First World Problems
There’s nothing good to watch on TV.
I can’t decide what to order from the extensive menu at this restaurant.
I have too many clothes and not enough closet space.
The barista at my coffee shop spelled my name wrong on my cup.
My phone is too big to fit comfortably in my pocket.
Oh no… My phone battery is dying, and I forgot my charger.
I can’t find my favourite flavour of sparkling water at the grocery store.
Do these problems seem familiar to you? These are first-world problems, and I’m just as guilty of having them: I’ve been frustrated when my phone was dying, and I’d forgotten my power bank at an Ed Sheeran concert in Atlanta. And you’ve heard me complain about Starbucks getting my name wrong on an overcharged cup of tall Americano.
In this episode, we’re going to be dealing with other problems, like:
“Should we give our 13-year-old baby girl away to be married to an older man, or should we keep her here and risk that she will be abducted and turned into a sex slave.”
That’s the kinda stuff we’ll be dealing with in this episode, as Susan Laker will tell her life story.
It’s also a story that will be hard to listen to. It’s heart-breaking, and with so many graphic details, that will not be suitable for children. At the same time, I feel this might be the most important episode of The Radio Vagabond that I’ve done up until now.
My name is Palle Bo. Welcome back to the third and final part of my miniseries from the Acholi Quarter in Kampala, Uganda.
Have you heard part 1 & 2?
I hope you have had a chance to listen to the first two episodes from The Acholi Quarter in Uganda, where Susan Laker, a small but mighty woman in her late 30s, took us around. She’s the co-founder and leader of 22STARS Foundation’s work here, always helping children and families in need with a big smile.
Link to part 1 / Link to Part 2
But let me tell you, her journey wasn’t always a straight path. This tale is a wild one, full of crazy twists and turns. It could be a movie, maybe something like The Color Purple, set in Uganda.
Her parent gave her away to be married when she was just a child. She was angry at her parents when this happened and didn’t understand why.
“I was 13 years old when I was force into early marriage by my parents.”
Most of us would say that there is nothing that would justify that. But her parents had a good reason.
“By that time, I didn’t know the reason. I was just mad but later on, you realize they did that to protect me from being abducted from the LRA Rebels.”
The LRA Rebels, or “The Lord’s Resistance Army,” was a rebel group operated in Uganda and other Central African countries, started by Joseph Kony in 1987.
The LRA would typically attack villages at night, using guns, machetes, and other weapons. They would kill or maim those who resisted, burn down homes, and loot property. They would then abduct children.
They used to abduct children, even babies, from their mothers and were forced to march long distances to LRA bases deep in the bush. And were then subjected to brutal initiation rituals, during which they were beaten, sometimes with their peers, and forced to kill other children or adults.
The abducted children were then trained as soldiers and used to attack civilians, other rebel groups, and government forces, using guns, sticks, and pangas – large, heavy, machete-like knives. The LRA’s tactics of abducting children were particularly savage and brutal. The children were forced to serve as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves.
The group often targeted vulnerable communities, including schools and churches, and used violence and intimidation to abduct children. And then, the children were subjected to intense physical and psychological abuse.
They used violent initiation ceremonies to break the children’s spirits and force them to commit atrocities. The children were often forced to kill or maim their own families or fellow abductees to break their spirits and brainwash them into cutting ties to their former lives.
The LRA also used brutal methods of discipline to maintain control over the children. This included beatings, torture, and even execution.
Susan gave me examples of how brutal the methods were:
“They cut off your lips, they cut off your private parts – like the breasts. If not, they put the padlock. They tie your lips, and then some are beaten to death. Some they chop of their neck. They were killed. Those who tried to escape, they were stoned to death.”
In addition to their role as soldiers, the girls among the abducted children were often forced into sexual slavery and forced marriages.
“Some of them ended up giving birth and some of them ended up dying giving birth because they were so young. Some of them died because they were mistreated. Also, there was no in facility to take care of a pregnant woman, so some of them got sick and died because there was no medication.”
The children were also used as human shields in battles, which put their lives at even greater risk.
In 2012, a video campaign called “Kony 2012” from the organization Invisible Children went viral, bringing international attention to the LRA’s atrocities and Kony’s role in them. The campaign and its creator, Jason Russell, set out to make Kony famous, and they definitely succeeded in that.
Joseph Kony was born in 1961 in a village in northern Uganda. He grew up in a Catholic household and was initially drawn to religion but dropped out of school and joined the rebel group led by a distant relative, Alice Lakwena. She had claimed to have received messages from the Holy Spirit and was leading a rebellion against the Ugandan government.
When Lakwena’s rebellion failed, Kony formed his own group, the LRA, in 1987. And like Alice Lakwena, he also claimed to have a hotline to God. He said that he was a spiritual medium and that his commands came directly from the spiritual world and were not to be questioned.
Kony was known for his mysticism and claimed to have supernatural powers, including the ability to turn bullets into water and to communicate with spirits. He was also notorious for his brutality and didn’t just have his brainwashed followers do all of the dirty work. He’s believed to have personally participated in many of the LRA’s atrocities.
So, he was a self-appointed messiah and said his government was based on the Ten Commandments. But then he went on to break every one of them.
Still at large
In 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Kony and four of his top lieutenants for crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, he’s managed to hide, and still to this day – almost 20 years later, Kony’s whereabouts are unknown.
Although the LRA’s activities have declined significantly in recent years, the group remains active and has been responsible for sporadic attacks and abductions that continue to be reported in the region.
The LRA’s use of children for soldiers, waiters, and sex slaves has devastated the children who were abducted and their families. Many of the children who escaped or were rescued suffered from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Enough about the LRA and its creepy leader, Joseph Kony. I just wanted you to get a little bit of perspective on what Susan’s parents were trying to save her from when they gave her away for early marriage at the age of just 13.
PARENTS’ IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE
It’s just so hard to fathom. What a choice for parents to make.
“Should we keep our child here with the risk that the brutal LRA Rebels will take her and turn her into a sex slave – or maybe cut off her lips and private parts? Or stone her to death… And maybe brainwash her and she will come back here and kill us in our sleep.
Or should we give her away to be married to that older soldier, who will probably do what he likes and most likely get her pregnant soon, but then might also be able to keep her alive…?”
I have no idea if this was what Susan’s parents were thinking at the time. We can only speculate because this is so far away from anything most of us have even thought about having to consider.
Think about that before you get frustrated that there’s too much to choose from on a menu at a restaurant or that you have too many clothes and not enough closet space.
I met her son, Derek, just before I sat down with Susan to hear her story. And we’re not talking about a little boy. No, he’s a grown man. Taller than me and very handsome. I know that Susan only is in her late 30s, so I’m very surprised to find out that she could have a son in his mid 20’s.
“I ended up giving birth to my son at the age of 13 – the boy you just saw. And at the age of 14, I had a miscarriage, because it was so soon, and I was so young. And then at the age of 15, I gave birth to my second daughter, who is now 22.”
Let that sink in
At 13, she was sent off to marry an older man and had a baby within a year. Straight away, at the age of 14, she got pregnant again but had a miscarriage. And straight away again, she got pregnant for the third time and had her second child at 15, basically when she was a child herself.
I don’t know much about the father of her kids. Maybe he was a good man who felt it was his right because she was his wife, and he protected her. I don’t know more about him than what Susan just told me here. I was just about to ask her about that when she told me that he suddenly – and unexpectedly got sick and died.
“Then their father mysteriously fell sick for one week and passed on. I didn’t even know he was sick. I didn’t know what he suffered off anything.”
There she was, at 16, a widow with two children. So, she went home to her parents, who forced her to marry another soldier – for her safety.
And shortly after that, she had another baby. Three children and two husbands – still as a teenager.
THE SECOND HUSBAND DIES TOO
Susan’s new husband was sent to Somalia as a soldier and never returned. She never heard from him again, and Susan was getting increasingly frustrated and unable to feed herself and her children.
Not only was Susan frustrated and hungry. She was also suffering with her health and getting more and more weak. Then in the middle of all this, they were kicked out of the house they were in.
As things got increasingly hopeless, Susan’s sisters came to her aid. They helped her get on a bus here to Kampala. Susan barely made it to Kampala alive. She was unconscious when the bus arrived at Kampala with her and her three small children. Immediately she was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with HIV, cancer, and tuberculosis.
When Susan Laker defied all odds and she was able to fight herself back to consciousness and life for her children, she was just 23. She had a ten-year-old boy and two girls nine and four.
She managed to stay alive but was now faced with another problem. The children didn’t go to school, and Susan herself couldn’t read, write, or speak English. That meant that she couldn’t get a job making decent money to feed herself – and now also afford the expensive medicine for her tuberculosis, cancer, and HIV.
KIDS WORKING AT THE QUARRY
She was too weak to work, so she had no option but to have her children work for her. A ten-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a five-year-old crushing stones in the stone quarry from early in the morning every day.
As you heard in the latest episode, this is hard work and poorly paid.
On some days, the 10-year-old boy, Derek, was able to crush enough stones to make 1000 Ugandan Shillings, the 8-year-old girl, Peace, could 500 shillings, and the little 5-year-old girl around 200 shillings.
That’s 1700 shillings and not even half a dollar – 41 Euro cents and 48 American cents for a long day of hard work from early morning.
ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
Susan was on strong medication when all of this was happening, and that’s not something you should take on an empty stomach. So, the doctors gave her some food and milk to have before the medicine. And that helped. After nine months she was tuberculosis-free and ready for chemotherapy to fight off her Stage 2 cancer.
Another nine months later, she was declared cancer-free too.
She also got treated with medicine to keep the HIV virus suppressed, and after five years on medication, her CD4 counts showed that the virus was not detected anymore.
Of course, she still takes her HIV medicine every day, but she is fully recovered from all three deadly diseases.
And at this point, we’ve almost come full circle from where we started in the first episode. This was around the time when Susan met Stella for the first time in 2008.
Stella helped Susan, who went back to school and learned to read and write – and speak English with Stella when she came back a few years later. Together they founded 22STARS paper jewellery business and the 22STARS Foundation.
With a lot of willpower and a bit of luck meeting the Dutch/German woman Stella Romana when she did, she turned life around for herself and her children. And together, they continue to do the same for many more people in the community.
Again, go to Foundation22Stars.org to see the different ways of supporting.
If you want to get involved with the good work 22STARS Foundation is doing, helping families in Uganda, go to www.foundation22stars.org and see what you can do. You can sponsor a child or support emergency needs by simply making a donation to one of the different programs, such as nutrition, microloans, computer lessons, music classes, or medicine.
Thank you to Susan Laker for sharing her inspiring story.
My name is Palle Bo, and I gotta keep moving. See you.
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