What’s in a name? From Atonyawelo to Emmanuel

Once upon a time, there was a tiny girl whose name meant “child I shouldn’t have borne” — “Atonyawelo,” in the Lwo language of Northern Uganda. She was the product of rape endured by her 15-year-old mother, Betty. Betty was simply a pawn in a war … kidnapped by rebel soldiers and forced to kill or be killed … her body used for others’ pleasure. Atonyawelo was a living sign of her mother’s slavery.

The little girl grew and grew. At three months old, a battle broke out, and she was separated from her mother. She was thrown into a pile of dead bodies and lay there for some time, until being rescued and returned to her mother.

Atonyawelo’s mother became pregnant again by the soldiers. One lucky day, the three of them (the youngest still growing in the womb) escaped and ran. They ran, they hid, they took with them only their lives and stopped running at a displacement camp called Mucwini. There they stayed while Atonyawelo’s little sister was born and her mother became pregnant by a man who promised to care for them. (The promise didn’t come true.)

As the children grew, so grew Betty’s anger and hatred for those around her and for herself. Her children were called “bush babies,” dirty and worthless. She just wanted to end all the misery.

A counselor from Food for the Hungry’s New Life Center came to the camp and got to know Atonyawelo and her family, and these were some of the only signs of love and care they had seen in a long time.

The mother, two girls and new baby boy went to live at the Center. All this time, Atonyawelo suffered night terrors and could hear the dead calling out to her from the time she spent as a baby in the pile of bodies. She could identify them by name. The child lay awake every night and would sleep during the day.

Mathew Okwir read his Bible to Atonyawelo. Mathew joined FH in 1998.  “I love children and feel this work is more of God call in my life,” he said.

At the Center, the family soaked up a variety of healing, strengthening activities and friendships.

They smiled, they played jump rope, they giggled with friends and learned about Jesus.

Some of the other girls were pregnant when they came to the Center. One gave birth and, true to her Acholi culture, named the baby according to the present circumstances. Emmanuel was his name — “God with us.”

At the end of Atonyawelo’s three-month stay, some of the young mothers requested to have their children baptised. A minister came to visit.

Some brave little ones walked themselves up to the altar, chins held high. Above is Atonyawelo’s little sister, Alimo.

Others were oblivious to the entire thing.

Betty proudly offered her baby for baptism. The next day, Atonyawelo, her mother and her siblings returned to the camp, this time well-equipped with the Gospel, life skills, and a loan to start a small business. Life wouldn’t suddenly be easy for them — not quite as perfect as a fairy tale — but their story has a happy ending. They now have tools to cope with a hard life on earth, they have solid hope for the future, and they have been introduced to the One who gives everlasting life.

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