In East Africa stories of poverty, suffering, survival and making it in life against all odds abound but rarely get told, especially by those affected.
Betty Ogiel, a human resource officer at Total Uganda Ltd, is among the lucky few who lived to tell. And she has done this by writing a book on her childhood struggles not just for education but for life itself.
To unshackle herself from the chains of poverty she was born into, Betty Ogiel did everything she could to get an education and feed herself: She cried, brewed local beer, known as malwa, smuggled waragi, the Ugandan gin; took part in athletics competitions, dug trenches and picked cotton.
Her memoirs titled Against All Odds, was self-published in 2017 through XLIBRIS based in Indianapolis, US. She says the sole purpose of the book is to inspire and encourage girls in difficult family circumstances.
To this end, she also started the Betty Ogiel Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Kampala, to support education for education especially at ‘A’ level.
Ogiel was born in Omukuny village in Katakwi district in eastern Uganda. She is the fifth born in a family of seven — two boys and five girls.
After losing relatives, livestock and other property to marauding Karamojong warriors, Ogiel’s father bought land in Serere district and moved the family to safety. Her father died when she was three years old, and a few years later her mother remarried and left.
Ogiel’s greatest dream was to get an education, but as a parent-less girl it was going to take a miracle. The mountain of odds seemed insurmountable: hunger, mental anguish, lack of school fees, surviving a snakebite, scabies and jiggers.
But the worst was that in the Karamojong culture, educating girls is not a priority, especially not when the family is poor.
The clan members held the future of her and siblings in their hands. So, she was “given” to Nicholas, a paternal uncle and last born brother of her father, to be raised in his home as one of his children.
Nicholas had just completed his teacher training course and was set to start teaching at Kalas Girls’ Primary School in Amudat district in Karamoja region.
Finally, the miracle she was hoping for had happened.
Nicholas enrolled Ogiel at Kalas Girls Primary School. But a lack of school fees was a problem right from the beginning, and throughout her school life. She was only able to complete her primary education through a bursary from the Christian Children’s Fund, by virtue of Nicholas being a teacher at the school.
The other constant reminder of her hardship was that Ogiel owned one navy-blue dress that she wore everyday.
“I wore my favourite and only dress for years before my uncle bought me another one, and only after he had been put on the spot by the neighbours in Amudat. The dress got torn, and in a spur of creativity, I cut it up, and it effectively became a skirt. Remember, I was still under 10-years old, so you can be sure that this child was already taking care of herself,” she recalls.
Ogiel knew that her uncle loved her, but she could not say the same about his wife, who made her work all day.
She does not recall playing as a child. Her daily routine in Amudat began at 6am. Her life revolved around home, school and doing all household chores — cooking, washing and fetching water five kilometres away from home in the hot and scorching sun of Karamoja. If Ogiel ever came short of her aunt’s expectations, she would earn herself a thorough beating from her.
While in primary six, Ogiel’s teachers noticed her athleticism. Through their encouragement she took up the sport and represented her school at the annual district athletics competition in Moroto district in 1990.
“…I was the youngest. I wore a dress, the same dress that I had worn for as long as I could remember. One dress worn daily for years. That was my athletics costume that day…,” she recalls.
Ogiel got lucky when, no longer able to bear seeing the suffering his niece was going through at the hands of his wife, Nicholas enrolled her in the boarding section of the school. Here, she constantly suffered from scabies and jiggers.
“I remember the unbearable suffering I went through those days under the scourge of scabies. It was an epidemic that affected very many of us and it was contagious and no one in school wore shoes.
“There was no adequate treatment for it. A person infested with scabies would really suffer physical and emotional trauma, not to mention the jesting that you would receive from other children. These two scourges really made it difficult for us,” she writes.
Just before she completed her primary education, her school was raided by Karamojong warriors. Ogiel, her fellow pupils and villagers ran for dear life and ended up in Natemeri in northern Kenya. The warriors had raided the school for food supplies. The attack left one child dead.
When Nicholas failed to raise school fees for Ogiel’s secondary education and all seemed lost, she cried for days until her uncle succumbed to pressure from neighbours to do something about it.
“…I had become so attached to education and learning that I could not, for a minute, fathom a life without school. I had seen my mom left behind by her second husband, who was a sub-parish chief struggling to make a living. In fact, I know that she would go for months on end before seeing a single coin.”
“My biggest driving force was the need to complete my higher education so that I could lead a better life than what my dear mom lived. Second, I really desired to help my mother and siblings…,” she adds.
Following the neighbours’ intervention, Nicholas decided to enrol her at Arengesiep Senior Secondary School in present day Nakapiripirit district.
Even then he could not afford the full fees of Ushs24,000 ($6.4). He nevertheless took her to school three weeks to the end of the first term, and paid only a half of the fees.
When Ogiel found that it was the athletics season at Arengesiep, she immersed herself in running.
She excelled and was selected to represent her school at the district competition and single-handedly elevated the school’s sporting standing by winning the one, two, four, and eight hundred metre races. She had had no formal coaching.
When Ogiel returned home in Amudat for the school holiday, she was shocked to find that her uncle had sought a transfer back to Teso after separating from his wife and had abandoned her in Karamoja.
He had left the house keys with the neighbours since he knew Ogiel would be coming for the school holiday.
It dawned on Ogiel that she had been abandoned by the only family member who loved her and the only person she knew in Amudat. She was alone.
“It was bad enough to be separated from my mother. It was enough to be mistreated by my foster mother. It was enough to live in poverty. It was enough to barely make it to secondary school. Up until now, I had handled all those odds blow-by-blow, and I was at par with them. This was unbelievable as it was unexpected!” she recalls.
“I had a very strong urge to forge on in my life. So I took stock of my situation. I looked around the house and I found that there was a good stock of maize grain. I knew what I needed to do — I would brew malwa. Uncle’s wife had taught me all there was to know about this traditional alcoholic beverage. From brewing to selling, and I knew I could pull it off.”
She brewed and sold malwa every day of the holiday. “I kept all the money that I made, except what I would use daily to buy food. I could have bought shoes and meat, things that I craved, but I did not. Of course, I bought myself some dresses which, to me, was a great achievement.”
Ogiel noticed that a friend’s mother was also a good traditional brewer who smuggled waragi to the lucrative market in neighbouring Kenya. She talked her into joining in the smuggling excursions into Kenya.
But their luck ran out when on their second smuggling trip they were intercepted by Kenyan police. Their waragi had given them away as it had a very strong and distinct smell.
Ogiel recalls that they were saved by one considerate police officer, who said, “Leave the old woman and her daughter alone. They are merely trying to eke out a living in these tumultuous times we live in.”
“And that is how we escaped being prosecuted and jailed in Kenya. Had we been arrested, I do not know what would have happened to us,” she adds.
Ogiel went back to Arengesiep Senior Secondary School and paid the fees balance plus that for the subsequent terms. “My enterprise was profitable enough to take care of school needs to such an extent that I paid all my full year fees.”
After realising that she had a bit of money, Ogiel took a bold step and sought admission at the school of her dreams, Kangole Girls Senior Secondary School in Moroto.
She joined in the first term of Senior Two in 1993, and she promised the school administration that the school dues would be paid later. “That was the last time I would see Amudat, a place that shaped me against all the odds of my life. I decided I would not go back.” She closed down her malwa brewing business.
Back to the beginning
At the end of the first term, Ogiel reunited with her family in Katakwi. No one could raise her fees. Once again, she cried and begged for two weeks, which forced her brother Samson, a catechist to borrow money to pay half of her second-term’s fees.
In school she immersed herself in studying and running, earning the nicknames “Pajero” and “gazelle.”
One evening on her way back to the dormitory, Ogiel was beaten by a snake. She was rushed to the nearby dispensary run by Catholic nuns where she was treated using the traditional blackstone method as she could not raise the fees for contemporary medicine. The stone is used to suck out the poison.
Sister Susan Anyango, who was in charge, took pity on her and inquired about her troubled life. She promised to have Ogiel enrolled in the needy students’ scheme.
“You cannot quantify my joy when I heard this. And to think that probably this breakthrough was brought about by a snakebite is mind boggling.
Chances are that had I not been incapacitated by that snakebite, my predicament would not have come to the attention of the nuns,” she recalls.
She got into the needy students’ scheme and her secondary school fees was paid. Ogiel knew that the only way to come out of poverty was through school, but that education was not necessarily the silver bullet against poverty. So during all holidays she worked as a casual labourer, picking cotton at the Serere Agricultural Research Institute farms.
She passed her ‘O’ level examination with a Division Two and got admitted to Ngora High School in Ngora district for her ‘A’ levels.
But Sr Anyango, who just happened to get posted to St Charles Lwanga Girls Training Center-Kalungu in Masaka district, invited her to Masaka, where she was stationed at a convent. She wanted Ogiel to continue with her studies under the nuns’ care.
With her savings, Ogiel paid her fees for the first term at St Charles Lwanga Girls Training Centre. “It was another opportunity to feel proud of myself for catering to all my expenses at school.”
Sr Anyango got her registered on the list of needy students and once again her fees was paid by the convent’s solidarity fund. She completed her ‘A’ level and scored 15 points, just one point less for a government university scholarship.
She was, however, admitted as a privately-sponsored student at Makerere University to study social sciences. A benefactor paid for her first semester’s tuition and once again she struggled to raise the tuition fees for subsequent semesters.
She approached the vice chancellor Prof Justin Epelu-Opio for help. Touched by her predicament, he offered to pay her tuition fees until she graduated. But she still could not raise accommodation fees and was forced to convert the makeshift sports pavilion into her hostel. She lived there throughout her college days.
She pursued and excelled in athletics and represented Makerere at local and international competitions.
Ogiel graduated with an Upper Second Class honours Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences. She missed a First Class honours by a fraction of a point
She says she is the first person in her clan to attain a university degree.
Her first job was as a research fellow at Makerere’s Institute of Social Research. She later joined Ernst & Young as a human resource trainee consultant. She is currently a human resource officer with Total Uganda Ltd.
In 2006 she was involved in a road accident on the Jinja-Malaba highway, and to date she suffers a minor speech impairment and physical disability.
In 2016, she won the annual Human Resource Excellence Award in the employee engagement category in recognition for her outstanding professional achievement.
She is also an inspirational and motivational speaker. She is married to Julius Abunga Rubanga and has three sons.
Her memoirs is available at Aristoc Booklex, Bookpoint Bugolobi and The African Studies bookstore at the Uganda National Museum in Kampala at Ush70,000 ($18.7). It is also on Amazon.