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Esther Akello is the vice chairman of New Life in Africa in Kireka, who appears in the video on the community's current crowdfunding campaign for a
She speaks Luo instead of English in the video, which makes it hard for most viewers to hear the deep passion behind Esther's words. As someone who has known Esther and witnessed her impact in her community over the past 8 years, it's passionately important to me to share what an incredible role model Esther has been for me. She is one of the wisest, most energetic and genuinely caring women I've ever known, and is one of the people on this planet who's taught me the most about co-creative leadership and the value of co-creative approaches to community development.
In one of several interviews with Esther during research I've been doing for a book, she told me she married late by her culture's standards, to a man she is still crazy about. When she was 30 and had just had her first child, she was working on a dream to become a tailor. She was living at her new husband's family compound, the vegetables she grew on her fields were fetching a good price, and she'd enrolled in a tailoring course with some of her savings. The obvious glitch was that Kitgum was becoming a dangerous place to live. The news of Lord's Resistance Army attacks on villages all over the district was alarming, and the number of children kidnapped to be soldiers was increasing. Rumor had it they were on a ruthless killing spree because Joseph Kony was angry with his own people (for some still unknown reason), so was punishing them. Esther's husband left to the capital - following one of his brothers who was already there - to arrange a safer place for the family to stay.
While he was away, Esther went for a short visit to her own family, which was when the worst happened. She watched one of her sisters, three brothers and most of her nieces and nephews get slaughtered before she managed to gather herself and her baby and run. The soldiers stabbed her badly in the leg when they caught up with her, but decided not to kill her right away. Instead, they forced her to eat some poisonous caterpillars, scorpions and spiders to swear her oath of loyalty to the Lord's Resistance Army. When she found an opening to run again, they didn't chase her. Miraculously, with her injured leg and a stomach full of poisonous insects, Esther made it on foot with her baby all the way to safety in Kitgum town, 20+ km away.
Joining her husband in the capital was the obvious plan, but how would she get the bus money? Even with her leg not yet healed, she identified an opportunity and began fetching water for people to earn money. This meant walking very far every day, with the baby on her back and 20 liters of water in a container on her head. After hundreds of journeys delivering water at 50 shillings per trip (about 2 US cents in those days), she finally earned the $12 bus fare to join her husband in Kampala, 400 kilometers away.
She says settling in at the Acholi Quarter was really hard at first. Unlike at home where they were surrounded by fresh air and rich farmland, here on Kireka hill were hundreds of uprooted, traumatized families living almost on top of each other. Money was suddenly required for everything. Esther continued carrying water to begin with, this time up and down the hill, which made the work even harder. Her husband also found work as a porter at the nearby stone quarry, which enabled them to rent the small house where they’ve lived for the past 20 years (except when it collapsed those two times and they had to stay somewhere else for a while). It's in this humble home and complex community context that she's become a loved and respected mentor and role model to many.
Esther never makes a big deal of the courage and bravery she was forced to find within herself to survive what she went through 20 years ago, but she leads from an inner place of knowing what it is. She loves the people around her very actively and genuinely by helping them to find and remember the courage they all know they have inside them to face up to life's struggles, and the hard work they all know they are capable of.
Building community around enterprising energy
Esther moved on from carrying water to several years of hot and back-breaking work in the stone quarry. Always enterprising, she and her children also sold pancakes, she made local brew, and sometimes she even made bricks. Her husband Odong already had three children when she married him. Now they have five more, plus three beautiful grandchildren. Then there's the orphan they adopted, and the others they opened their home to when some of their relatives fell on hard times. All together there are 12 people living at Esther’s house these days. They are generally happy, and Esther tells me she always does what she can to make their family life as fun as possible. Her home is a place where friends and neighbors often drop in for Esther's warm, no-nonsense advice on their marriage problems, small business ideas or family decisions.
In addition to the community of friends she's developed, one of the things Esther has loved the most about living in Kampala is the opportunity for her children to be educated, as she thinks it will make their lives much easier than hers has been. The thing she is most proud of in her life so far is that she’s been able to see her oldest child finish university. Her second born started last year, she told me with a big smile last time I visited. There is nothing that brings her more joy than their happiness and success.
She also remembers, however, that when her children had all reached school age, paying the school fees for all of them became an agonizing and ongoing challenge for many difficult years. There was a devastating period when she became very ill for a while. The school fees burden became completely impossible alongside medical bills, and some of the kids had to sit out a few terms at home. A turning point came eight years ago when she joined Life in Africa.
The money Esther earned at LiA for the first 2 years, selling beads and working on a group contract to make bracelets, enabled her to start a range of small income generating projects at home that she says still make it possible to keep all the kids in school. In those days there were about 150 member families at Life in Africa, and Esther's natural leadership skills soon began to emerge. She became the quality control team leader for the community's paper bead production. When I left Uganda and Life in Africa Foundation transformed into a Community Based Organization run by and for it's members, Esther was elected Vice-Chairperson of the new LiA, responsible for engaging the community in planning and implementing their joint development ideas.
Esther's enterprising energy is magnetic, and she doesn't limit sharing it with only the LiA group. Over the years she's liaised with and mobilized local engagement with several international NGOs working in the Acholi Quarter, and looks forward to a life in service to her community when she moves back home to the north. In fact, she's already started talking to recently resettled women back home in her husband's village about how to save, and small projects they might imagine starting together. They call her regularly to know when she's planning to return.
Lessons in co-creative community leadership
Esther shares the leadership responsibilities at New LiA, but when I returned for the first time to visit after 3 years away, it was she who got up to share the story with me of everything they'd done together since I left. What this funny and sassy, yet humble and caring grandmother shared on behalf of the 30+ women with her that day has forever altered my perception of what community leadership should mean, and what the right kind of leadership can mean for impoverished communities in planning for change. As I've gone on to study and practice co-creative leadership (at
Lesson 1: A group's glue lies in shared purpose
When the New LiA first formed there were over 100 members - many had joined under the previous structure solely because of the income earning opportunities available. As a community based organization, the New LiA would have to build new opportunities, which required more commitment from its members. Uncertainty led to some attrition, there were disappointments and disagreements over changed expectations, the group threatened to completely fall apart. The elected officers discussed the challenges at length and realized that what they and their closest friends in the group really wanted was not just to earn money, but something bigger - to start preparing themselves for moving back home to the north. They envisioned a group working together with that intention, and in doing so found a powerful glue for reforming the LiA community. To keep things manageable, Esther told me, they invited only the hardest working women members to be a part of forming this new bond, and have remained a strong and remarkably stable community ever since. They still earn extra income together on various smaller group projects, but once a week they all gather to save for the future and to discuss their evolving plans for preparing themselves to go home.
The hardest part of living in Kampala for Esther and many others in the group has been that their children are not being raised in their real Acholi culture. It's not just the urban location, but the daily need for money in the city which adds tension to community life and often causes division. The old Acholi way is to love and support one another; to work together and help each other so that everyone gets ahead. The New LiA ladies have looked to their roots to re-establish that special way of being together as they plan for their future back home. With the women all nodding in unison around her, Esther shared that at the New LiA each and every member's progress and success is supported, they respect and love each other's strengths, and they all pitch in to help "with an undivided heart" where they are needed or when one of them has a problem. Living these community values together has resulted in the kind of unity that they remember from home, and led to some wonderful results for the whole group.
One of the most moving stories Esther shared that day was how the mushrooms they'd started growing turned into a tailoring course for young mothers. I had known about the mushroom growing project, which they'd raised funds for online and got started, according to subsequent photos I'd seen. Esther apologized for how they'd stopped communicating about that, for fear that people who'd contributed might view what later happened as a failure on their part, in terms of all the typical expectations around "sustainability." What I saw instead, as she explained what happened, was that their caring community culture had enabled them to see and pursue a path toward greater thrivability in their community.
A core group of 10-15 members indeed did grow mushrooms successfully together for more than a year, and really loved what they learned from the project. There came a point, however, when it had served their shared purpose - they now knew how to grow mushrooms, and could very easily imagine themselves growing them back at home. They would have continued to make money had they continued the project, but they didn't feel they had much more to learn from it. Meanwhile LiA had received a donation from
Moreover, each of those women had already earned enough with their new skill to buy their own sewing machine - which of course, they will be taking home with them to the north. In spite of an apologetic start, Esther (who had wanted to become a tailor when she herself was young) was beaming with love and pride by the end of sharing that story.
As a group they now produce bags that are sold all over the world, and last year had an order for 600 sets of pajamas. Turning their mushrooms into sewing machines proved to be an excellent decision, which was only possible because they dared to look beyond financial sustainability to stay aligned with their greater shared community purpose.
Lesson 4: Inspire people to believe in themselves
When I asked the ladies that day what part of their Life in Africa experience from the old days stood out for them most - when I was still there and trying out all sorts of development ideas - I was surprised when Esther replied that it was mostly that I just believed in them. She remembered and laughed about the time I sat her down in front of a computer for the first time and told her to type the numbers from her quality control count into something called a spreadsheet that was open on the screen. The most impressive part of that story for Esther is that she actually did it! She recalled feeling so sophisticated and proud of herself, for who could have ever imagined that she would ever work on a computer! The moral she imparted is that when you believe that someone believes in you, you can do anything. One of the many valuable qualities Esther brings to her leadership style is that she believes in people, and in doing so inspires those around her to believe that they, too, can do anything.
Building a new Life in Africa - again!
At the end of that first time back in Uganda - 2 years ago now - I left the New LiA ladies with a request to think about what they would do if the organization ever received some money specifically for helping them to move back home. That's when they started talking about the
One of the things I love most about their plan is that they've co-created it together, not based on what any foreigner thinks they should do but based on what they know they can and want to do - not only to help themselves and each other, but to contribute positively to the new post-war communities they'll become part of in the North.
Even more than when I was still there to believe in them, the New LiA community embodies everything good about co-creative community impact and innovation in action. My dear sister/friend Esther is one of several wise leaders in the group who has nurtured that.
Now that you know more about her,
Christina Jordan founded Life in Africa Foundation in 1999. In 2001 she was awarded the first Ashoka Fellowship in East Africa for her work using the internet to impact local community development. In 2009 she left Uganda and has gone on to found
(Links in this post were updated on 3 June 2014)