It is 7:15pm; The Observer sets off from Shell Lira, along Obote avenue, headed for Okere City, 75km west of Lira. We arrive in Otuke town council at 8:30pm, before proceeding to Okere parish.
I mmediately after Adwari town council, no other electricity pole is seen and as the vehicle snakes through the dark, the van is very silent. The lone sound in the van is from Ojok Okello, founder of Okere City, giving directions to the driver and 45 minutes later, the van is again energetic. Before us is a well- lit wide billboard that reads: “Welcome to Okere City.”
As we drive past the billboard, the eye-catching grass-thatched houses erected with bamboo spread out on the large piece of land cannot be ignored. You would be tempted to believe there was a nearby electricity pole supplying electricity to the village, until Ojok explains that they are harnessing the sun to generate solar electricity. A bonfire has been set with bamboo seats around it. We are then invited for supper.
A variety of Acholi and Lango delicacies dominate the dishes served and after the meal, we are led to different grass-thatched rooms where we sleep. In the grass-thatched houses, cold air seeps through the bamboo to give one a good night’s sleep with natural air conditioning.
The next morning, we are woken by the sound of drums, adungu, flutes, and loud voices of people singing in Luo. A group of men in the playground are singing and dancing to the famous bull dance commonly known as Lukeme.
According to ancient Luo tradition, the Lukeme dance is performed in celebration of achievements like Okere, or as a form of advocacy. During the war in Northern Uganda, the Yiibu Yoo group composed songs directed at the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels to convince them to drop their guns and return home. In other instances, the Lukeme dance is performed after the harvest, when people are off-season, and not occupied with tilling the land. They come in groups to perform Lukeme, a dance that is keenly sought after by those that turn up to attend the competitions.
East of Okere are loud voices of pupils reciting the alphabet. The pupils have come for their half-day weekend classes conducted in both English and Luo. It is a dream come true for Okere sub-county, an area with only 4,000 people.
Christine Adongo, the head teacher of Okere primary school, said the school, though launched in 2022, has 123 pupils spread out between kindergarten and P6. Day scholars pay Shs 50,000, while those in the boarding section pay Shs 180,000 per term.
To fill the gaps for the pupils who cannot be supported by their parents, the school has established a penpal pairing program in which they invite able people to annually commit to paying the school fees of one pupil.
Adongo added that the school anticipates becoming the best in northern Uganda by 2030. Asked what it would take for the school to achieve the ambitious goal, the founder of Okere primary school, Ojok Okello, said they have deliberately invested in the best teachers to bring them closer to realization of their dream.
“Okere city has some of the best teachers in northern Uganda. When the pandemic broke out, we decided to tap into the abilities of children from within who had been teaching in far cities and had opted to come back home. Even when the schools eventually reopened, they decided to stay with Okere city primary school. These teachers have understood our dream. We offer our pupils a full education from the Uneb curriculum to the extracurricular activities,” he said.
Ojok said the school was establishing a computer laboratory to provide the pupils with the best fruits of education.
“I intend to walk from Kampala to Okere city to raise funds for the establishment of both a computer lab and library at the school,” Ojok said.
West to my bamboo room, old men and women are gathering under an open-wall, grass-thatched hut. These are part of Wa ero Kwan adult literacy center, which means ‘we have started learning’. The adult literacy center attracts women and a handful of men aged between 19 and 80 years. The center is an interesting mix of generations; young mothers breastfeeding their children, toddlers that could not stay home alone playing within the class, old women with graying hair.
From Samson Muni, the instructor at the center, I learn that the learners come to school every Saturday to study. Okere city contributes break tea and the necessary learning material to all 130 learners – mostly women and a handful of men.
According to Muni, the students have improved from the last two months when they joined the class, with the majority of them now able to do basic mathematics and construct sentences in both Luo and English. According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics, more than 70 per cent of adults in Otuke district are illiterate, 90 per cent of them being women.
South-west of Okere is the city’s political lab, where all LCII heads are trained in the best ways of administering their local communities. Tekella Oketch, the female representative for Okere LC1, said the pieces of training had helped them nip the common cases of domestic violence in the bud, teach their people how to benefit from government programs like the Parish Development Model, and also hone aspirations for higher offices since they now have the ready knowledge to become better leaders.
As we wondered how these structures could be put together, west of the playground sat a carpentry workshop that provides hands-on training in carpentry activities. At the workshop, trainees are trained on how to erect the Okere bamboo structures and make other materials seamlessly out of wood. The training is open to anyone irrespective of their educational background.
Ojok said it had in a way ensured a steady flow of skilled manpower ready to work on the different activities at Okere. To fund these exceedingly expensive projects at Okere, there’s need for a sustainable mechanism that the founder believes to have found. He links the future of Okere city to the Shea tree, from whose seeds they draw Shea butter.
Shea butter, according to Ojok, is the Vibranium (inspired by Marvel’s Black Panther) of Okere city. He said they had taken up an ambitious goal of restoring the shea tree by planting 1,000 seedlings every year.
For a better saving culture, Okere hosts a savings and credit cooperative dubbed Okere city bank that serves 600 members of the community divided into 15 groups.
Ojok clarified, “We know people need money. We give them money at a 12 per cent interest per year through these same groups and they return the money at the end of the year.”
Asked how the groups managed to return the money amidst a pandemic, Ojok said they had opted to split the money into a two-year payment period to enable the village members appreciate the fund as one created to help them, not break them. Every Saturday afternoon, members of the community crowd at Okere to watch learners from Okere primary school and the adult literacy center make different performances from cultural dances and kickboxing to poetry recitals, etc.
The learners are joined by their teachers in the performance to the amusement of the crowd. Meanwhile, the forest, a stone’s throw away from the playground, is a meeting place for the old folks. On one side, old men are sipping their favourite malwa, while on the other side, old women joined by slightly young adult men are roasting all kinds of meat for sale to make a kill for the day.
As it approaches 8pm, droves of people gather, preparing for their weekly night dance. They shall dance themselves lame until either the generator runs out of fuel (on rainy nights) or at sunrise when the sound system is powered by solar.
In the morning as we drive away from Okere, an idea sitting on 50 acres of land that can be replicated around Africa, is taking shape in Otuke district, approximately 420km away from Uganda’s capital Kampala. What Ojok has done here using mostly his savings, is simply remarkable and I can’t wait to visit again in the future.