It is a long way from San Diego, and an even longer way from the conflict-torn district of Gulu, Northern Uganda, to the relative tranquility that is Southampton. But on the morning of March 17, that was the journey completed by one extraordinary African woman, accompanied, as she was, by a small group of determined young Americans.
At an early morning assembly, before a mesmerized audience of Southampton High School students, a youthful band of “roadies,” as they call themselves, most not far removed from their own adolescence, presented an inspiring program, using film and first-person narrative to tell the tale of child abduction, murder and misery that continues to haunt the African interior.
They were there at the insistence and determination of a local 15-year-old—one more element in a story built upon the infectious strength of youthful conviction motivated to action by the suffering and self-sacrifice of others.
On a cold and late-winter evening in early January, Charlie Margaritis, a typical if somewhat more than usually introspective sophomore at Southampton High School, found himself at home, up late and watching internet episodes of “30 Rock.” Before the second episode began, a public service announcement flickered across the small screen. What he saw, he found so compelling that he was immediately moved to call the sponsoring organization’s office in California and ask, “What do I have to do to get you to bring this film, this story, to my school?”
Less than three months and more than a hundred phone calls, emails and instant messages later, along with more voluntary trips to Principal Timothy Mundell’s office than any student might ever wish to undertake, The Invisible Children Van pulled into the Southampton High School parking lot.
Sponsored by and representing Invisible Children, Chris Hart, a 20-year-old Georgia native, along with three other equally youthful volunteers, had come, each on a single mission.
Invisible Children, a California based nonprofit, was founded in 2003 by three student filmmakers. They had gone to Uganda to create a film, but what they discovered compelled them to create a legacy.
On this morning, the organization’s representatives spoke briefly, and then screened a film titled “Tony,” which introduced the audience to the simultaneous triumphs and tragedies of Invisible Children’s mission.
“Tony” is the story of an irrepressible teenager, an unforgettable child of war, one of a generation of invisible “night commuters”—Ugandan children forced to leave their villages nightly and commute on foot to the relative safety of communal sleep centers in cities, lest they be abducted and enslaved.
Intertwined in Tony’s story of survival is the joyful life and tragic death of Nate Henn, a 25-year-old American and Invisible Children volunteer who had befriended Tony, only to be killed while in his company during the July 2010 terrorist attack in Kampala.
To say that most of the audience could not, prior to the day’s presentation, have located Kampala on a map would be fair. To say that few, after viewing the film, will ever forget where it is, is equally so.
Chris Hart is this band of roadies’ nominal leader, but at the group’s heart is a quiet young woman from Uganda. Akello Barbra is a survivor, her life forever changed by a single night of childhood terror. She was only 10 when gunmen from the Lord’s Resistance Army stormed into her grandmother’s village and slaughtered her cousins and executed her father. Saved from the horror of witnessing her father’s shooting because her grandmother had secreted her away in the jungle, she returned the following morning to find him shot and dying on the floor of his mother’s hut.
Ms. Barbra’s father would live two more weeks, eventually succumbing to his wounds. She is somewhat reticent to speak of the immediate aftermath of the event, but gently eases her way into the telling.
Her father had been a peasant farmer and a teacher. His work, plus that of his wife, had provided the family of seven’s meager existence. It fell to his widow to shepherd her children through the darkness of loss, the privations of poverty, and the horrors of civil war.
“My mother, I call her my hero,” Ms. Barbra intones softly. She made her daughter and Ms. Barbra’s siblings go to school, and did so through discipline and self-sacrifice.
“We ate one meal a day for as long as I can remember,” she said. “Two meals were thought to be a luxury. We went to school hungry, but we went to school. My mother owned one, perhaps two [outfits of clothing] the whole of my life. One pair of shoes. She sacrificed everything so that we could study. I knew that it was difficult and dangerous to be a woman in Uganda, but that to be an uneducated woman would be very bad.”
Ms. Barbra would honor her father’s memory and reward her mother’s efforts by excelling at school. Improbably, she was selected for scholarship at Makerere, Uganda’s leading university. She became a computer information management specialist—a position she holds today with Invisible Children, when not on leave to carry her story of hope, and her call for help on behalf of the needs of others.
When asked to consider her motivations for her journey, she speaks softly again, her African rhythms moderating a reflective demeanor. “It took me time … I looked back on what I went through … I saw what the people of the Congo are now going through. There are two things I feel about sharing my story. One is to bring an end to it. What I am doing is going to save lives. It is going to help people in what they are suffering … And high school students. They have told me that [hearing my story] has changed their lives. That whatever they are struggling with, with their parents, it is nothing. It is not worth struggling over. So besides saving lives [in Africa], it is changing lives in America as well.
“What happened to me, if you talk about it, you can let it out, but if you keep it within, it can be very dangerous,” she added.
Midway on a mission of a hundred stops in a little more than three months’ time, Chris’s team of volunteers travels the Northeast by van, often arriving at midnight, sleeping in sleeping bags on the floors of homes that have been opened to them, and departing in the early morning to make two or more presentations in a day.
They are but one of 17 teams of “roadies” currently crisscrossing the country on a 10-week tour. The theme of this year’s effort is “Speak Out Without Speaking,” a program of action that calls on individuals to “go silent” for 25 hours, making personal participation part of a nationwide show of solidarity for the voices of Africa that have been silenced by war.
The reaction to the Invisible Children project at Southampton High School was swift and dramatic. The student body, moved by what it had seen and heard, bought every video, T-shirt and “25 Action Kit,” a fundraising package, the group had brought with them, necessitating a return visit the following day.
When Charlie, Akello, Chris and the others gathered for dinner later that evening, Charlie Margaritis could not but help himself from evidencing a bit of wide-eyed wonder, and a slight self-conscious smile. What had begun as an idle evening before the computer had brought forth both an awareness and a movement among his peers, one that even he could not have expected.