Francis Okello Oloya is a visually impaired person, holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Community Psychology from Makerere University and loves dogs. During the rebel Lord`s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Northern Uganda he lost his vision.
Olya is now using dogs to treat war trauma among returnees, survivors, and ex-servicemen.
Through the Comfort Dog Project under the Big Fix Uganda in Gulu City, Oloya identifies those going through mental health problems arising from armed conflicts and pairs them with ‘companion dogs.’
The beneficiaries together with their dogs are assessed and trained and paired up under the ‘’therapeutic companionship program’’.
Oloya says that beneficiaries who are identified and picked from the communities undergo twenty weeks of training on obedience command and communication parting.
This creates trust, love, and security between the dog and its new owner through the development and release of the ‘’oxytocin hormones’’ in the body to tie the bondage.
Oloya says dogs reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, and encourage exercise, socialization, and self-worthiness. These are most of the common mental health problems among survivors of the LRA war and former ex-combatants, which often graduate in suicide and murder among them.
He explains that the initiative uses dogs love unconditionally. They provide therapeutic companionship because dogs do not segregate, do not reject, do not blackmail, and accept one the way they are, which is something traumatized people need.
Since the inception of the project, at least seventy LRA returnees, survivors, victims, and ex-combatant have benefited from the initiative.
Evelyn Anena (48), a mother of four and a former abductee, whose husband was murdered by the LRA on July 4th, 2004 from their home village in Atede, Lapiny Oloyo in the Gulu district. She has benefited from the project.
Anena said that she had suffered from stigma, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tried to commit suicide. But in 2016 she was paired with a dog named ‘’Pe Yot’’ translated as ‘’Not Easy’’ under the dog companionship program.
Among the Acholi community and other parts of the world, dogs are used for hunting, guarding homes, and tracking criminals but Okello says that dogs are man`s best friends and provide more than security.
The Birth of Comfort Dog
Okello, 33, who hails from Pakuma village in Pabbo Sub County, Amuru district in July 14th 1999 had injuries when their home was attacked and bombarded by the LRA. He was 12 years at that time. He suffered eye injuries from the bomb blasts and consequently lost his sight.
Okello recalls that he suffered stigma, and mental distress and isolated himself from everyone even after he underwent a medical operation to remove the remnants of the bomb. He had opted to commit suicide.
Later when his condition stabilized, Okello who studied at the local primary school in his home village in 2004 joined Gulu High School in then Gulu municipality for his Ordinary Level. Gulu High School offers study programs to people with visual impairment.
However, Okello says it was never easy for him to traverse between the dormitory and the reading room for preps during the night and early morning hours.
All his colleagues were at that time either sound asleep or not willing to attend to him as they were busy attending to their personal studies. Okello would struggle with his ‘’white cane’’ to find his way to and from the reading rooms every early morning and late evening.
Okello`s New Companions
It was at this point that one fateful evening while Okello was going for evening prep that he noticed two strange things, the dogs roaming beside him and walking in accordance with his steps and booing to command him in the right direction.
Okello explains that at first, he didn`t understand the motives of the dogs, who owned them, and why they would scamper around him every time he is moving out of or to the school dormitory.
He later realized that the dogs belong to a neighbor of the school and would keep a distance between his movement to and from the dormitory at a pace of fewer than 500 meters with one behind and the other in front of him.
According to Okello, the dogs were called ‘’Happy which is a male, and Raycio, which is a female, they would stop and touch his white cane whenever he is going in the wrong direction and try to guide him.
This became a daily routine between Okello and his new guidance dogs between 2004 and 2009 when he completed his Ordinary Level (O’level) and Advanced Certificate of Examination (UACE) in the same school.
Okello excelled with 36 aggregates in O’level and fifteen points from History, Economics Literature, and Divinity (HELD) subjects which he did in A’level.
He later joined Makerere University in Kampala and studied Community Psychology where he graduated with a second-class degree, this time with the assistance of a guide provided by the government.
Comforts Dog Project
Okello says that after graduation, he approached Big Fix Uganda and shared with them his experience with the dogs and how they can be used to treat trauma and mental health problems. This led to the birth of the Comfort Dogs Project, which has since benefited 70 people.
Okello says war trauma remains rampant in Northern Uganda but less attention is given to it. The financial constraint and support towards mental health services in the country worsen it. Yoweri Idiba, the Assistant District Health Officer for Gulu noted that when someone has a dog as their friend it helps their well-being.
He notes that the comfort dog project is a key and joint effort in addressing war trauma and mental problems in the community. Okello who is currently undertaking a Master’s in International Relations says he is living happily in the company of his two companion dogs which have named Happy (female) and Baily (male).
Last week, activists in Gulu City led by Gulu Sheffield Mental Health Partnership held a marathon to create awareness and advocate for increased support for mental health services in the country. Statistics show that Uganda registered at least 40,000 cases of mental health problems last year with 318 related deaths.
In the Acholi sub-region, there were at least 123 cases of attempted suicide reported. In a recent interview with URN, Florence Amony a former abductee said that the LRA returnees and survivors continue to battle mental breakdowns but with little assistance.