‘Where are the Mandelas?’
At a young age, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and YALI Network member Victor Ochen made a calculated decision to live a life of peace after growing up in the “darkness of fear” in war-torn northern Uganda. “My choice remains peace and will always be peace,” he says in a YALI Voices podcast.
Ochen became a self-made peace builder, not letting a lack of opportunity stop him from creating the society he wanted to see. As a 13-year-old refugee in an internally displaced persons camp, he formed a peace club to “mobilize fellow young people to choose peace and stop the war.” In 2005, he founded the African Youth Initiative Network to empower youths through peace and reconciliation initiatives that address the impact of violence on communities. Ten years later, Ochen and the network were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work with war victims.
Ochen believes that Africa needs young people to be strong leaders across all sectors of society to overcome endemic conflict, poverty and injustice.
He points to victorious African-born athletes in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a sign of the impact that war and conflict have had on Africa’s prosperity and its place in the world. “If all Olympic medalist winners returned back home, 80 percent of the gold medalists would have come to Africa. But they are all refugees in other countries. When are we going to bring back home what is supposed to be home?” he asks.
This Mandela Day, Ochen encourages the YALI Network to reflect on Nelson Mandela’s example of compassionate, responsible leadership through service. “Both President Washington and Mandela had the opportunity to become kings of their countries, but they chose to be leaders. They chose to leave power. They chose to work for people. And they laid the foundation upon which their nations became countries that are flourishing today.” He sees Mandela as a model for African youth to emulate as they raise up their communities across the continent.
Ochen wants Africans to recognize that “we could still have the best leader of our time coming from the continent.” He asks, “Where are the Mandelas?”
Hear more of Ochen’s thoughts on governance, leadership, peace building and the YALI Network, including his call to action for Mandela Day, by listening to his interview on YALI Voices, or read the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Victor Ochen
MR. OCHEN: I grew up in the darkness of fear, of death, witnessing the horrors of crimes and brutality with whole strength upon the innocent poor people. But with the hope that if I acted well, I would bring the positive change I’m looking for.
VOICE-OVER: This is the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Today we’re talking to Victor Ochen.
MR. OCHEN: My name is Victor Ochen. Ochen spelled as O-C-H-E-N.
VOICE-OVER: A Ugandan peace activist, director of the African Youth Initiative Network, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and YALI Network member. In 2016 Victor was appointed as one of the global advisers to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on gender, forced displacement and protection.
Victor is a man who believes in positive change, who long ago decided that he had it within his power to see and do things differently. As a child growing up in a war zone, he has seen great hardship — in his community and his own home. But he was called to service. And he believes that Africa’s youth and the YALI Network have important roles to play in promoting peace, unity and trust.
First, Victor shares how he found his life’s calling. Then he’ll tell us what inspires him, how he keeps going in the face of human suffering and misery, and how YALI Network members can play a role in serving their communities, Africa and the world.
MR. OCHEN: I got the job I’m doing today with my organization with a single mission as to mobilize youth and communities in promoting peace and justice, but above all, strengthening the leadership of young people in their communities and their societies to become actors for positive change.
So I was inspired by my own reality — my childhood, my suffering, my life I lived. It was always a life calling that needed change, that needed rescue, that needed a means of thinking forward. So that’s why I came and said: “For how long am I going to wait for real change to come into my society? And who will bring the change, and when will change come? I’m getting older. Suffering is not stopping. And people are dying. Hopelessness is increasing.” And that’s what I thought: that instead of sitting and watching and expecting something to come, I asked myself, without much education, without much resources, without any connection — because living in the war zone in northern Uganda as a child, I’d never seen peace. It was difficult to know anything beyond our borders. So I lacked opportunity then of connection, and that’s why I said, “Let me look down to my community, down to myself, and see what role can I play to make a difference and what role can I play to change what I don’t want in a society.” So this is how I was inspired by my own hardships, by my own suffering, but with a hope that if I acted well, I would bring the positive change I’m looking for. So I decided, let me step forward and bring my best self forward.
MR. OCHEN: I do think always when you are in a position of hardship, you are limited to everything — no resources, no knowledge, no exposures. So it’s very difficult sometimes to imagine that you can do it. And, yes indeed, that was the same feeling that I had that I couldn’t believe I would ever make it because I looked around. All we are faced with hardships, impossibilities and struggle and pains and losses. And then I said, “Yes, what do I need to become a peace builder? Do I need bachelor’s degrees? Do I need master’s degrees? And if I can’t get it, that means I won’t be a peace builder.” I said, “No, you don’t need master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees or a high level of education to build peace in a society. All you need is good heart, good intention.” And if you want to bring about change, is the change in policy or the change in human life? We are working towards giving a human face of what we are doing. So we put human face ahead of our qualifications. And that was the best qualification, having human love, human face, making sure that our actions are human and it answers the human questions.
VOICE-OVER: Victor was born amidst war, during the peak of the bloody conflict of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He grew up in an internally displaced people’s camp in deep poverty, where for over seven years, Ochen, together with his family, lived on one meal a day — if that.
MR. OCHEN: What inspired me to do the work that I’m doing now, which is about speaking for the voiceless, working for peace, promoting the concept that African people are human beings that should be treated with dignity, is because of the life I lived. I lived in war zone. I spent my entire childhood growing, surviving from diseases, abduction, child soldiers recruitment. I grew up in the darkness of fear, of death, you know, witnessing the horrors of crimes and brutality being exhibited at most — with whole strength upon the innocent, poor people in northern Uganda. This is the society I grew up in. I grew up in the midst of the generation who had no hope, whose choice was limited to, “How can I revenge, how can I also let them feel the pain?”
So this is what I felt. I said: “No, I am just simply sick and tired of my own suffering. I’m sick and tired of my own, you know, day-to-day fear. For how long am I going to live this kind of life?” So that feeling, that moment of — you know, the breakthrough moment of contemplation that came in my heart, it’s also the breakthrough moment of contemplation that went to other people’s heart, young people’s heart, of which most of them ended up picking up the guns to go and fight. But I said: “I’m not going to fight anybody; I’m not going to be a reason for someone’s death. I’m not going to be a reason for society’s destruction. In fact, I should be a reason for rebuilding, reconciliation, peacebuilding, protection and making sure that every person lives a life of dignity.” This is the society I was growing up in, this is the society I wanted to become part of it, and I want it to be a society, my community to be a society where we look and trust each other, because we are all human. We cannot just think because of our sex, gender, identity, orientation that we should hate somebody. No, we should all work towards a better community.
So I wanted change, but where was change coming from? I looked up to myself, in addition to complementing efforts by international communities and my government as well.
I made a commitment from my childhood that I would choose peace, no matter what happens. My choice remains peace and will always be peace. But also I see challenges that continue from disease, poverty, starvation, you know, political mismanagement, lack of shared governance. All these are factors causing all the suffering. And I think all this needs mindset change. It needs leadership inclusion. It needs leadership tolerance. When we create a system where change is violent, where change is about death — kill that person so that a new person come to power — that is not the change we should — this is what has been driving Africa. You know, you kill your ways to power instead of loving your way to power. This is not what we should working for — we should work for. How do we build a society, raise a society, where leadership is shared? Leadership is about people; it’s not about position. And that takes me back to what I said: the integrity of our power, the integrity of our leadership, the integrity of our position. If we make it a culture that for you to be rich in Africa, you must be a politician — leadership is not merely political. You can be a political leader and successful leader. You can be a community leader. You can be a great cultural leader. These are the kinds of people that we should work for — we should really move and mobilize them.
VOICE-OVER: In 2005, Victor founded the nongovernmental organization called the African Youth Initiative Network. His intent is the creation of a functioning, mutually trusting and inclusive society. In his quest for peace and justice, he hopes to mobilise the active participation of youth and communities.
MR. OCHEN: Africa continues to face a lot of challenges. With all the resources, we are having 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land. But why all this poverty? Why all the suffering? It’s because there’s governance gap somewhere. And that governance gap, how can we make it answerable to the reality on the ground? The challenge has been how — not about “what” but about “how.” How has been — should we fight them? Should we protest them? Should we name and shame them? Has it worked? In most cases, it hasn’t. In fact, it has widened the division, the tribalism, and reinforced the negativity towards one another. I think, as a young generation, this is our time to step forward, step with good intention, bring our best self forward and work for the leadership that is inclusive, the leadership that is respectful, based upon dignity. I know democracy should be appreciated. And we should love our ways to power, not kill our ways to power. I think this is what we should step up so much for.
And, above all, the image we have is terrible, not only because it’s being talked about, but also the reality. Around the world, you talk about Africa. The first definition that comes in your mind is poverty; it’s war; it’s suffering. Recently, we had Olympics in Brazil. If all Olympic medalist winners returned back home, 80 percent of the gold medalists would have come to Africa. But they are all refugees in other countries. There was one particular scenario where the top four finishers were all Africans — Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, then Somalia again. But none of them represented the continent. So this is the kind of losses we are making. When are we going to bring back home what is supposed to be home?
So this is the kind of inspiration we need to open up our space, open up our world and kind of engage in a more meaningful and sincere dialogue. Leadership based on dialogue is the only way to go. It will answer the question; it will bridge the gap; it will build trust, which is key. Without dialogue — but how do we come to dialogue? As young people, it is our responsibility; it is our generation to come forward. Respect should drive our dialogue. Tolerance should be the reason for engagement. If we don’t respect our leaders, they will not respect us. If we don’t come to engage with love, we will always get a reply in violence. And then that’s where the problem comes in because can we adjust our hearts for the goodness of the continent? Of course, we are not tolerating impunity, not tolerating injustice. But we will reach a point where we need to come to a compromise, where leaders need to listen to their people and people need to listen to their leaders. Without this, it won’t be in a way we are going to bring any change, especially among the young people. Young people today, when they hear their leaders speak, they think they are making excuses, usual false promises, you know, promoting — defending their failures or looking forward to how they can die in power. The image the young people have of their leadership is terrible. And the same way, when leaders hear the young people, they hear the complainants, the abusers, the protesters, the extremists. These two must work together if we must. Can we create a culture where the young get reassured that they are part of the system? They earn the legitimate honors of the future? Can we create a point where the leaders in power know that we are not just merely hunting them out of power, but we’re saying, “Let them create a culture where leadership is shared, and in a respectful way.”
MR. OCHEN: It’s a very important question that every young leader, YALI member — whether it be a fellow or a member or a network alumni, beneficiaries or associates — should know that the spirit upon which YALI was founded was on a community, was about people, was about the future, and was about inclusion. Those presidents did not at any point think they are the only best humans on Earth. They knew they were brought forward to serve their people. Both President Washington and Mandela had the opportunity to become kings of their countries, but they chose to be leaders. They chose to leave power, when they even still wanted more to stay in power. They chose to work for people. And they laid the foundation upon which their nations became countries which are flourishing today.
So this is a community spirit. This is the human spirit. So, as young people, as young generation, bearing the identity of these significant leaders, we should be ready to defend that image and defend it with respect, defend it with integrity, the integrity of our power, the integrity of our choices, the integrity of our actions. This must be absolute integrity as a young generation.
So this is why community that young people comes from, the members, YALI members, come from, are the communities in need — in need of peace, in need of prosperity, in need of growth and in need of change, the mindset change. We may not be having enough infrastructure. But, most importantly, if we change our mindset, there is a good reason for us to be hopeful. And this is why we are looking forward to how can we help society regain and be better by bringing about the new leadership, the young generation. I trust in young people. They live in a society like I grew up in. But they are the people whose hearts are in the right places; they are the people with integrity; they are the people to trust.
And I think every YALI member must know that they have society’s trust and they have been given space. We appreciate the government of the United States for thinking that we cannot do it alone. We cannot think we are — foreign aids to Africa will change Africa. We need to develop the potential, local potential and the potential for growth. And when they think about it at a community level, these young people’s mission should be about — not primarily about GDP. Let them think about livelihood. This is where change comes from. If the families cannot afford to feed their children, if they cannot afford to prevent the local conflict, then we are headed for bigger disaster. YALI could be a reason to tear down the tribalism wall that has torn apart Africa. There could be an opportunity to bring about local economic growth. There could be a reason for a future where young generations are driving change and positive change.
MR. OCHEN: My advice to the YALI communities, the YALI members, the YALI Network, who probably doesn’t believe that an individual can make a difference: First of all, they came together on the concept that they were individuals who stood for what drives change. And I think it’s very important that sometimes you might see yourself, you’re in the deep sea alone — a sea of poverty, a sea of misery, alone — and you might find that it’s too big for you to make a difference. But maybe perhaps just a whistle blowing or raising an alarm or stepping forward, raising a light that can brighten the society is important. So my guess here would be the whole mission was you come together as young people, share your knowledge, share your experience, be exposed to the point that you are not alone. Know that beyond your borders is another YALI member doing something.
So, in your community, if you do the little bit you can do, bit by bit makes a bundle. And I think, with the support available from the development partners, in this case the U.S. government, I think it’s very important that this support is support given, channeled to the YALI community, not limiting it to YALI alumni only, not limiting to YALI fellows. How can we go beyond fellowship because we are creating a culture of YALI? There are wonderful people, they have wonderful young people outside there who have never had opportunity to become a fellow. These people need space. These people need to be supported. These people need to be recognized and exposed. So this is where our support should be extended.
Also, the network members, we should have a goal. What do we foresee in five years’ time? Where do we see YALI? Could we form the strongest web network of change-makers in the continent where, based upon stronger solidarity, based upon national African identity, and based upon human identity, we are able to drive change, the change that we want for our continent? Alone sometimes you are too lonely and you get lost. But if you are alone to represent a powerful network, a web network somewhere, you become part of the structure. I know the fear is sometimes you are in the forest of miseries and you are lost. But if you communicate, you engage, you network with other people, there’s a good reason for you to never feel alone in the struggle.
So my advice is, yes, it gets lonely, it gets tough. Maybe you feel like also so abandoned by international communities, by your own society. But I think when you have your heart in the right place, like you do, you are a real seed for change.
MR. OCHEN: Every year, yes, the world celebrates Mandela Day. And my question would be, in the present Africa, what would Mandela say if he was alive? Even if he’s not alive but his dreams and legacy lives, what is Mandela saying about the present Africa?
First of all, Mandela would appreciate the YALI spirit, coming together to empower everybody from every corner of the continent and to build classical means of engaging with the world. This is key; this is important. And then, on a day that the world celebrates the most commendable, remarkable human ever we have had in the continent, I think Africans should first of all celebrate that even though Africa has seen the worst in life for the last decades and decades, since the creation of the universe, we could still have a leader like Mandela coming from the continent, the best leader of our time, coming from Africa. This tell us something.
Then going back also to the history, the history tell us that people with greater legacies of commendable leadership that remains to drive the world today, the Martin Luther King, their roots are here. Even Jesus was somewhere here in Africa [LAUGHING] — he was a refugee here in Africa. So, it goes back to the present — you know, generations should realize that Africa, whereas it has seen the worst, but the best has always come from home. So where are the new Mandelas? Where are the new faces that will sustain this legacy?
So, on that day, we should be driven by the values of Mandela, the value of tolerance, stepping beyond your enemy lines, engaging with your should-have-been-Number-1 enemy. I gave my story today about how I employed my own brother’s abductor. And I found peace, you know, in the whole process, within myself and with him.
So, the spirit of Mandela is a spirit of reconciliation. YALI should step forward and put their message clear on how do they foresee Africa, a reconciled continent. How do they foresee harmony between the rivaling forces within Africa? This is the spirit of Mandela, who could forgive and embrace the white population in South Africa to work with. This is what we should be promoting. And then, the respect of the will of the people. And sometimes, your people forces you too much as a leader because of the few individuals whom you hear them would raise what is being either talked about or they are shown what is being talked about. And then they tell you to stay in power forever. If Mandela could step down from power — he reached a point of saying, “I am not only respecting the talk of the people. I am listening to my heart.” I think this is when we should do that. Sometimes, leader says, “I am not going to leave power because my people want me in power.” You know, it’s not only good for yourself to leave power and respecting the tools — the institution, you know, the document of freedom, but it’s also good to set a precedent. If Mandela could do it, we think other leaders should also do it.
So dialogue is important. Creating harmony is important — promoting the spirit of reconciliation. This should be an opportunity where on that day, YALI should launch a movement, a movement that would sync about promoting a united Africa where people dialogue in harmony to address problems that is killing our people. Because it’s not about us. If it was about Mandela, he could have lived in power forever, could have been the king of South Africa. But he said, “No, it’s all about people.” So the leadership of the people is the leadership that should be promoted by the Young African Leaders Network.
VOICE-OVER: Before we wrap up with Victor, he had one more thing he wanted to share that may surprise you. He applied for — but was not selected — for a Mandela Washington Fellowship.
MR. OCHEN: I was so inspired because, all along, I was pursuing any opportunity that could put me in touch with fellow young people around the continent and around the world. When I heard about the opportunity, I applied for it. [LAUGHING] I applied for YALI twice. I couldn’t be taken. And up to now, I’ve never been taken yet, so [LAUGHING] — which is fine because somehow I represented the majority of the population around the world who applied for this opportunity. But not everybody can be taken. It’s just good, but good for certain fewer numbers, which — you can’t blame that, “Why was I not taken?”
But what I’m saying also is, upon learning about YALI’s mission, YALI’s dream, and, you know, the vision, the objective, I found it fitting to what I was doing locally, and I said, “Well, I’m so happy to know that my choice to act in a way that I work towards transforming my society is not mistaken, is a choice which is right and is a choice that complements what international communities, the intellectuals of this world, are also thinking. I think at a local level, but also that people think at a global level. And then I thought now maybe, with the YALI Network coming in, if I took part in it, I would be taking my local community knowledge to international communities and also bring international to my local communities. So that’s why I worked so hard about it.
But then, since it did not happen, I did not give up, and I said, “I do not need to be a fellow in order to be a YALI. I am a YALI, but I’m not a fellow.” But that’s okay because the spirit upon which YALI was founded was based on the fact that, you know, the top historical leaders whose dreams led to the founding of their nations, that their citizens, their people, may live in peace, that future generations may embrace the concept of unity, which Washington had for America, which Mandela had for Africa and for South Africa, which President Obama came and embraced and said we need to — our generation needs to help achieve the vision of our founding fathers.
So this is the spirit upon which we needed, and this is the spirit upon which it should be passed on to the young generation. And I am very happy that my experience with YALI today is phenomenal because I meet amazing young fellows who have gone to Washington or to the United States, people who have been around the continent, enormous training in the region that I think is just brilliant. And what inspires me the most about YALI right now: It has become the largest powerful network of young African leaders, which I see it creating a powerful transformation because it’s inspiring growth, not only economic growth but human growth, unity, cementing the relationship, bridging the gap, creating networks, creating understanding and facilitating atmosphere for trust. This is what we needed in the continent, and I think this is what YALI is achieving remarkably.
VOICE-OVER: Thanks, everyone, for tuning into another YALI Voices Podcast and thank you, Victor Ochen, for a great conversation and for all the work you do.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
Join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be a part of something bigger!
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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.