With a smile that seemed as if it could brighten any room, Ugandan peace activist Sam Okello Kelo kicked off a month long visit to Kelowna elementary schools at Glenmore Elementary this week, joined by a group of Glenmore students who danced, drummed and sang with the inspirational former child soldier.
Okello, 44, will tour every elementary school in Kelowna, singing and dancing and telling his inspirational story to the youngest children in School District 23, preaching a message of love, of one world together.
“One of the messages I want to share with the children is that we are one world and the world has so many opportunities that we should benefit by sharing the different cultures that exist around the world to better the human race,” said Okello this week. “We need to instill good values in our children. It’s important that we protect them by instilling the right values in them.”
Now in his mid-fourties and the executive director of an organization called Hope North Uganda, Okello tours the world talking about his experiences growing up in Uganda, using his own example to prove that no matter what life throws at you, there is something better down the road. At the age of 16, Okello was abducted by Ugandan rebels and turned into a child soldier for a year-and-a-half before he escaped and used his experience to start working on improving the world.
“I am inspired buy the fact that human life is supposed to be better,” he said. “You have hiccups in life. I got abducted, fine. But there is something better for me in life so I want to share that same principle with everybody everywhere I go. that when something is wrong we need to address it and when we address wrong things we address it with the key principle of saying ‘I want something better and something good.’ The message I take around the world is that victims of challenges and difficult situations should not just sit there but come out and tell people this is what I went through. It can be changed and everyone is a part of it.”
At Glenmore Elementary this week, a group of Grade 6 students joined Okello in a traditional Ugandan dance, a routine they learned when they first met Okello last year on a trip to Kelowna and perfected this year with Okello on the drum and the students looking every bit the part, dancing along to the beat.
The students were beaming after the performance, in front of a small group of teachers and parents, and were even brought out for an encore as those in attendance grabbed their cameras to record the moment.
Student Tanner Milligan says it has been an amazing experience to get to know Okello and learn from him.
“He’s pretty awesome,” said Milligan. “He’s smiling all the time and we’re always having fun with him. I think we can learn a lot from him about values and about how much we have and how little people in his country have.”
For Okello, the use of dancing and music is key to his message of peace. He brings his audience together in song, getting them to sing along and together.
He says the reaction of the children he speaks to around the world is the same whereever he goes.
“They get very excited and say ‘where have you been?'” he said with his trademark smile. ” I come with the music and dancing and you see the joy. The same joy I see in the eyes of the children here is the same joy I see in the eyes of the children I work with at home. They always want to experience it. They want to be part of something good and music opens up up the children. I see a lot of excitement and a lot of curiosity.”
You can learn more about Sam Okello Kelo’s Hope North Uganda organization at hopenorth.org.
For the past half-dozen years, staff and students at Glenmore Elementary, along with other schools in the Central Okanagan and their families, have been rescuing used books that were destined for the Glenmore landfill and shipping them to Uganda.
With the help of a Kelowna-based organization called Niteo Africa, over 100 tons of books have made their way from Kelowna to help establish six literacy centres in Uganda. And more literacy centres are in the works thanks to donations by Niteo Africa.
And while the books may not have been of use in Kelowna, they are desperately needed in schools in Uganda, some of which may have less than 100 books for as many as 3,000 students.
Education and reading, along with music, dance and love, are key parts of the message that Ugandan peace activist Sam Okello Kelo brings to Kelowna.
“I think a lot of the problems of the world can be solved by simply reading because then people will start to solve the world’s problems not by emotions but by information,” said Okello, whose wife Marian is a school teacher in Uganda. “We want to educate the children of the world so that they make decisions not based on biases but based on facts. I think education is a very key component in solving a lot of the world’s problems.”
“Some late teens have never held a book in their hands,” added Marian. ” When it comes to teaching literature in class, the teacher just reads to the students and they listen.”
The connection between the Kelowna-based Niteo-Africa organization, Sam Okello Kelo and Kelowna students came together because of the shipping of books to Uganda and has sparked a larger movement within the Central Okanagan School District.
Glenmore teacher Rhonda Draper began what’s called the Month of Love seven years ago. It’s a one month challenge for her students to give up something that they can do without in support of parts of the world that have less than we do as a way to help raise money, awareness and books.
Draper had the idea after her own trip with her family to Uganda.
“The level of need I saw in the neighborhoods we visited really shook me to my core,” she said. “I was feeling very overwhelmed and I thought there was just too much to be done. But this little voice inside of me said ‘you can’t solve everything but you can give up something.’ And when you all do it together you can pool your resources. Here’s our little elementary school that has helped to contribute to literacy around the world.”
For more information on the different organizations involved in Sam Okello Kelo’s trip to Kelowna, go online to niteoafrica.org or monthoflove.ca or e-mail Rhonda Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.