By Hope Mafaranga
As you enter Kyangwali refugee’s settlement Camp in Hoima district, a big signpost bearing the picture of Luciano Agago promoting male circumcision ushers you into the camp.
How she ended up in Kyangwali
Agago was living with her family and was a happy child like any other. She grew up in a cattle keeping family.
To her, life was about taking milk and enjoying her parent’s love. However in 1997, together with her family they flew their home village in Lobira in Eastern Equatorial in South Sudan, during the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) insurgency at the age of six.
The second born of four children, Agago remembers the day as if it just happened yesterday. Narrating how they were tortured and the suffering that led them to Uganda is a moving story altogether.
“We ran away when the Garang’s war spoke out. I was six years old then. We walked long distance and ended up in Acholi Pii camp in Kitgum district the current Pader now.
I never imagined this was the time to become fatherless and homeless. My father was killed by SPLA’S rebels and all our cattle of about 500 herds were robbed.
During this long walk, my youngest sister who was used of drinking milk could not bear the torture and she died.
None of us had the time to bury our father and sister. Their bodies were left to be eaten by birds. This is one of the of the saddest memories in my life and whenever I see people’s graves is, I wish, I could also see my father and sister’s grave. It hurts me so much and after 18 years, I am still coming to terms with that reality.
Mother disappears too
We settled there up to 2002, when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Kony intensified in northern Uganda. We had no choice but to run for our safety.
This is the time our mother and another brother disappeared. I stuck to my uncle’s family up to now.
At that time I was in primary four we footed through Lira to Kiryandongo settlement camp.
At that camp we stayed there for two days and we were relocated to Kyangwali where I call home now.
She went to Agago primary school in Kitgum up to P.4 then Rwenyayarwa primary school where she completed her primary school education.
Agago attained 17 aggregates which earned her a scholarship to the only secondly school in the refugee camp Kyangwali SS.
As she was completing her S.4, her uncle got an accident and he could not feed the family anymore. As if that was not bad enough, her aunt also developed a spinal code problem and right now she is in a wheel chair.
“ I persisted and finished senior four but could not continue as I had to support my family to survive in the camp. You know after three years, the Office of the Prime minister allocates land to refugees so that they can cultivate their food,” she said.
Despite her young age, Agago has actively promoted self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods and enhanced her own and her family’s livelihood by a variety of means.
After her senior four, she knew she had to support her family. She started to do business by selling sugarcane with a starting capital of sh 500.
“ I bought sugarcane at sh500 and cut small pieces . I made a profit of sh2, 500. This was a good start. I saved slowly until I accumulated sh 12,000 and I started going to Lake Albert to buy mukene (silver fish.
The first basin of mukene I made sh25,000. I paid an extra attention to other traders how they were measuring their mukene and I learnt a trick that the cups they were using to measure were small than what I had.
I also changed my tactics. The third basin I made sh 60,000. I never looked back,” she said.
Getting into hotel business
At one time a friend of her aunt identified as Mary Atelo approached her aunt and requested that Agago should come and work in her restaurant so that she is saved from the hassle of going to the lake to look for Mukene and she allowed.
“ I used to work in Mary’s restaurant for free for three weeks in a month and the fourth week, I would still go to the lake to get mukene,” she said.
From Mary’s restaurant, she gained experience and started nursing her ambitions of owing one.
One day she was invited to attend a workshop in Hoima by one of the NGO that works in the camp she was given sh 300,000 as per diem, she saved the money and again after a month she was again invited to Fort portal where she attended training and out of others were shopping for clothes, Agago was looking at attaining her dream of becoming a restaurant owner.
The sh 500,000 was an engine to kick start her hotel business. She now manages her own restaurant, which employs four single mothers.
She is now also in farming to ensure food security and a steady income to sustain her family. She rears pigs and she has 12 with a hope of increasing her piggery project and also gives the piglet to other young girls in the camp to sustain themselves.
Agago was scared that after a while, the OPM and other NGO will stop giving refugee aid and food and this pushed her to work to ensure she puts food on the table.
“The fear of sleeping on an empty stomach and seeing my uncle drop out of school pushed me to think out of the box,” she said.
On top of her businesses, Agago has done remarkable work for her community. She has started a Rebeneteko community group and served as the women representative of refugee welfare council.
The group save money for development and own two oxen which they use to dig for orphaned children who lost their parents during wars and HIV.
She is also a Village Health Team member for Kasonga and offers free counseling services to other members of her community.
“People come to me after having fights at home or wanting to gain business advice. Many have seen my business grow and using it as an example have decided to start their own businesses,” she says.
About ten years ago Agago’s uncle and aunt fell sick and since then Luciano has been responsible for supporting the family financially.
She has managed to send her sisters and cousins study outside the refugee settlement and pay for all of her mother’s medical bills.
“ I spend about sh 2.5m per term on school fees and saving sh 1m per month is a miracle. I also gained people trust I was elected to represent refugees and this is not a mean a achievement,” she said.
Advice to other women
“ I want to encourage others to follow my example. Women need to be encouraged and stop feeling petty in their currently situation but look at challenges as opportunities,” she said.
Agago was in Monday 20, 2016 was awarded Refugee Woman of the Year in Uganda. The selection is made in co-operation with the Finnish Refugee Council (FRC), UNCHR and Office of the Prime Minister.
The awards is aimed at increasing awareness of refugee issues and encourage refugee women to go forward and promote positive images of skilled and resourceful women in Uganda.
The winner will be awarded sh 3m of which sh 1m goes to the winner and sh 2m go to a community project of her choice. She is the fifth women to be awarded.
Agago freezes whenever the thought of repatriating them crosses her mind. “ I have grown up from here and I call Uganda home. Sometimes, refuges are sent back to their original countries when peace returns. I cannt imagine going back to Southern Sudan to homeless land with no relatives,” she says.
Agago dream the day she will see refugee women empowered and are able to depend on themselves. “ You are not sure when the food will be delivered. We live a life of probability and not sure of your welfare of tomorrow. But if women are empowered all these worries will be no more and it will reduce on donor dependence and give a chance to the new entries a chance to have a meaning resettlement,” she said.
She also wants to go back to school to attain higher education and expand her business. “If I had a degree, I would one of the country directors of some of these NGOs,” she said.
Tarja Saarela-Kaonga, resident representative in Uganda, The Finnish Refugee Council said Agago was awarded for promoting self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods.
According to Tarja, Uganda has currently 538,252 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, adding that women constitute the biggest number.
“About 35,000 of these are asylum seekers, leaving about 503,000 refugees and of these, 51% are women. The purpose of selecting the Refugee Woman of the Year is to raise awareness on refugee women’s issues and bring forward a positive and progressive example of a refugee woman, who is an inspiration to other women,” she said.
Who is eligible for the award?
Tarja said the selection committee looks at exemplary and inspirational refugee woman in general, who have been active in promoting self-reliance and practicing sustainable livelihood.
“We were looking for a refugee woman who has enhanced her own livelihood by for example skills training, self-employment and small business development and supported the livelihoods of other refugees in her community in economically, socially and ecologically sustainable manner,” she explains..
She said one to qualify must be registered as a refugee in Uganda and have a ration card number or registered under her head of household.
Felister Hisita: I had given up on life but Agago gave me a reason to live and start life all over again.
Micheal Odele: she is an extra ordinary human being with a golden heart, a listening ear and her hands never get tired of helping others.
Redina Kabasumba a community worker: Agago is a mult-tasking person. I was once shocked seeing her fixing boreholes for the community and she never misses meetings
Elder Akello: I was focusing on living on aid but Agago approached me and advised me to join a group so that I can save for my family. I will be forever grateful for her advice.