. Esther and George Patrick now have seven children: four sons and three daughters. Their fifth son, Owiny Stephen, died at age 4 of meningitis while the family still lived in the camp. They also have five grandchildren, one of whom lives with them on the farm.

The trainings from Heifer have been incredibly important as they rebuild their home and farm. "I'm a modern farmer. I can teach other people," said George Patrick. Esther agrees, "I have learned a lot from this project," she said. "I got a lot of knowledge on agriculture and animals. I know when my animal is sick or ready to be bred."

They have participated in many trainings, including home hygiene, gender awareness, planting, Heifer's 12 Cornerstones, and others. George Patrick loves the Cornerstones training. "I'm now basing my life on these," he said. He believes, "If you follow the Cornerstones, you will achieve development both physically and spiritually." He thinks this is part of what makes Heifer so successful. "Other NGOs don't have this idea of Cornerstones."

Their favorite Cornerstones are Sharing and Caring and Passing on the Gift. "If you pass to a friend, and your friend passes on, then the gift multiplies very quickly," said Esther. She is proud that they have passed on both a heifer and a bull. "In the Bible it says to love your neighbor," said George Patrick. "If you have nothing, then your friend can help provide it for you. When I have many friends, my mind is settled," he added.

Esther, her daughter and grandson work around one of the
family's orange trees.

The Olum family has plenty of milk to drink and food to eat thanks to their cow. Every Sunday they eat chicken, and once per week they each eat an egg. When they lived in the camp, "I could not even dream of milk," said George Patrick. Now they have no problem getting all that they need. "I eat three times a day, and I take milk daily. It gives me health. I am meeting all the necessary requirements for my body to function," he said. "When I was in camp, I didn't know my HIV status. Now I know I'm negative."

They now earn about $800 per year selling milk and cabbages.

While they lived in the camp, they didn't have any room to keep livestock, but now they have nine local cattle (for meat), two Frisians, 30 chickens and two goats. Their animals produce lots of manure, which helps to produce more crops. "There is a big change," said George Patrick. When you apply manure, the crops grow faster and with good health." The manure has increased their cabbage yield 67 percent.

The Heifer project has made changes at a deeper level, as well. During the war years, families didn't know who to trust, and everyone was suspicious. The project is helping restore trust in the community. Family relationships are also changing. Before the project, George Patrick didn't get water or wash clothes, and Esther didn't plant crops. They had specific gender roles, but now they help each other whenever possible. "We are united because we are moving together. We have trust in one another," George Patrick said.

George Patrick knows Heifer International will be able to spread this type of success to many other families. "The resources that Heifer has given are not wasted," he said. "With Heifer it is the clients who benefit directly. With Heifer there is so much transparency and accountability. Heifer is trusted."

Of the project, George Patrick said, "It has had a permanent impact on my life. I only wish the project can continue so that others can benefit."


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.