For over 40 years I have dedicated my career to nonprofits dealing with life and death issues, extreme poverty, lack of clean water, lack of health services or education. I have traveled throughout Latin America and to East Africa meeting many women whose struggles truly touched my heart and made me grateful for my blessing and then I would return to my life.
And then I met a woman named Jolly (pronounced Jo-lee) and I would never think of life exactly the same way. I would think of her often, long after she returned home to her native Uganda and I would wonder how she became so strong. I often wonder how she continues to stand for what is right after all that she has endured. Before too long I realized that when I now hear the words “strong woman”…it is Jolly Okot-Andruville’s face that I see.
Jolly is an Acholi from Northern Uganda where she grew up with the now infamous Joseph Kony, never imagining what he would one day became and the horrors she would face. In 1986, as a teenager, while walking the 10 miles home from her school, Jolly was abducted by a group of rebels as bullets danced around her. The rebel group would later be known as the LRA –the Lord’s Resistance Army. Held captive for the next two years she was forced to fight, forced to steal and was repeatedly raped by the commanders but Jolly did not give up, determined to go back home to her family.
Finally, two long-painful years later, she managed to escape but she would pay a heavy price. Jolly returned home to learn that her beloved father was now being held and was soon to be shot to death. Using the training that she was forced to learn while captive, she lead a nighttime raid and successfully freed her father. The LRA retaliated by killing her Uncle and returning to her village a year late murdering 21 of her cousins.
Later, offered a life of freedom in the United States, unbelievably…Jolly declined. This brave young woman felt that she had been blessed to return to her family and now felt it was her responsibility to help the other child soldiers regain what they could of their lives.
Jolly created WENDAfrica, an NGO that provides work for former child soldiers of the LRA. The women create beautiful bags using traditional African fabric and designs and for the women the bags represent the hope that she is providing.
Ambassador for Invisible Children, volunteer for Oxfam, InterAid and many more and nominee in 2005 for the Noble Peace Prize…she has now become known as “Mama Jolly” the young woman still standing strong, standing for those who are unable to speak for themselves, to me Jolly Okot-Andruville will forever stand out in my mind as the symbol of strong woman. I will always think of her strength when I feel mine is becoming weak. We all need inspiration in our lives and for me I can always think of her and feel inspired.
If you would like to support Jolly and her work please visit WENDAfrica and carry a bag that will remind you every day of the children that survived to be strong women. You in return, will be providing a glimmer of hope for today.