For 2 weeks in mid April, the US Army and US Air Force did training for the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) in the form of aerial resupply, code named Atlas Drop 11. The idea is that troops in the field in need of supplies (food, bullets, etc) can call an airplane or helicopter for resupply instead of using vehicles that become vulnerable to attack or delay because of the remoteness of the troops they are resupplying. The aircraft need only fly overhead near the troops, find the signal panels laid out by the soldiers, drop the supplies out of the craft, and then return to the base from which they came. For this training, the US Army brought the signal panels they use from the States, called VS 17 signal panels.
The American soldiers have been staying in the Soroti Hotel, which meant that I and the other 3 local volunteers went to welcome them, give them some hospitality, and generally have a nice time.
It was then that their commanding officer, Lt Colonel Dickerson, and I had a conversation about their VS 17 panels. He remarked that he would be interested to see if there was a way to make a Ugandan VS 17 signal panel using local materials and local labor, so as to give the project a sense of sustainability. I informed the Colonel that I work at a vocational school with a tailoring department that could fulfill his wish.
The next day (Saturday), I set 9 of my year 3 (about to graduate) tailoring students to work making Ugandan VS 17 panels for sale to the US Army. That night I brought a sample of the work for the Colonel and his men. The next day we worked to finish the production run. However, at the last minute, the Colonel called me and told me that he and the Ugandan officers were so impressed with our sample panels, that they more than doubled their order to 2.3m shillings. My students then worked for another 2 days to fill their request. During those 2 days (Monday and Tuesday) the panels we had produced over the weekend were used in actual training exercises between the US Army and the UPDF in the Ugandan bush.
On Sunday, the Public Affairs officer, Cpt Akiki, of the local UPDF came to the school to see the work being done. He was given a tour of the school, explained what we do here, shown the girls and the panels they were making, and left the school very impressed. He was so impressed that he mentioned the school by name as having materially helped the UPDF during their closing ceremony of the training; he was the master of ceremonies.
The Ugandan general in charge of the training (General Kayumba who was the leader of the troops who liberated Soroti from the LRA) currently has a sample of our panels, and the school has been highly recommended as becoming the permanent supplier of these panels to the UPDF.
In order to give a more detailed picture of who the Army was helping, I made a mini-biography for the 9 girls who started the project. Details included where they were from, how many family members, what their family did for money, what they wanted to be, how many people had died in their family, and their biggest challenge in life. Every single one of them said “poverty and sickness” as their greatest challenge in life, which makes the next bit especially poignant. For every panel that one of my girls made, they earned 5,000Ugx. In total, 350,000Ugx was distributed to the students in the form of wages.
Many of the American soldiers came to the school on their 1 day off to see where the panels were being made. One of the soldiers was so affected by the tour of the school that he resolved when he returned home, he would mobilize his wife, and his church, to become permanent donors for the school; he has been referred to the school director for the implementation of his wish.
One final thing of special note; the majority of the girls who worked on the panels were displaced or otherwise affected when the LRA invaded. Two of the girls were actually abducted, and later rescued by the UPDF. These girls have now made tools the UPDF will use to hunt down the remaining LRA.