Okot Noyes is 18 years old and lives in Nwoya district some 380 km north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. When he was seven years old, LRA rebels attacked his village and mercilessly killed his parents while they were on their way to school with him. Luckily, Noyes escaped death by a whisker by hiding in the bush. His grandmother took care of the orphaned Okot and put him to school, where he completed eighth Grade. Lacking school fees and related support, however, Okot was forced to drop out in 2012 at age 15.
But even as a young lad, Okot had always been fascinated by the arts, drawing, drama, artisan design and dance. Unfortunately, he did not have the means, and opportunity was often scarce in the district, to develop and nurture his natural inclination. In 2013, community members and leaders, seeing his potential, chose Okot to be one of the conversation facilitators for the Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) Project.This is an initiative that IIRR, Cordaid are implementing in partnership with local partner called CDI in two sub-counties of Nwoya district.
With great eagerness and interest, Okot attended the community dialogue facilitators training IIRR organized. This training and exposure encouraged him and gave him the confidence to develop his native talent. When opportunity came, Okot got a loan of USH 200,000 ($75) from the Village Lending and Saving Association. This fund was formed and supported by IIRR and its local partner for community conversation facilitators. Okot used this seemingly paltry sum to pursue his passion for artisan design. As his talent grew, nurtured by training and small capital support provided by the Program, he started drawing cartoons, developing educational games, designing and printing promotional materials like t-shirts, posters, certificates and signboards. To make his venture economically viable, he charged fair and affordable fees for his services.
In just four months, Okot was able to pay off his loan. He set up a shop which he called the “Noyes Talent Center” in the small district town. He now makes a net profit of approximately USH 250,000 ($100) per month, two times higher than the average income of teachers or nurses in the district. When asked what his business means to him, Okot replies philosophically, “I will never die of hunger”.
Okot is not only making positive financial strides for himself. Through his creative innovations, he is inspiring many other fellow school dropouts like himself to overcome poverty through dedication, hard work and sheer talent, and leads them by example to share these blessings to others. Okot organizes 30 youth (20 girls) in his district and neighboring districts in performing music, drama and dance to educate the public against the threats of early pregnancy, unsafe sex, HIV/AIDS and other harmful practices.
As a community conversation facilitator, Okot also uses his shop to distribute condoms to young school dropouts. To date he supplied condoms to 62 young mothers and out of school youth. These sexually active youth feel more comfortable coming to his shop than to the health center. Okot plans to expand his business and train more of his contemporaries – talented and interested young people like himself – in artisan design, drama and dance. To widen his social influence, Okot leads outreach activities for fellow dropouts, where they do house-to-house calls to sensitize community members on sexual and reproductive health rights.
Okot’s “Noyes Talent Center” is an amazing talking classroom. From floor to ceiling, his shop is crammed with information and educational materials – posters, games, cartoons, T-shirts – that combine a thriving business and effective public education. Okot needs additional resources to strengthen his already flourishing venture. He needs a computer, art and design materials, and supplies to develop quality art and promotional products. He wishes to get drama and dance costumes for his team to attract greater public attention and visibility. He envisions a bigger facility to serve as training venue for aspiring fellow youth like himself, eager to better themselves and contribute to the wellbeing of their communities.
The Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Project funded by Cordaid supports innovative initiatives that have diversified multiplier effects. The IIRR and CDI team is mentoring Okot to develop a business plan where he can borrow more capital from the VSLA fund to expand his socially responsible business. Okot’s story is an inspiring story of triumph against early adversity through sheer talent and determination, and timely little help from programs like the SRHR Project of IIRR and partners providing innovative help to help the poor out of adversity and poverty.