Eleven years since the end of the civil war in Uganda, which pitted Lord’s Resistance Army rebels against the government, tens of thousands of people still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mental health practitioners estimate that seven in 10 people in Northern Uganda were traumatically affected by the war.
At the age of 12, Francis Okello Oloya was blinded by a bomb blast as he dug in the family garden. In a boarding school for the blind, Okello found it difficult to ask people for help, especially in getting to the toilet at night. Now a 29-year-old community psychologist, that childhood experience led to the birth of a project involving what he calls comfort dogs.
“I had to navigate my way from the sleeping quarter to latrine and that was not easy,” he said. “And these dogs came to know that I needed help. And they began the practice of helping me from the sleeping quarters to the latrine. Being a person of visual impairment, you normally feel that you are going to burden people a lot.”
Dogs are mainly used for hunting in Uganda, with a few people warming up to the idea of owning dogs at home, mostly for security. But Okello began collecting street dogs, which were handed over to guardians with training in dog handling.
In 2015, Okello started The Comfort Dog Project to help people in Gulu town, especially those who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
Philda Akum, 35, is one of the 29 beneficiaries of the project. In 1997, she and her four brothers were abducted by the LRA and taken to Sudan.
One of her brothers tried to escape.
That brother was captured and killed, Akum says. Another brother was selected to go to the battlefront; he was shot dead. Two days later, her youngest brother contracted cholera and died. The horrors have left her traumatized, she says. She returned home and joined group therapy, which is how she got her dog, Lok Oroma.
Lucy Adok, 39, spent five years fighting in the bush.
“I was in combat and saw many people being killed,” she said. “I was destroyed. When I returned home, I experienced flashbacks and any loud sound sounded like a bullet. When I learned that I could get a dog as a friend, I took on Sadiq.
“I now spend a lot of time with Sadiq. I have dreams of our games during the day and slowly Sadiq has replaced the bad memories from the war.”
The dogs find a home, and the guardians find life companions.