How Ojok Okello is rebuilding the hometown he never knew

John Okot
·6 min read

Ojok Okello’s quest to build a city in his village began with a hut.

When he set foot in his father’s home village in northern Uganda for the first time in 2013, his plan was simple. He wanted to build a small mud brick house where he could spend time while getting to know his extended family in Okere.

At that point, Mr. Okello had spent most of his life with his mother, far from Okere. His father, a prominent civil servant, had been killed in 1986 in fighting between the government and a rebel group called the National Resistance Army. Mr. Okello was barely a year old, and his mother, who ran a small restaurant, raised him largely in Lira, a city 50 miles away.

But she always described Okere, an isolated town of about 4,000 people, as remote but deeply welcoming. And so years later, when the war ended, Mr. Okello decided to go back to the home he’d never known.

By that time, in his mid-20s, he’d seen northern Uganda’s postwar rebuilding from all sides. When he was a child, the World Food Program gave his mother tents and food rations so they could host people displaced by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, another rebel group, in their family compound. All around them, signboards seemed to sprout like weeds, advertising projects by international organizations to dig boreholes and build schools. Roads once patrolled by rebels filled with Land Cruisers emblazoned with the logos of U.N. agencies and international charities.

Then as an adult, he’d earned a master’s degree in rural development, where he found himself studying up on the very kinds of aid projects he’d once been surrounded by. International projects often flopped in places like northern Uganda, he’d begun to realize, because they saw locals as recipients, not collaborators.

So when he first arrived in Okere, a place of rutted dirt roads without a clinic or school of its own, he decided he wanted to help rebuild the place. But he was adamant that it had to be done differently.

The Okere project “is about community involvement,” he says. “In any [aid] project, people should not be left out of the equation.”

First steps

After that first visit in 2013, Mr. Okello spent several years bouncing between Uganda – where he worked for international NGOs like War Child UK and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – and England, where he earned a second master’s at the London School of Economics and worked as a consultant for Christian Aid. But the poverty of his dad’s village nagged at him.

So in 2018 he returned, and began asking locals what their most pressing challenges were. At the time, the nearest school was 2 1/2 miles away, and had few teachers or books. So Mr. Okello mustered his savings and in 2019 began building a small kindergarten on a plot of land his extended family had given him.

At first, many in Okere were skeptical. After all, Mr. Okello’s family was from the village, but he himself was an outsider. And from his studies, he too knew what happened when outsiders tried to impose their will on poor communities.

He’d studied, for instance, “integrated rural development,” a World Bank initiative from the 1970s that aimed to provide job opportunities and social services to the rural poor across the globe. But the project was taught as a cautionary tale, what happens when “the target population were excluded [from decision-making] and yet technocratic outsiders were busy making decisions about problems and their solutions,” Mr. Okello says.

And he’d seen similar dynamics at work in northern Uganda, from both international organizations and the country’s government in Kampala. In one case, he remembered, government agricultural advisers arrived with banana saplings for local farmers at the wrong time of year, when they couldn’t be planted. The saplings wilted, and Mr. Okello was left wondering: Why had no one asked local farmers what they really needed?

“We cannot transform a society if we don’t involve the people whose society we are transforming,” says Shilla Adyero, who runs an education NGO called Lutino Adunu in northern Uganda, and is originally from the region. “We have to give people the chance to say what they need to address their key challenges.”

What do you need?

When Mr. Okello began talking to residents, he realized that because of the war, most had never had a chance to go to school. They wanted their kids educated, they said, but they also wanted to learn to read and write themselves. So he began another program, for adult literacy.

From there, he says, he kept taking feedback from people in the village on what they needed. After three people, including an expectant mother, died due to malaria complications in a space of three months, Mr. Okello and his team decided to open a small clinic.

“In the past we used to trek long distances to get medical services, but that is no more,” says Govile Ogwang, who lives in a nearby village. Okere “is like a child at the moment, and we need to take care of it.”

This fall, after Okere residents said they needed a way to make money, Mr. Okello began to experiment with processing shea nuts, which residents – mostly women – collect and turn into butter for cooking and cosmetics. When local markets closed due to the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, he opened a small, subsidized market for staple goods and started a boxing club.

Mr. Okello began to collectively call his projects “Okere City,” because he imagined it becoming a hub for people in the surrounding region. “My idea of a city is somewhere with opportunities and people go there to get them,” he says.

Farmer Margaret Anyango’s two children are enrolled in Okere’s school. But she herself had never gone beyond grade three, until the adult literacy program opened up.

The project “has given me hope,” she says. “Now I am learning how to read and write because I have plans to study business in the future.”

The path ahead

But Okere City has run into some of the same challenges as other development projects in the region. It needs money. To date, almost all of the project has been funded by Mr. Okello’s savings. Last year, he estimates he spent about 200 million Ugandan shillings ($55,000) on the project.

He’s open to donor support, as long as donors are willing to back what the community says it needs – rather than impose their own agenda. And so far, he’s had some success. Last year, the shea butter project got a grant of $3,000 from an international organization called CivSource Africa, and a number of the local schoolchildren are sponsored by foreign donors.

But the question of funding remains a persistent and nagging one. Often, community-based projects lose momentum when they can’t get enough money to keep their projects going in the long term, says Perry Aritua, a Ugandan lawyer and human rights activist.

“People need to have ownership over their projects, but they also need funding,” she says.

For now, Mr. Okello says he plans to keep pitching in his own money until he has none left to give.

“I can say that New York [City] was built by someone. Okere will also be built,” he says. “The most important thing is that foundation has already been laid.”

Ryan Lenora Brown contributed reporting.

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