Rebel soldiers pull into a displaced people’s camp in northern Uganda.
Their mission? To abduct as many impressionable young boys as possible, indoctrinate them and turn them into fighters in a decades-long civil war.
Eight- to 10-year-old boys scatter in every direction, quite literally running for their lives.
Okello Sunday — a former intern and now a part-time employee working in Columbus for Cummins Inc. — remembers seeing many of his childhood friends get dragged away, most of them never to return.
Each time, Sunday was fortunate enough to escape.
On Saturday, he will graduate from Franklin College, a long way from his war-torn homeland. But he hasn’t left Uganda behind for good; rather, he feels a responsibility to return and help provide others with the same opportunities he was able to receive.
That Sunday even survived long enough to make it to college required some fortunate bounces.
Born in an area torn apart by armed conflict, he spent most of his childhood living in an internally displaced persons camp in the Atanga sub-county of northern Uganda.
In addition to staving off abduction attempts as well as rampant malnutrition and disease, Sunday also had to shoulder the responsibility of becoming the head of his household at a young age. His father, first a soldier in the Ugandan army, was subsequently abducted by the rebel forces before dying of an illness in 1997.
Four years later, Sunday’s mother suffered what should have been a relatively innocuous gunshot wound to the biceps. Because medical services in the area were so limited, though, the bullet remained in her arm. She died a few years later, leaving an 11-year-old Sunday to watch over his brother and sister.
“I’ve seen a lot of people die of simple diseases and some things that should have been cured,” Sunday said. “People die of malnutrition because they do not have food — not because they don’t work hard enough, but because they do not have the chance to work hard enough.”
The absence of quality health care was nothing new to Sunday, but the loss of his mother stuck with him. He became determined to help others avoid her fate, and the best way for him to do so, he figured, was by getting an education.
Like everything else in Sunday’s life, that did not come easily. In addition to his family situation, illnesses and financial difficulties threatened to derail his academic career. But he never let those obstacles deter him.
“I looked at it as a source of motivation,” he said of the hardship he faced growing up.
In May 2007, Sunday caught a break. He was in his first year of high school at the Atanga Secondary School when he met the four members of an American filmmaking crew.
That crew eventually used Sunday’s story as part of a fundraising video for Invisible Children, and he was able to benefit from that group’s scholarship program, completing his final two years of secondary school at St. Michael High School-Sonde in Kampala and moving on to do two more years of advanced secondary study in the city at the Naalya Secondary School.
While there, he immersed himself in the sciences, studying physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics almost exclusively.
During his time at Naalya, Sunday caught yet another break by meeting a group of students from Franklin College. He later applied to the school and was awarded a scholarship.
Four years later, the 24-year-old Sunday is the vice president of the school’s chemistry club.
Where he goes next remains undecided. Medical school remains a long-term goal, but his strengths are in chemistry rather than biology. He has been accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Kentucky, but he is strongly considering taking a full-time position at Cummins and working toward a master’s degree.
Either way, his academic journey is not yet complete.
“If I’m to go back home with my bachelor’s degree,” Sunday said, “it’s like, I came to Franklin, I got this awesome experience and everything else, but nothing’s really changed, because what can I do with a bachelor’s degree there?”
If he can’t get into medical school, Sunday hopes to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and return to Uganda to pursue a career.
He would still like to go home and pass his good fortune on to others, but he’s come to realize that there are many ways of doing that.
“To make a change, you do not need to make an actual doctor,” Sunday said. “You do not need to be a teacher or a specific someone. I just need to have something that can help out in some way or another.”
He’s already helping on a smaller scale. Some of the money that Sunday makes at his job gets sent back home to help cover secondary school fees for his brother, now 20. His younger sister died in 2015.
By going back with an education and staking out a lucrative career for himself, Sunday hopes he can provide a boost to others as well.
Having taken full advantage of the opportunities presented to him, he’s ready to pay it forward.
“I wanted to make a difference somehow, because I believe that personally, myself, I cannot change the entire world,” Sunday said. “But if I can change the lives of a few, starting from my family or the people close to me or my hometown, that way I’m changing the world.
“If I impact the life of five, six, 10 people, what if they do the same thing? You get the butterfly effect; the world will change eventually.”
Ryan O’Leary is a staff writer for the Daily Journal of Johnson County, a sister publication of The Republic.
When: 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: Spurlock Center gymnasium
Keynote speaker: Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, the first African-American federal judge in Indiana’s history
Note: Doors open at 9 a.m. Due to limited seating, tickets are required for admission.