Note: The following blog post is an update from Alex Moore, our business development intern and visionary entrepreneur who is currently in Uganda. He has been documenting his perspectives and experiences in real time, and here he reflects on his interactions with and impressions of the visionary entrepreneur who inspired Tinga Tinga: Benson Ocen
I have been in Gulu in Northern Uganda for the past 5 days – since Friday. Gulu is one of the world’s most war-torn areas of the past 20 years. Until 2006, Northern Uganda was a battlefield for a form of civil war. The now “famous” Joseph Kony (Kony 2012) instigated the war and maintained his troop numbers by abducting children and forcing them to fight through brainwashing. Kony and his army, the LRA, terrorized northern Uganda from the late 1990s until 2006. As a result, Northern Uganda now has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. Gulu is a virtually the hub of this region. It is the springboard and headquarters for many non-government organizations (NGO’s) and mission organizations – notably Krochet Kids and Invisible Children.
Gulu is now, in many ways, an anomaly. Since 2006, the town has experienced a period of post-war relative peace. It has an interesting fusion of minute levels of westernization mingled into the prominent African feel. The “city” part of Gulu consists of semi-busy streets with the usual boda-bodas driving around and storefronts all along the streets. Yet, in a few places you will find western staples such as The Coffee Hut – an Americanized coffee shop that caters to the muzungus (white folks) who come to Gulu to work for the many organizations there. It has free wi-fi and power plugs everywhere. There is also a fairly large supermarket in town that is as close to a Walmart as you can get in Uganda.
I came to Gulu because it is the headquarters for our pilot investment – ILA, which is run by TingaTinga’s longtime friend and visionary entrepreneur, Benson Ocen. ILA is a fusion of business and social aid that utilizes economic empowerment as a supplement to trauma counseling. As a part of my internship, I have been tasked with the privilege of helping ILA develop its economic empowerment initiatives. The current plan is to begin a micro-lending subset of ILA that will offer small loans to the recipients of the trauma counseling upon the completion of the two-week counseling program. The hope is to provide holistic counseling by offering the trauma victims a way to take their newly formed hope for life and apply it to an occupation that will help them break out of the cycle of aid assistance through economic empowerment and, ultimately, economic independence.
Benson has quite a unique backstory. He is a proud member of the Acholi people group that populates much of Northern Uganda, and he hails from Gulu. He grew up in and during the war and narrowly escaped abduction by the LRA on more than one occasion. For him, the war was a gruesome reality under which circumstance brutally forced him to grow up. Yet, thankfully, he made it safely through the war – but he bears the deep emotional scars of this war deep in his heart. Five minutes with Benson is all it takes to see how much he loves his people and desires their restoration and triumph over the horrible atrocities that plagued them for so long. In 2006, after attending and graduating with honors from a prestigious university in Kampala, he had an incredible opportunity to help administer trauma counseling with a psychologist researching post-war counseling. As one of the chief counselors in this research, which is now a proven and accepted form of trauma counseling used worldwide, Benson gained first-hand experience in trauma counseling. Yet, as time went on, Benson realized that this approach lacked one essential element.
Prior to ILA, when the trauma counseling recipients return to their homes in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, incredible poverty greets them at their doorstep with a cold and defeating embrace. These people, who have been handed and have accepted emotional hope, lack the economic training and capital to defeat the cold and enslaving master that is poverty. Because of this, Benson developed what makes him a visionary entrepreneur – a second stage of the trauma counseling that provides economic empowerment to the patients. At this stage of ILA, this takes the form of gracious loans that serves as a bridge from the poverty to economic freedom, and the hope is to, in the near future (1-5 years), expand the economic empowerment sector beyond lending into job creation through agriculture and other means. Benson has left a secure job in the counseling world (he is among the best trauma counselors in the country and many organizations have offered him lucrative, highly compensating jobs) because he fully believes that trauma counseling falls short when they simply wave goodbye and leave the patients behind after the two weeks.
We too believe in this mission, which is why TingaTinga supports Benson and ILA. ILA is both an acronym and an Acholi word. In Acholi, ILA means “lift me up”, and as an acronym, ILA stands for “I live again.” Thus, the vision is for ILA to help lift the Acholi people up so they can proclaim “I live again” – both emotionally and economically, and we believe Benson is the visionary entrepreneur capable of making ILA live up to its name.
I came into this scenario a bit perplexed by and, honestly, slightly skeptical of ILA. Yet, spending time with Benson has completely convinced me otherwise. Benson is an incredible man of integrity, compassion, understanding, passion, and vision. As we walked the streets of Gulu running errands and discussing ILA, Benson’s connections throughout the town forced us to stop on numerous occasions. It seems as though he knows everybody here…and Gulu is a fairly substantial town. With every interaction, it became apparent that Benson shares a deep and mutual connection with the people in Gulu. It was an immense privilege to get to witness the contagious joy he shares with others, and as we continued to discuss ILA his passion for its success and impact became all the more apparent as well. He desires, with all his heart, to see his people restored in a holistic manner, and it is an honor for me to be a small part in seeing this accomplished…even though the work has only just begun.