SVS seminarian carries scholarship aid to "Pearl of Africa's Crown"
British statesman Winston Churchill once referred to Uganda as "the Pearl of Africa's Crown," with its equatorial snow-capped mountains, breathtaking waterfalls originating from the headwaters of the Nile at Lake Victoria, and over 3,400 species of birds and magnificent mountain gorillas. Today, Uganda secures Churchill's epithet by offering tourists white water rafting through turbulent rivers and exotic treks around shimmering lakes, creating an almost mythic lost kingdom for visitors.
But 3rd-year St. Vladimir's seminarian Troy Hamilton saw another, more circumspect view of the country when he visited the northern region around the small town of Gulu over his winter semester break, January 1-12, 2009. Snubbing the superlative camping spots and spectacular national parks, he saw people. People recovering from a civil war that had decimated villages and forced their resettlement in United Nations refugee camps where they lingered for decades. People without ambition. People reluctant to rebuild their hometowns after their kinfolk and children had been beaten, raped, maimed, forced to march to exhaustion, or sold into virtual slavery as concubines and soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Northern Uganda, the region Troy visited, had been destabilized in the 1990s when the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, had flowed over the Sudanese border. LRA soldiers hooked up with the Army for Liberation of Rwanda (ALIP) and other rebel groups battling with forces from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). Victims of their civil warfare included the Acholi tribe, then residents of the Gulu and Kitgum districts, the region in which Troy decided to spend his hiatus between seminary semesters.
More than 6,000 children in that region had been abducted during the civil war, and most human rights NGOs estimate that 3,000 are still held captive by the LRA. More than one-half-million people in Uganda's Gulu and Kitgum districts have been displaced by the fighting and are living in temporary camps. These are the people that Troy saw. More precisely, these are the Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters that he saw, for many residents in the Gulu region have embraced Orthodoxy during the past 50 years.
But, he saw something else...opportunity-specifically, opportunity for education and enterprise. "The Ugandans have almost a ‘mythic' faith in education," he noted, "and I wanted to help provide them with the means to obtain that."
So, prior to leaving on his African journey, Troy solicited the seminary community, along with the people at his parish assignment, Holy Trinity Church in East Meadow, Long Island, for books, clothing, and cash. As he crossed the Atlantic to another continent, he pondered how he would distribute the generous US Dollars to the two Orthodox Christian communities that would welcome him, or rather welcome him back, for this January 2009 trip would be Troy's second journey to Africa within a year's span.
In June 2008, under the auspices of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), Troy had participated in a short-term mission team that took him to Kampala and the Gula region of Uganda, located just about 60 miles south of Sudan. He assumed that he would spend much of his trip teaching, but instead found himself working for hours on end with the medical personnel on the team, distributing medication to villagers-especially cocktails to treat HIV/AIDS.
Having served in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, as a chaplain's assistant and paratrooper (1996-2000), Troy also began to relate to the Ugandan people's experience of war and terror. "I had three ‘theological' talks prepared for that missionary journey," he said, " ‘The Lord's Prayer,' ‘The Jesus Prayer,' and ‘The Church's Response to War'. We connected on that last talk.
"I presented the idea that a nation should support its soldiers and that there were causes worth fighting and dying for-like when rebels are raping and kidnapping your children. But, I also spoke about prayer for and forgiveness of one's enemies," he said, "and that's what caught their attention."
Troy said that an estimated 90% of the children in the region of Gulu had incurred Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, having survived the nightmare of being kidnapped, raped, or enslaved, or having watched their parents and relatives disappear. "It was tough to watch them," he recalled, "and forgiveness was a topic that absorbed them."
In reflecting on what effect that first trip had on him, Troy said, "everything was an eye-opener," and he expressed his interest in returning again to Uganda soon, better prepared to help the villagers. So this fall, he determined to go back to the Gulu region. On his second trip, he visited two churches under the leadership of Fr. George Lakony, one in the Akonyibedo village, about a 20-minute motorcycle ride north of Gulu; and St. Basil's Church, much closer to the town proper.
"Both churches measurably contrast in some structural ways, but both communities are very generous and kind," noted Troy. "St. Basil's parish had walls, and the children-toddlers-were disciplined to ‘stick around' for their baptismal ceremonies. But the village church is an open-air structure, and the kids would wander off during the service to play under a tree or just to walk around, as small children are apt to do."
"I returned to Uganda on my winter break," Troy said simply, "this time by myself, without the umbrella of OCMC, because I had told the people there that I would. My goal was to be an observer of their needs, not to interfere with or to interrupt their lives, and certainly not to export ‘Western Orthodoxy' to them. Basically, I just wanted to see how they were doing."
Sitting in that Kampalan coffee shop, and avidly reading the economic section of the local Daily Monitor, Troy began to expand his vision. He hit upon the notion of micro financing: employing community trusts that would partner with local banks to distribute loans to willing entrepreneurs.
"Basically, a teenager would come to the local village Youth Council and present his or her business plan," he said. "If the plan were feasible, the council would then approve a loan taken from the seed money kept at a local bank.
"People in an around Gulu need seed money for on-going enterprise," he continued. "During my stay, high school and college students had already used the seed ‘scholarship' money I had given them to buy pigs, goats, boiler chickens, and seeds to plant in the coming rainy season. By breeding the animals, and producing cash crops, they will be able to fund their own education through high school and college...and, maybe, just maybe, even come to St. Vladimir's Seminary some day."
Troy is determined to raise further seed money that will fund what he says amounts to "a big 4-H project" in the Gulu region. In so doing, he will instill hope in his newly found Orthodox brothers and sisters-a priceless gift for the people living in the Pearl of African's Crown.