From adversity to artistry: Story of an ex-child soldier

Saturday February 10 2024

Ugandan bronze sculptor Peter Oloya. PHOTO | STEVE RUSSELL STUDIOS | PANGOLIN LONDON


Young Peter Oloya was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in Northern Uganda and conscripted into its ranks as a child soldier.

Oloya was only 11 in 1994, when the rebels descended on Lemo Bongolewich village in Kitgum district and took him together with his mother, maternal auntie and her baby, and his cousin as they harvested sweet potatoes and sim sim in their garden at home.

The family had sought refuge at the Kitgum Catholic Mission internally displaced people's camp and ran out of food so they went home to harvest their crops.

Six months into captivity Oloya was given a gun to guard their rebel camp and watch over the new abductees. He and his cousin escaped from captivity after one year and eight months. His mother and auntie had escaped two months after their abduction.

Read: The rejected victims of Kony's war

In his recollection of these sad events, Oloya, said: "Even as a child taking our freedom away to live in an IDP camp was very stressful, worst still getting abducted, and remembering and witnessing my mother cry while we were being beaten during interrogation by the rebels as she begged for mercy still gives me goose pimples."


"Sometimes, when I faced life challenges and I think of where I came from, then I immediately smile with the joy of being alive and continue. Today watching the war in Gaza on television starts my tears," said the soft-spoken man now a commensurate artist.

Oloya defied all odds by returning to school and is now one of country’s successful bronze sculptors whose artworks stand in the Buckingham Palace gardens in London, and in the cabinets of several winners of the prestigious BBC African Footballer of the Year and now the ‘BBC African Sport Personality of the Year’ awards.

In 2004, Oloya started a charity organisation, Art for Community Development (Afocod) to help child soldiers and abducted girls to overcome trauma through drawing and sculpture. Based in Kitgum and Gulu, the charity is partly funded through sales of artworks.

"We tap the talent of art as a means to restore and heal the traumatised children. We also encourage them to use art as an income activity," he said.

Oloya’s creative prowess spans both painting and sculpture, and he has gained acclaim through prestigious commissions and residencies.



He won a government tender to design a state gift to commemorate the visit of the Queen of England to Uganda in 2007, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Read: Beauty grows from horrors of Uganda long war

And now the London-based Pangolin London Sculpture Gallery that took on the representation of Oloya in late 2023, is putting on his first exhibition in London, England. Peter Oloya: A Journey from Adversity to Artistry is the culmination of his residency and explores themes of culture and modernity, ideals of beauty and climate.

The six-week exhibition that opened on January 17 and ends on March 2, 2024 sheds light on Oloya’s remarkable odyssey through his work.

It highlights his remarkable talent and the profound narratives he brings to life through his art, which resonate far beyond cultural boundaries.

On display are Oloya’s 45 artworks that he has been developing in a span of the past three years. They include "Aspects of Beauty – Bride," "Aspects of Beauty – Marble Head," "Culture and Modernity – Phone Dress," "Face Mask," and "No Glove No Love," "Sheep Justice," "Gourds," and "No Glove, No love," among others.

As to how he felt when the Crowned Crane was presented to the Queen Elizabeth, Oloya recalls: "It meant a lot to me. The Queen told me at the grand dinner at the Kampala Serena Hotel ‘the sculpture is a fantastic work of art. And you (I) are one of Ugandan’s best sculptors. The sky is the limit.’"

The Queen had the Crested Crane sculpture mounted in her Buckingham Palace gardens in London. It is in the form of a bronze crested crane in flight motion stands 6 feet high and weighs about 400 kilograms.

A bronze replica of this crested crane stands in the courtyard of the British High Commission in Kamwokya, Kampala.

Read: ICC seeks support in hunt for Kony

In 2008, he was commissioned by the BBC World Service to redesign the bronze trophy for the ‘BBC African Footballer of the Year’ award beginning with the 2009 edition after beating off competition from artists across the African continent.

The football award ran until 2018, following which it was decided to change the awards back to their intended purpose by reflecting the balance between gender, disability and variety of sports on offer.

When the BBC was re-launching the BBC African Sports Personality of the Year award it recommissioned Oloya to design the trophy in 2019.

The Namibian 200m champion Christine Mboma became the first winner of the BBC African Sports Personality of the Year award in 2021, after the prize reverted to its original intention of reflecting the diversity of sports on the continent.

In 2019, Oloya was honoured with the PJLF Pangolin London Sculpture Prize, a testament to his unique creativity in the realm of Ugandan sculpture.


Peter Oloya’s bronze sculpture “Aspects of Beauty: Bride,” 2020. PHOTO | STEVE RUSSELL STUDIOS | PANGOLIN LONDON

This award has allowed him to delve into a new body of work which explores the modern African cultural experience. In an era marked by the waning of traditional activities in Africa, Oloya’s art articulates the complex and rapidly evolving cultural responses to contemporary issues.

According Pangolin London, Oloya’s new body of work intricately weaves together elements of traditional and modern African culture, and covers themes such as modernity, ideals of beauty and the climate. Among the pieces being showcased, are a selection of works offering a compelling commentary on culture, history and politics. This includes a sculpture of a Chinese face mask symbolising the enduring influence of China in Uganda, and a bronze titled "Sheep Justice" that navigates the intersection of corruption and the law.

The theme of modernity is vividly portrayed in many of the sculptures. In "Bride Mask," Oloya has incorporated mobile phone keypads into the figure’s headpiece, presenting a thought-provoking observation on the integration of technology in modern life in Uganda.

Read: Memories of LRA war haunt survivors as they struggle for their identity, livelihood

Another striking piece, "Culture and Modernity: Phone Dress," combines phone parts with traditional bark cloth symbolizing the evolving interplay between cultural heritage and the relentless march of modernity.

What’s more, Oloya’s intricate "Gourds" bearing logos of international megabrands such as ‘Coca Cola’ and ‘Fanta’ examine the dynamic between tradition and modernity. Originally used as vessels for water, these gourds bear contemporary designs, serving as symbols of transformation.

Oloya also explores the concept of beauty in his work. Crafted from white marble, the stunning sculpture of an African female head emphasises the differing standards and definitions of beauty. Also touching on aspects of beauty is his stunning work "Aspects of Beauty: Lawino" which pays homage to ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ - a term steeped in cultural significance.

This sculpture echoes the iconic poem "Song of Lawino" by Okot p’Bitek, 1966, which reflects on the impact of colonisation on African society.

The artist’s intriguing works "My Planet My Child I" and "My Planet My Child II" convey profound messages about our relationship with the Earth. The former depicts a figure holding a ball symbolising the earth, while the latter portrays a baby standing with a seedling growing from its hand, urging us to consider the Earth as our child, entrusted to our care, rather than thinking of the planet as ‘Mother Nature’ and assuming she will look after us.

Read: ICC upholds Ugandan child soldier’s conviction

Peter Oloya - Bio

Peter Oloya was born in 1976 in the village of Lemo Bongolewich in the Kitgum among seven brothers and four sisters. Three of his brothers have since passed away. His family lost 21 relatives in the war and the nine who were abducted by the rebels have never returned home.

He attended Kitgum Boys Primary School in Kitgum town, Police Children Primary School in Kibuli, Kampala, Old Kampala Senior Secondary School for ‘O’ level, and Nakasero Secondary School for ‘A’ level.

Oloya carved curios for sale and worked as a DJ in Kampala through which he raised his own secondary school fees and funded himself through university. He graduated in 2004 from Makerere University in Kampala with Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Fine Art majoring in Sculpture.

He has participated in a number of residencies and workshops sponsored by the Ruwenzori Sculpture Foundation. He has held solo and group exhibitions in Uganda, Sweden, Norway and the UK.

Oloya is married to Achiro Carolyn Rita, and they have three children, one boy and two girls.