GULU, Uganda—Eight months ago, in the dirt courtyard of a children's shelter in this East African market town, I met a remarkable little boy named Dennis Ojok.
Dennis was 12. Three years earlier, he'd been kidnapped from his grandmother's home by the Lord's Resistance Army, a cultlike rebel group that's ransacked northern Uganda for 20 years and forced thousands of children into captivity.
By the time Dennis escaped, his grandmother was believed dead. His parents had passed away long before. He became a street child, hunting for menial work in the streets of Gulu, hoping each day to earn enough pennies to eat.
His struggles epitomized those faced by hundreds of thousands of orphans of war in Africa, and in March, I wrote a story about him. In the weeks that followed, dozens of readers wrote to ask how they could help him. A few even inquired about adopting him, including one newspaper publisher's wife.
In recent days, the plight of Africa's orphans has become international news, thanks to Madonna's controversial adoption of a 13-month-old boy from Malawi. But there are 48 million orphans in Africa, according to the United Nations, and most have only themselves to depend on. What can be done?
Faced with a story like Dennis', you want to help. So before we left Gulu, my traveling partner, Africa-based photographer Evelyn Hockstein, and I made a decision: We'd provide the money that would put Dennis in school.
As journalists, we're not supposed to give money to people we interview or become personally involved in the stories we cover. But after spending the better part of a weekend with Dennis, following him to market stalls, movie houses, butcheries and fruit stands in a nearly futile search for work, we'd grown attached to him.
We marveled at his persistence. Here was a boy who, with a little help, might overcome his sorry fate.
So we broke the rules. We left $20 with our translator, Austin, who'd agreed to enroll Dennis in school and buy him books and a school uniform.
The money covered only a year's tuition, but it was a start. Over the spring and summer, I called Austin occasionally to check on the boy's progress. He was exceeding expectations. In September's exams, he finished fourth out of 135 fourth-graders, with particularly good scores in English.
Earlier this month, I returned to northern Uganda on assignment. Austin called me to his house, where I met Dennis. He looked maybe an inch taller and now had a dusting of hair on his head, but although he greeted me with a hug, he was visibly upset.
For the past two months, Austin explained, Dennis had been living with two people whom he believed to be relatives, first with an uncle and now with an aunt. On the morning of the day I returned, the aunt had said she was tired of looking after him and was sending him back to his uncle.
The prospect of moving seemed to weigh on Dennis. The uncle lived farther away from school, and because he was unemployed—like most men in northern Uganda—there was less to eat.
Dennis didn't appear to have been mistreated, but his situation was precarious. If his uncle decided he didn't want him either, Dennis would be back on the streets, his promising school career interrupted again. It suddenly became clear that Evelyn and I, two Americans living 400 miles away in Kenya, had become the surest thing in this boy's life.
We might have meant our few dollars as a onetime gift, but to Dennis they represented hope. We couldn't just take that away or lose interest. In northern Uganda, where the 20-year war has wrought such devastation, our small investment would need to be backed up. We'd have to call regularly to check on him and visit when possible.
Even then, forces much stronger and closer to Dennis could destroy his chances instantly.
His guardians could let him down. Northern Uganda could suffer another spasm of violence. Austin, a couple of years shy of his university degree, could leave Gulu, and we'd be hard-pressed to find another trustworthy surrogate. In a few years, we ourselves might return to the United States or move to another part of the world.
If any of that were to happen, our ties to Dennis probably would be cut. He'd have a little more schooling under his belt, but he'd still be in trouble.
We had to ask ourselves: Had we been right to become involved? Had we set him up for an inevitable fall?
Aid workers in Africa grapple with this all the time. Beatrice Spadacini, a friend who's a communications officer for the charity organization Care International, says that on a human level it's hard not to be moved by stories like Dennis'.
But she says it's often better to funnel contributions through aid agencies, which have established structures and a constant presence on the ground. Their programs work to repair the whole of a broken society—schools, families, health care, respect for the law.
Perhaps we'd have been better off giving money to one of the many excellent nonprofit groups in Gulu. There are countless needy children, and their problems go beyond a lack of schooling.
But Dennis was right there in front of us, and we were in a position to help.
So far, I think we have. For eight months, Dennis has been in a classroom, not on the street. He's worked hard, more than keeping his end of the deal.
All we can do is keep ours.
SOME GROUPS THAT ASSIST CHILDREN IN UGANDA:
World Vision, a Christian charity organization based in California, does relief work around the world. It has counseled and housed nearly 15,000 former child soldiers at a rehab center Gulu, Uganda. For information on sponsoring a child, go to its Web site at www.worldvision.org. To read and sign an online petition urging greater U.S. involvement in ending the war in northern Uganda, go to www.worldvision.org/nochildsoldiers.
uNight (www.unight.org) organizes "Gulu Walks" around the world to show support for the abandoned children of northern Uganda. The next walks will be held Saturday, Oct. 21, in more than 40 U.S. cities. To learn more, or find a walk near you, go to http://guluwalk.com/findawalk/.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, supports the children of northern Uganda through various initiatives. The UNICEF Uganda office doesn't take inquiries directly, but readers can visit the UNICEF headquarters Web site at www.unicef.org for more information about its programs.
The charity group Care USA is engaged in several projects in northern Uganda, including emergency relief and fighting violence against women. For more information go to www.care.org.
Bengali's original story, which moved in March, can be found at http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/world/15789785.htm
(Shashank Bengali, the Africa correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, is based in Nairobi, Kenya. His original story, can be found at http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/world/15789785.htm)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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