From Ugandan child soldier to PhD graduate

14 December 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond. Video editors Nico Badenhuizen, Evan Zerf. Voice Neliswa Sosibo. Read time >10 min.
Julius Okello, a former Ugandan child soldier forced into a civil war at the age of nine, will graduate with a PhD from UCT on 15 December. He will receive one of 205 doctorates being awarded this month.

It was Thursday, 9 April 2020, at 05:47, hardly dawn. At his home in Uganda, Julius Okello was woken by the ping of an email on his phone. In the half-light he scanned the heading and then fetched a glass of water. Back in his bedroom, he prayed before opening the email. Three external examiners’ reports confirmed the message he’d been hoping for: he was a PhD graduand.

“I jumped up and I danced in my house,” Julius said in an interview from Kampala. “I praised God, just like David did in the Bible. I was so excited!”

The news was a victory over adversity. Julius’s life has been a journey through wilderness. Forced by rebels to take up arms in the Ugandan Bush War in 1986 at the age of nine, it was the memory of his mother and sister – both raped and killed by guerrillas near his home in Pingire in the Soroti District as he was herded into civil war – that delivered him from despair.

Thirty-four years later the former child soldier will graduate from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a doctorate in social development from the Faculty of Humanities. It’s nothing less than a miracle, he said.

Julius has a remarkable story. Child soldiers were widely used by the National Resistance Army (NRA), the military wing of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM); first as small, mobile guerrilla units and later as soldiers when the NRM seized power in Uganda in 1986.

Julius was one of an estimated 3 000 children taken by the NRA, fighting to depose President Tito Lutwa Okello. Most were forcibly conscripted, wrenched from families and communities. Many never returned.

Overlarge boots and uniform

The memories of that time remain vivid, he said. Julius still has shrapnel lodged in his head and legs, a legacy of war in the bush, when he wore overlarge boots and uniform and shouldered a sub-machine gun too heavy for his slight frame. The tall grass of north-eastern Uganda saved him many times. He also experienced unexpected kindness; a soldier who acted as his guardian and a missionary at Kalongo who taught him about care and love.

By the end of 1986, the NRA had defeated the last government resistance, and Museveni came to power. As president, he determined that all child soldiers should be demobilised and return to school. Julius was among them. In 1992 he returned to school as an adolescent. He worked hard but was plagued by post-traumatic stress and recurring nightmares. And he was living in limbo with no home to return to.

But he excelled, completing high school in 1992. He was accepted at Makerere University and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Learning that he was still alive, Julius was reunited with his family – his father, 71-year-old Papa Peter Engwau; a brother and sister; uncles and aunts – at his master’s graduation in 2010.

Though Julius had secured a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship in 2005 for a master’s in peace and conflict studies at Makerere University, economics was his background. It was this that brought him to the Department of Social Development at UCT where he excelled under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Viviene Taylor and Dr Khosi Kubeka. He has the highest praise for their efforts, especially Professor Taylor, who was also a mentor and “put her foot down” when needed.

Field research and reminders of war

Julius never found his mother’s and sister’s remains, but families are more precious than ever to him. Communities, and particularly women and children, left destitute in the wake of civil wars, made him determined to use his academic work for their benefit. His PhD fieldwork took him back to the war-torn fields of the northern parts of Uganda’s Eastern Region where he lost many of his family members − and his boyhood.

His PhD thesis was titled “The role of social protection programmes in reducing household poverty and vulnerability in Katakwi District, Uganda”. It examines the role of social protection programmes in reducing household vulnerability to poverty in post-conflict areas, particularly the Katakwi District in the northern parts of Uganda’s Eastern Region, where the conflict was heavy.

Using mixed methods comprising quantitative and qualitative tools and econometrics models, he generated descriptive statistical conclusions that can be used to shape policy reform and direct service delivery to the intended population.


“I am asking God to allow me to serve His people.”

The study results showed that 45% of the sampled population in Katakwi was poor; 20% of the sample population were at risk of being poor if social protection was removed; and 35% were not poor but vulnerable to risks and shocks.

“We further established that 53% of the female non-beneficiaries of social protection interventions live in poverty, compared to 49% of female beneficiaries. In contrast, male beneficiaries (51%) were found to be living outside the poverty line compared to male non-beneficiaries (47%), who live in poverty. This variation in poverty levels among respondents is attributed to the over-reliance of household beneficiaries [on] social protection services, which in most cases are delayed and they end up falling back into poverty.”

Julius hopes his conceptual framework will be used by organisations such as the African Development Bank; the World Bank; the United Nations; the African Union; the International Labour Office; the World Food Programme; the United States Agency for International Development; the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom government; the United Nations Children’s Fund; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and others to secure the vulnerable, particularly child labourers.

“I am asking God to allow me to serve His people,” he said.

First in family and clan

Though he had experienced funding challenges and relived his trauma through the eyes and experiences of the women and children he interviewed, Julius persisted.

“They could remember their loved ones who were abducted and killed in front of them. Most remembered how they were raped and beaten and how their houses and property were looted and their houses burnt down by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.”

Julius’s joy lies in his achievements.

“In my clan, I am the first to achieve this level of education,” he said.

After he received the good news, Julius, his father, his 106-year-old grandfather and his remaining family and community gathered to celebrate with traditional thanksgiving and prayers in Pingire, Omagoro in the Serere District, and at his residential home in Mbalwa-Namugongo in the Wakiso District.


“I can’t believe that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, made way for me through the wilderness where there seemed to be no way for me.”

“I can’t believe that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, made way for me through the wilderness where there seemed to be no way for me,” he said.

His triumph has been tempered by COVID-19, which has denied him the opportunity to graduate in the Sarah Baartman Hall and honour all those who looked out for him during and after the war. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Without them, he would not be alive today, he said. He’d also planned that his father would travel with him for the ceremony, but he recently passed away.

An exhortation

Julius hopes that his story will encourage other vulnerable children and, more so, child soldiers and those who have lost education opportunities to persevere and take up their books.

He also has words for African leaders.

“Reduce rhetoric and walk the talk,” he said. “Unite people; take real services to them; shy away from empty promises and deliver sustainable results to all citizens equally; and eliminate the skewed implementation of policies and programmes and laws.

“Please also decisively end corruption and impunity. Don’t use children and later drop them after you have achieved your goals. All human lives matter, irrespective of place of birth, tribe and religion. Provide equality and quality education.”

As for the future, he is torn between academia (perhaps postdoctoral studies) and work in a “competitive and challenging setting at the international level”, such as the African Development Bank, where his impact could be broad.

‘Committed to positive change’

Taylor said that Julius’s story is one of incredible determination to overcome the obstacles he and his family have experienced because of civil war and violence.

“His research exposes the intersections among policy interventions in the form of social protection and the capacity of the state to deliver health and education services through frontline workers in affected communities,” she said.


“I am particularly proud of his courage in persevering and completing his studies.”

“It was not an easy journey for Julius because he had to transcend his own trauma and look beyond the personal to issues affecting the wider community. I am particularly proud of his courage in persevering and completing his studies. He was able to use research methods and social policy knowledge to guide him in his journey.”

Kubeka echoed Taylor: “It’s been an honour working with Julius. I feel fortunate to have been part of his amazing journey. I am inspired by his determination and courage in the face of adversity. For Julius, embarking on research was not merely for obtaining a PhD. He believes in the value of his work and is committed to bringing about positive change.

“I will always remember his humility, sense of gratitude and enthusiasm. He was always receptive to learning and appreciated the guidance he received. I am very happy for him. Well done, Julius, for the successful completion of your PhD. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng added her congratulations.

“Julius’s story and achievements are very humbling. Undertaking a PhD is never an easy journey, but what he has accomplished, given the tragedies he’s overcome, is astounding. He is truly an inspiration to young Africans living in difficult circumstances, whether war, poverty, ill health or other trauma.

“But I’m also excited by what he’s accomplished in his PhD. His achievements underscore much of what we aim to do as a premier African university: produce excellent research on Africa by Africans to improve the lives of the continent’s people.”

Professor Phakeng added: “Thank you, Julius, for never giving up, for choosing UCT for your doctoral studies and for producing research that can be translated into measures that create dignity and hope for African women and children. We’re honoured to count you among UCT’s illustrious alumni, and we will be watching your story unfold. May your light continue to shine far and wide.”

Here’s to you, Dr Julius Okello.

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