Most of us would be moved by a documentary like “Invisible Children,” about tens of thousands of children who hide in the night to escape being killed or abducted by rebels in northern Uganda. High school student Alanna Ojibway sprang into action.
“What struck me is this population of children who are being left unnoticed,” says Ojibway, who attended Hartford (Vt.) Area Career and Technical Center.
According to the “Invisible Children” website (www.invisiblechildren.com), three young filmmakers traveled to Africa in the spring of 2003, planning to document the genocide in Darfur. Instead, the little-known war in northern Uganda caught their attention. If abducted, the children are forced to become soldiers for Joseph Kony and his group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). His forces have abducted as many as 30,000 children to fight against government forces as well as civilians.
Ojibway says her involvement “started as a fundraiser and evolved into this bigger thing. The more I got involved, the more passionate I felt about the issue.”
For a human services project in her junior year, Ojibway put together a “Walk the Walk” event through Teens Connecting Continents, a program of the Change the World Kids organization (www.changetheworldkids.org). The symbolic walk supported sustainable education and included speakers from Uganda. More than $4,000 was raised.
With her senior-year project, Ojibway wanted to raise awareness in her community “so it didn’t seem as distant for people to understand why we do something for kids in a completely other part of the world instead of locally,” she explains.
“When people ask why I work internationally rather than locally, it’s because there is not that kind of poverty here. There’s poverty, but there are resources and places that help. There, if you’re a homeless child, who’s going to feel bad for you when there are thousands of other ones like you in your community? It’s a deeper rut to be in.”
Ojibway looked into programs that would enable her to travel to Uganda, but her young age and lack of a degree were a barrier. Through a friend, she met a Ugandan student at nearby Dartmouth College who invited Ojibway to spend the summer at her home.
“If I hadn’t met her, there’s no organization I can think of where a 17-year-old can go and get that much hands-on experience without the liabilities, without the degree,” Ojibway says.
After arriving in Uganda, Ojibway and her new friend teamed up with two locals and used the money from her fundraiser. In the Kampala area, she taught, provided supplies and was part of a group that built a new home for orphans.
“I was literally thrown into working as a mom, as a counselor, as a doctor, for 47 kids,” she says. “The philosophy was, ‘You’re who we’re relying on. We don’t care if you have a degree or not. You’re who’s here to help.’ ”
Health and safety concerns
Traveling to war-torn regions of the world can be risky. Fortunately, Ojibway says her experiences were without incident.
“I think going anywhere, being that big of a minority — being white, being female, being young — I knew I was going to be a target. I don’t think there was anything really beyond just people yelling comments. It got old, but it wasn’t anything … no one was ever really aggressive. People there, by and large, were very welcoming, very accepting.”
Others might also worry about getting sick, but Ojibway says she was really lucky.
“I had to get about four million shots, for everything you could imagine. And then I got there and everyone was like, ‘OK, you’re going to need your malaria pills every day, because you’re going to get swarmed with mosquitoes.’
“I definitely had fewer mosquito bites there than I’ve ever had in a summer in Vermont. I was amazed that nothing set me off. New food, new climate, new whatever … I never had an upset stomach. I was actually healthier when I returned, because the diet was a lot better for me, and I was walking every day.”
Health and personal safety issues aside, Ojibway says the conditions are challenging in Uganda but don’t overshadow her passion to work there.
“I saw raw sewage in the streets, trash everywhere, stray dogs, stray kids. That was the most disturbing thing to me. To see little naked babies, literally babies, infants on their own.
“A lot of times, the parents can’t afford to have a kid. They need jobs, and they’re not going to pay for child care,” she explains. “If [the family is] homeless, they’re living on the streets, so their kids are living on the streets. It was very strange to me that the animals, the kids and everyone were on the same level.”
Ojibway is reluctant to paint a negative image, fearing it might prevent people from helping a population where a little help goes a long way. “I did see a lot of negative things. I saw some pretty scary things. And when I’ve told people about that, they ask, ‘Why would you ever go back?’ ” she says.
A career in serving others
SkillsUSA has helped with telling the whole story. Ojibway competed in 2010 and 2011 in the national Prepared Speech and Extemporaneous Speaking contests, respectively. With stronger communications skills as a result, she’s been able to spread the word about the plight of the Ugandan children.
Likewise, through competing in the championships, Ojibway says meeting many different people has really helped her in getting accustomed to different people and populations. It’s also piqued her interest in a wide variety of skills. “I now appreciate all of the jobs that are going on around me,” she adds.
Now a freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ojibway is majoring in social work. She hopes to work in the human services field, serving the impoverished.
That one decision to do something for Uganda’s children led to a crash course in what will likely become her life’s work.
“I’ve never had quite the same feeling as I’ve had being able to help these kids who are not getting any other visibility in the world. It’s a lot more obvious to see the changes that are made for these kids and how significant that is for them.”