Evelyn Akullo Otwili spent the bigger part of her formative years bearing the brunt of the war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels that wreaked havoc in her home district of Gulu and the entire stretch of northern Uganda for more than 20 years.
Having lost both parents at age eight, Otwili endured life with relatives who mistreated her, spent nights on a church veranda as the war raged and was molested as a child.
As a youngster, she didn’t know whether she would ever live a normal life. But at the time she was indifferent to that, preoccupied with something else: how to survive. And somehow, she survived.
Somehow — that is how one can best describe Otwili’s life and its uncertainty. Later in her teens, Otwili became a sex slave to her high school teacher, then hustled to pay tuition fees at university.
As a young adult, she endured years of an abusive marriage.
In her autobiograpy, Behind the Shine, Otwili tells her gripping story – how her tumultuous early years helped her develop thick skin as she went from a surviving destitute in a war zone to a thriving international social worker, mother, wife and a powerful inspiration to the wretched of the earth.
“We lived restless lives, prepared to flee from our home each time it became insecure. Whenever the situation somewhat calmed down, we returned to the normal home life again,” Otwili writes in the book published by Kampala-based World of Inspiration Publications in December 2021.
Losing a mother
She goes on: “Unfortunately, our home was stormed by gunmen in 1990. We were forced to live on the veranda of Tinsmith — a home or shelter for the homeless who fled the war.”
Aside from the war, Otwili endured the pain of nursing many of her relatives, first her mother who died of HIV/Aids.
She writes: “As an eight-year-old child, I could not explain how, on the morning of Sunday, March 7, 1993, my mother’s dead body was lying beside me on the same mat I had shared with her since returning home from the hospital. But she was gone.”
Between 1990 and 1996, Otwili lost two of her uncles and one aunt.
“At 11 years old, I nursed another uncle, Labongo, who suffered from HIV/Aids. He died in my hands on the evening of Friday, July 28, 1996 as I fed him a mixture of glucose and water.
''This was a very traumatising thing for me to witness as a child,” she writes.
As a teenager, Otwili recounts the years she was sexually abused by her high school teacher who took advantage of her financial strains and burning desire to continue with education.
Her teacher offered her financial help not for humanitarian reasons but in exchange for sex.
Even after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Development Studies from Gulu University, Otwili’s troubles continued as she endured an abusive marriage for eight years.
She describes her first marriage — in which she had two children — as that of “being battered physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
After all that bedevilled her, Otwili would later on get a scholarship to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Organisational Leadership and Management at the University of Notre Dame in the US, which sent her flying into life.
Upon graduation, she consulted for non-profits such as the Justice and Reconciliation Project and the International Centre for Transitional Justice in northern Uganda, among other prestigious organisations.
Today, inspired by her past, Otwili works in early childhood development as a teacher at the Primrose School of Tallgrass in Colorado, USA.
She is now also happily married to Peter Okwera, a Canada-based Ugandan aviator.