December 28, 2011
In August Natalie Committee of Wheeling, W.Va., received an MBA degree. Now she is living in a mud and thatch hut in Uganda.
As she was preparing to leave school, she knew it was not to find a job in the business world. In fact, she was preparing to chase chickens for supper, carry water on her head from the "borehole," and fight ants invading her hut. She would also be helping to bring comfort, education and hope to some of the world's most abused children.
Committee is a volunteer with ChildVoice International in northern Uganda, where the people have suffered under the likes of Idi Amin, the country's former leader who is reputed to have caused the deaths of 300,000 people and devastation of the national economy. And then there is the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony. The group is infamous for massacre, cutting off the lips of survivors and kidnapping children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.
ChildVoice is a Christian organization in Lukome, just north of Gulu, where in 2004 the LRA massacred 65 men and women and abducted a number of children. The LRA remains active in northern Uganda, Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The group is reported to have abducted thousands of adults and children, whom they kill or force to become porters and soldiers. In some cases, news reports state, girls as young as nine years old have been turned into sex slaves. Wherever they go, the LRA leaves a path of murder and devastation.
Uganda, obviously, is a long way from the classrooms of the College of Business and Economics. "As my MBA classmates were preparing for jobs in the corporate world, I was heading to Africa to live in a mud hut and try and help people I didn't even know. Forget making money, I was paying money to do it. Not the best financial move, I admit, but I honestly would not have it any other way," Committee said.
During her last semester in the MBA program, Committee read a newspaper article about Dr. Presha Neidermeyer's book on how volunteers are helping people in Africa who have been affected by the HIV-AIDS epidemic. She immediately contacted the accounting professor, who last year led B&E students to Africa.
"Her book spoke to me," Committee recalls. "I felt that God was telling me 'I gave you the skills you have for a reason.'" Neidermeyer told her about several possibilities for serving in Africa, and soon Committee found herself packing for East Africa.
She is using her MBA knowledge to help young women who were once LRA slaves to start and grow small businesses. That's no insignificant task, given the lack of capital, skills, education and other drawbacks, not the least of which is working with young women who have spent much of their lives in the bush as slaves and child wives to murderers.
During one of her early business development course sessions with the women, she wanted to inspire them with a story of how businesses can grow. She told them of how Bill Gates had grown his business from a garage start-up. "I was met with confused looks, and the translator informed me that they did not know what I meant by "computers," nor did they have a word in Lwo (the local language) for 'garage,'" she recalled.
Still, there is a marketplace for baked goods, clothing, agricultural products and beauty salons, and, with some business skills, these women and their basic businesses can flourish and grow.
"I think there is a way to combine smart business practices with charity in ways that will improve the welfare of society and still create a profit," Committee said. "You can see these ideas emerging in the form of terms like 'social entrepreneurship' and 'compassionate capitalism.' Whatever you want to call it, I think there is a new movement in the direction of business with a heart. I'm not sure how yet, but I want to be a part of that work. I hope to gain experience from my time in Africa and to leave here with a clearer understanding of how to bridge the gap between these two worlds."
Community service isn't new to Committee. She has helped at a soup kitchen since middle school and remembers being disappointed at what she saw. "I was upset to see the way the homeless and low-income people were marginalized in our society," she said. "After all, they were some of my best life teachers. Just because someone doesn't have a big house or a fancy degree doesn't mean they don't know a thing or two about life."
These loans are as small as $50 and as large as $200, and must be repaid with interest. They are similar to loans Dr. Neidermeyer's students began establishing in other parts of Africa last summer. She got past the Bill Gates incident and the language and cultural barriers after a bit and has had some success. Recently she had the young women talk about their goals, dreams and business ideas. She also is teaching them about managing their money and families. "They had so many questions. At the end of class they were able to explain everything they had learned, and it was exactly what I was hoping to get across. I've already learned since the first class the points that I need to alter to make them more easily understood." Committee has arranged days for the women to "shadow" local businesses to learn about how they operate. Also, she is showing them how to create a business plan and form savings groups. "Right now we are looking for investors both locally and in the United States so that the girls can have loans to go toward the start-up costs of their businesses. I am constantly praying that I say the right things to get through to them, but I am optimistic that it will be successful."
In order to encourage the proper repayment of loans, methods of positive reinforcement are used. "While many people experience material poverty, ChildVoice girls also experience a different kind of poverty—poverty of being," Committee said. "Despite having bright ideas, they often lack the self-confidence to pursue opportunities. They are fearful of change because change could potentially make their situation worse, so instead, they remain in their current situation of material poverty, too paralyzed to do anything about it. Therefore, it is both poverty of being and material poverty that ChildVoice seeks to address in the business development courses and to reinforce in the post-residential phase loan program."
Committee's hut has electricity for about three hours each day, generated by solar panels. She draws water from a "bore-hole" and most of her food comes from the ChildVoice farm, including chickens she has to chase down for supper. When there is a storm, her hut's thatch roof isn't much protection from the rain.
And sometimes she's afraid. Recently, in the middle of the night, Committee heard military chants and the pounding of drums approaching. She thought, could it be the LRA? She discovered that it had been a funeral procession for a chief of the village to the south. "We all believe the organization will continue to stay on top of things. ChildVoice gets daily updates on the LRA's whereabouts and would not allow anyone to stay if they were anywhere close, and that brings me comfort. We may be evacuating in February as a precautionary measure for the elections, but day to day I feel very safe and do not fear anything."
The evacuation is planned for the run-up to elections on February 18, which could potentially escalate the conflict between Kony's teenage soldiers and the Ugandan army, loyal to Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who, in his fourth term, has been president since 1986.
Regarding the danger of living in an area where thousands have been murdered, Committee wrote in her blog: "Some people think this is crazy, I know. 'Why put your life at risk?' some people would ask. Others may not say it, but they might think, 'You're just asking for it.' Still others might even like to do these types of things, but they are just too scared of the possible consequences. They think it's better to just play it safe. You know what I think though? Life is too short to 'play it safe.' I don't think God wants us to just have comfortable, mediocre lives."
She is in the process of writing a book about the ChildVoice women and how the program has helped. She will tell the story of Grace, for one, who was abducted and forced to be a child soldier. "She was basically the worst, most dangerous one at the center," Committee said. "She had been treated in brutal ways that I don't care to describe, and she developed the mind of a killer. She was threatened to kill or be killed."
Grace was rescued from the bush but was unable to function in normal society. She tried to go to school but had thoughts of killing the other students. She got married, but burned down the hut of one of the co-wives (she was one of three) and devised a plan to kill her as well. So she ran away, and she ended up at ChildVoice.
At ChildVoice, Grace had to be separated from the children at the center because she wanted to kill them. She fought everyone and almost got kicked out of the center many times. "It was no easy task, but God somehow won Grace over. By the time she left ChildVoice, she was a different person. She was kind and loving, and she was one of the most faith-filled girls of the group, telling everyone of how God changed her life," she said.
Grace is perhaps an extreme example, but most of the young women at ChildVoice have had experiences much like hers. Committee said that it is easy to forget what they have endured because the women don't talk about their experiences, perhaps simply to avoid reliving them.
"They smile and greet you, they laugh with one another and joke like teenage girls do," she said. "But every now and then in the early mornings or the evenings, I will see some of the girls sitting on the veranda, with disturbed looks on their faces that indicate deep, dark thoughts that they can't escape from. When they first come to the program, they often experienced nightmares and demonic attacks."
And there's the physical evidence: scars, gunshot wounds, stab and burn marks. One of the young women was shot six times. Other girls were cut repeatedly as a form of torture. Some scars are obvious, on their necks or faces. "When I see these, for a moment it reminds me of their dark pasts. Of course they are all child mothers as well, many as a result of rape. When they come to the center, they are taught parenting skills, and how to love the kids. They need to be reminded that it is not their fault or the child's fault, and they don't deserve to be punished."
Committee will be in Uganda until July. After that, she hopes to find a career in social entrepreneurship, where she can continue to use her business skills to help in areas where human want and suffering are significant. "Most people want to simply throw money at a problem, but this almost never works," she said. "Others are willing to give their time, but simply spending time with someone is not going to help them either. You need the combination of time and money to really help people in the long-run, to impact their futures. I'm glad I got my MBA so that I can help share the business knowledge I've gained with others. I hope that by providing them with this knowledge, they will have the opportunity to create a better future for themselves and their children."
Already, her experience in Africa has changed her perspective. "The very worst day of my life can't compare to what these girls have seen. I don't think I'll ever be able to completely detach myself from these girls, and I don't want to."