Succored in Phila., a child of Uganda's war is growing up

Jennifer Anyayo (left) in Gulu, Uganda, in June with Sue Fernandez, a Blue Bell volunteer who helped her in 2007, and Abitimo Odongkara, founder of the UNIFAT school in Gulu.
Jennifer Anyayo (left) in Gulu, Uganda, in June with Sue Fernandez, a Blue Bell volunteer who helped her in 2007, and Abitimo Odongkara, founder of the UNIFAT school in Gulu. (Courtesy of Sue Fernandez)
Posted: March 18, 2014

Seven years after she left Philadelphia, Jennifer Anyayo is preparing for the exam she must pass to keep moving toward college in her homeland of Uganda.

She's being tested in another momentous way. She's a new mother - and loves it.

"Sometimes when I'm carrying her," Anyayo said in a telephone interview, "I will be very serious and she will look at me, and she will smile and I smile back."

Anyayo's guiding light remains Abitimo Odongkara, the educator who spent decades shuttling between Philadelphia and the town of Gulu in their their northern Ugandan homeland. At 79, Odongkara still goes to work every day at the Gulu school she leads - the one Anyayo once attended - to shepherd its 1,300 students toward a better life.

If Odongkara and Anyayo, 23, have become like grandmother and granddaughter, their extended family stretches 7,000 miles, from Gulu to Philadelphia.

Some stories don't vanish the day or week after they appear in the newspaper and online. They capture one moment in a life and seed friendships that withstand time and geography.

So it is with Anyayo and Odongkara.

In 2005 and 2007, The Inquirer chronicled their lives in two series on people affected by a civil war that ravaged northern Uganda. The women were introduced by The Inquirer. The stories altered their lives, as well as the lives of readers who befriended them.

Anyayo suffered severe burns to her face and left hand when rebel fighters trapped her in a hut and set it on fire. Inquirer readers who learned about her and Odongkara wanted to help.

They gave about $30,000 to pay for Anyayo, then 14, to get surgery over 18 months in Philadelphia and northern Virginia. They let her stay in their homes and drove her to see doctors. They befriended Odongkara and raised money for her school, UNIFAT - the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology.

Those bonds remain.

Reader donations have paid for doctors' visits in Uganda, school fees for Anyayo and her siblings, and other expenses.

Several Maryland and Philadelphia-area residents still support Odongkara and Anyayo; some have visited the pair in the East African nation.

Thank goodness, those who have kept in touch say, some stories don't just fade away.

A joyous reunion

The rebel leader Joseph Kony quit northern Uganda in 2006, leaving its people, particularly children, to recover from years of abuse by his fighters and government soldiers. Kony filled the ranks of his Lord's Resistance Army by kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers and sex slaves.

These days, Kony is believed to use the same tactics in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, though with a band of no more than 250 fighters, said Kasper Agger, the Uganda-based Lord's Resistance Army researcher for the Enough Project advocacy group.

After Kony left Uganda, Anyayo returned to a joyous reunion with her family.

Her first challenge was reconnecting with Ugandan friends who thought of her differently because she had lived a life in the United States that they could only imagine.

"The biggest thing I faced was relating to people," she said. "When I arrived here, I was more American. My English was a bit different. Some people told me I liked bragging I was from America."

Ugandans who didn't know her well would become angry with her, and that would upset Anyayo. It was difficult, she said, but a friend counseled her "to just live your life and they'll eventually get tired."

Next, she went to Odongkara's school. Before coming to the United States, she barely attended school. After her stay in the U.S., she zoomed through primary grades because of her improved English and classes she took here.

Anyayo was attending the Sacred Heart Senior Secondary School in Gulu last year when she became pregnant. She now goes to Alliance High School in Gulu, closer to relatives who watch her baby.

Guma Madeline Roach - guma means "blessing" in the Acholi language - was born in October. The father helps sometimes, she said, "and he wants us to be together."

But "right now, I just want to focus on school," Anyayo said. She dreams of being a doctor.

Last summer, Anyayo got a visit from Blue Bell resident Sue Fernandez. Fernandez was one of the Philadelphia-area volunteers who took her to doctor appointments.

The trip fulfilled a dream and a promise Fernandez, 71, made when she and her husband drove Anyayo to the Philadelphia airport in 2007.

"We were standing there saying goodbye to her," Fernandez said. "I made a vow, 'Jennifer, I will come to see you. I love you.' "

Slowing down

During her visit, Fernandez also toured Odongkara's school: "Abitimo looked tired - I worried about her."

Odongkara, who turns 80 next month, is tired. She has suffered from cataracts and high blood pressure, and, in a telephone interview, described her health as only fair. "That means I don't complain much," she said with a hearty laugh.

Her schedule has slowed only slightly. She is at the school by 11 a.m. to assist students with their work and to talk about faith, strength of purpose, and what they can do to promote peace. She goes home at 5 p.m.

"Maybe next year, I will completely withdraw," she said. "How do we leave children? I'm trying to find someone also to take over the work from me, so when I leave, there is something going on."

When she does retire, she probably will continue to live mainly in Uganda rather than in Philadelphia, where she and her late husband fled in the 1970s to escape Idi Amin's brutal reign.

Odongkara has gotten support for her school from friends she made through the Inquirer stories.

The visitors have included Jill and Michael Zimmer of Downingtown, who helped coordinate a project to build a well near the school. Zimmer later was joined by students at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees and by a contingent from his high school alma mater near Cincinnati. The Ohioans also started a nonprofit to support the school, now called Unified for Uganda, which has 30 chapters nationwide.

Fund-raising by that group and by Philadelphia-area residents paid for installing windows, constructing classrooms, and textbooks.

The Zimmers forged one more connection to northern Uganda. They took one of Odongkara's first students into their home.

Denis Fred Okema, now 35, was one of UNIFAT's early success stories. In 2011, he came to the United States and moved in with the Zimmers. Later, he landed a scholarship at Chestnut Hill College. He is scheduled to graduate in May with a master's degree and will get married around then.

"I never thought it all would turn out this way," he said. "I feel so blessed, even when I've seen the worst of humans."

Joy above sadness

Two Maryland women who learned about Anyayo through The Inquirer are among her biggest patrons, sending money to Anyayo and her siblings. Since 2011, Debby Goldberg and Cathy Trost also have been the administrators of donations from Inquirer readers.

Though Anyayo has brought a new life into the world, one in Uganda and one in Montgomery County are gone.

Margaret Alerotek was one of UNIFAT's earliest students and a beloved "daughter" of Odongkara. Alerotek went on to work with the humanitarian organization World Vision.

She died in 2007 at 27 after falling ill at a Gulu restaurant. An autopsy concluded poisoning by cyanide, found in her juice, was the cause of death.

Philadelphian Elaine Garfinkel, who raised money to build housing on Odongkara's campus, died of cancer in 2008.

For Odongkara and Anyayo, faith and joy have risen above the sadness. The people they met in the Philadelphia region and Maryland have softened their sorrow.

Thinking about the friends she made in America and the Inquirer readers whose generosity has changed her life helps Anyayo with the pain from her past and the challenges she faces today.

"The one thing I always try to consider," she said, "I feel happy."



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