Mercy’s Village provides an education to orphans of war, AIDS in Uganda
Top: Jeami Duncan with Mercy, the child who inspired her to start the school. Bottom: Students at Mercy's Village International primary school in Gulu, Uganda, play outside during physical education.
Jeami Duncan first heard about the atrocities in Uganda from a friend who had served on a mission there.
“The stories were unbelievable,” says Duncan, who was working in human resources at an information technology firm at the time, in the mid-2000s. Her friend recounted the plight of tens of thousands of children conscripted and brainwashed by a maniacal rebel leader who forced them to carry out heinous acts, including orders to murder their siblings and drink blood from their victims’ crushed skulls.
“She told me about the night commuters, who would walk miles into town to find a safe place to sleep to avoid being abducted or murdered by the rebels” – that is, by the cultish Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, whose actions displaced millions of people in Uganda and neighboring countries. “I thought it was crazy. It was a huge human migration that happened on a nightly basis.”
Duncan decided to go to Uganda herself. “She is one of those people who, when a commercial comes on about Africa or sponsoring children, won’t look away,” says her husband, Paul.
When Duncan made her first trip, in 2006, Kony’s forces were omnipresent in Gulu, the northern city where she stayed. (Kony remains at large and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.)
“I signed up with Life Connections International for the trip. Nobody else signed up,” Duncan says. “I never thought about how dangerous it was. When I got there, I stayed with a missionary couple. They had to check on the conditions of the only road into Gulu. The rebels ambushed cars, blew them up, and burned the occupants alive.”
On her first day, she went to a camp for 20,000 displaced persons. “I was the naive American,” says Duncan, who brought a suitcase full of candy, clothes, and other goods donated by her church. “Within five minutes, I was completely overwhelmed. As I was handing out clothes, mothers were handing me naked babies.
“The children were so malnourished,” she recalls. “They are lucky to get one meal in three days. Every night I heard personal stories about the war, and every story was a brutal murder story. There was no hope in people’s eyes,” she says. “I came home devastated. Those images kept running through my head. I asked a lot of questions. What can one person do?”
Duncan, now 31 and a member of the Rotary Club of El Segundo, California, USA, spent five years planning and fundraising. Today, 136 children – most of them orphaned by war or AIDS – are receiving an education through Mercy’s Village International primary school. The school, which opened in 2011, has students ages five to nine in the first, second, and third grades and aims to add a grade each year, through grade seven. An individual recently donated $10,000 to construct a kitchen, and the school is raising money for a building to use as a dining hall and as a space for after-school and adult literacy programs. Eventually, Duncan says, “we would love to have a computer lab and electricity.”
The idea for a school came from the villagers themselves. In 2007, Duncan returned to Uganda and consulted with elders in Gulu about the best way to help. “They humbled me,” she says. “They told me that a lot of aid organizations or Westerners come in and do what they want to do.” The villagers advised her to focus on education. Though primary education is officially free in Uganda, fees for uniforms and supplies are overwhelming for many families.
Joe Harding, a member of the El Segundo club, plans to visit the school with several other Rotarians. When he first met Duncan, he was impressed. “Having been to Uganda in 1998, I knew firsthand all the things she was talking about,” Harding says. “I was inspired by her. I felt she had to become a Rotarian. She doesn’t just talk about it. You can see the long-range plan and the energy she puts into it. Mercy’s Village is a part of her, and she has a way of making it a part of you.”
Additional reporting by Sallyann Price
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