Keely Hutton is a children’s book author and former teacher. She worked closely with Ugandan child soldier Ricky Richard Anywar to tell his story in her debut novel, Soldier Boy. Soldier Boy was included on Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Youth 2017 and Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth 2018 lists and honored with a 2018 Children’s Africana Book Award. Keely continues to work with Ricky and his organization, Friends of Orphans, to promote the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of former abductees and child soldiers in northern Uganda. Her second novel, Secret Soldiers will be available in June 2019.
Wala Abushaar: Solider boy is your first published novel. There are millions of atrocities committed in the world, why did you choose this story? What caused you to agree to work with Ricky and share his life to the world?
Keely Hutton: In March 2012, my cousin, John Fay, emailed me about his friend, Ricky Richard Anywar, a man he’d met while working with non-profit organizations in Africa. Ricky had been trying for over eight years to find a writer to tell the story of his time as child soldier in notorious warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but no one would take on the project. Although Ricky’s story of survival captured my attention, I politely declined John’s request that I speak with Ricky three times. I believed a story as important as Ricky’s deserved both a published author with name recognition and a writer with life experiences similar to Ricky’s. I was neither.
Fortunately for me, my cousin emailed again about Ricky, and even went as far as involving my mother in his push to make the Skype call happen. Finally, I agreed, and Ricky and I scheduled a time to chat. Five minutes into our first Skype conversation, I was certain to two things: 1. Ricky’s story needed to be told, and 2. even though I still questioned if I was the writer to tell it, I knew I wanted to help Ricky and his work at Friends of Orphans in northern Uganda in any way I could.
I agreed to write his story if Ricky agreed to be involved in every part of the process and promised to let me know if, at any point, I was not representing his story, him, his family, the Acholi people, and Uganda with the respect, accuracy, and authenticity they deserved. I then dove into research to educate myself on the Ugandan conflict, Joseph Kony, the LRA, child soldiers, and Acholi culture and traditions. Ricky and I also started Skyping and emailing regularly. In June 2012, Ricky traveled to the U.S. and stayed with my family for several days. We discussed ideas for the book, Ricky’s time as a child soldier, and how he became founder of Friends of Orphans, an organization that helps with the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of former child soldiers and war-affected youth in northern Uganda.
WA: Was Ricky the only individual you spoke with during your research process? Did you interview or speak with any other previous LRA members?
KH: Yes, as it was Ricky’s story I was helping to tell, Ricky was the only former child soldier I spoke with during my research and writing. To help write the chapters focused on Samuel, a fictional, composite character based on the thousands of children Ricky and FRO have helped, I spoke with Ricky and watched and read interviews with former child soldiers and abductees at Friends of Orphans, as well as books, articles, and documentaries about the LRA and child soldiers.
WA: The LRA committed atrocity after atrocity, did you find it difficult to truly capture their inhumanity?
KH: Not only did I find it difficult to truly capture their inhumanity, when I first started researching the LRA and child soldiers, I found it difficult to believe it. How could any human treat another human, especially a child, with such cruelty? Seven years after I started working on the book, I still don’t understand such inhumanity. Unfortunately, inhumanity is a reality of our world. It is still happening in many countries, including our own. To capture those atrocities in writing is emotionally draining. I had to ask myself difficult questions. What if that were my child? My father? My mother? My brother? Me? I had to allow my imagination to put me in the victims’ and perpetrators’ mindsets in those moments. I had to emotionally connect to the characters and scenes if I hoped to have my readers connect to the story. My family often came home from work and school to find me crying over scenes I had been working on that day. What buoyed me while working on Soldier Boy, and what I prayed would also buoy readers, is the hope for humanity Ricky possesses throughout the story and the hope he still shares in northern Uganda today.
WA: We know Samuel represents the many children helped by Ricky, but does he also represent the reader? Especially in the last scene where he is shocked at the forgiveness of Ricky towards his oppressors?
KH: Samuel represents all the people with whom Ricky shares his story, including the reader. Samuel’s shock in hearing Ricky forgave his oppressors was my shock when Ricky told me about his encounter with one of his captors after his escape. Ricky shared that story with me months after the first draft of Soldier Boy was completed. I was speechless. I couldn’t imagine having the strength to forgive someone who’d taken everything from me. Like Samuel, I asked how he could forgive them. Ricky’s answer made me cry. I immediately wrote it down and when I revised the manuscript, I added that scene and included his response word-for-word.
WA: In chapter Twenty-Five were given a glimpse of how female abductees are treated, were there any moments where you felt about writing it through a female characters point of view?
KH: I considered writing from a female character’s POV for the chapters that became the “Samuel” chapters when I was deciding on the structure of the book. The female abductees’ burden in the LRA was far greater than that of the male abductees, a fact Ricky’s character acknowledges in chapter twenty-five. As I plotted out the chapters, however, I kept thinking about the young boy, William, forced to carry and fire a weapon too big and heavy for his small 8-year-old body. His fate, left to die in the bush alone, haunted me. It may have been because when I started working on Soldier Boy, my youngest son was the same age William had been when he was taken by the LRA. I often wondered what would have become of that small, innocent boy had he survived his captivity. It was those thoughts that led me to creating Samuel, an 11-year-old child soldier, who had been taken by the rebels three years earlier. Samuel is who I imagined William would have become had he lived long enough to escape the LRA. Once I settled on having two, alternating male POVs, I knew it was important to also show the plight of the female abductees, which is why their suffering and strength is woven throughout both storylines.
WA: In a previous interview you stated that you removed 80 pages from the manuscript, was there anything important in those pages? Was there anything deemed too graphic or violent omitted during the writing or revision process?
KH: In my first drafts, I tend to write ALL the words, so much of those removed 80 pages was overwriting on my part. There were also scenes removed because they were repetitive. During the two-and-a half years of Ricky’s captivity, the day-to-day life of a child soldier, even the atrocities committed, became monotonous to an extent. As a writer, I had to choose which events to keep and which ones to cut due to similarities. I also had to make decisions on what information Ricky had shared with me was appropriate for our target audience. Keeping young adult readers (ages 13-18+) in mind, there were things Ricky shared with me about his experience that I chose not to include in the book. For other violent events, which I felt were necessary to include, I chose to lead the reader up to the atrocity, so they knew what was coming, but stopped shy of “showing” it, so readers could allow their imaginations to take them as far as they were comfortable going.
WA: What advises would you give to other writers who would like to write a novel based on a true story?
KH: Whether you are asked to or choose to write a novel based on a true story, you have a responsibility to represent the person, people, and events you are writing about with as much accuracy, authenticity, and respect as possible. Research should be vast and collected from various sources. Interview the person/people (if they are still alive) whose story you are writing. If they are not alive, reach out to the people who knew them and/or historians. Ask the difficult questions. If you’re unwilling to ask difficult questions and have hard conversations, you should reconsider writing about the subject. You cannot do a story justice if you gloss over the uncomfortable realities of what happened. Find sensitivity readers to review the manuscript before publication. Ricky read every chapter of every draft of Soldier Boy to make sure it was an accurate portrayal of him, his family, his community, and his experiences.
WA: How has this story changed you personally and as a writer?
KH: Knowing Ricky has changed my life profoundly. He has helped me see beyond the bubble of my privileged existence and limited life experiences. He has taught me despite the many differences we may have, we share many core similarities. He has proven that kindness, empathy, and forgiveness are strengths. He gives me hope for humanity and has offered me opportunities to help Friends of Orphans http://frouganda.org/ and their mission beyond writing his story. Ultimately, Ricky makes me want to be a better person. I am humbled he entrusted me with putting words to his story and I am grateful for his friendship.
As a writer, working on Soldier Boy taught me a great deal about the craft of storytelling and the importance of patience and perseverance.
WA: Are you currently working on any other projects?
KH: My next book, a middle grade historical fiction novel titled SECRET SOLDIERS will be available starting on June 11, 2019, and I’m so excited to share this story with readers. Like SOLDIER BOY, SECRET SOLDIERS explores the impact of war on our youth, but this story is set during World War One and deals with young soldiers who volunteered to fight. Over a quarter million underage British boys fought on the Allied front lines of the Great War, but not all of them fought on the battlefield—some fought beneath it. SECRET SOLDIERS follows the journey of Thomas, a thirteen-year-old coal miner, who lies about his age to join the Clay kickers, a specialized crew of soldiers known as “tunnelers,” in hopes of finding his missing older brother. Thomas works in the tunnels of the Western Front alongside three other soldier boys whose constant bickering and inexperience in mining may prove more lethal than the enemy digging toward them. But as they burrow deeper beneath the battlefield, the boys discover the men they hope to become and forge a bond of brotherhood. While I await the publication of SECRET SOLDIERS, I am working on a novel set in World War II.
Thank you Keely, now here’s Ricky.
WA: In a previous interview you stated you were
looking for a writer for over eight years, how did you know Keely Hutton was
the one who could deliver your story to the world?
Ricky Richard Anywar : I realized from our speaking with Keely that she was the person I needed to write my story. She was honest and truthful, besides she was courageous, patience and kind all these made me to build confidences in her that she was the person I was looking for. I could see that she was interested in writing my story in the direction I wanted it to be. My reason for telling my story is to inspire and motivate others.
WA: Have you reconnected with other abductees that were forced to fight alongside you?
RRA: Yes, I have reconnected to a few abductees who were forced to fight alongside with me. Fortunately some of them managed to recover from the trauma we went through but most of them didn’t recover and many committed suicide after returning back home.
WA: In the novel we’re told you forgave your oppressors, how did you find the courage and strength to forgive those who’ve caused so much suffering and pain?
RRA: Yes, I have forgiven those people who have caused so much pain in my life both physically and emotionally. I realized that the only way to set myself free was to forgive them, if I had not forgiven them I would have been a prisoner of revenge up to now and this would have cause me more pain as I fight back to revenge. I believe that one of the best ways to promote global agenda for development is to forgive one another and reconcile with each other even in the face of the most difficult situations. I decided to emancipate myself from mental slavery of ravage, none but ourselves can free our minds, we must set our self-free from the chains of ravage.
Please see my opinion on Kony 2012 advocating for peace building and reconciliation on this link. http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/09/kony-2012-a-view-from-northern-uganda/
WA: How has the release of the novel impacted you and your organization Friends of Orphans?
RRA: The released of the novel has impacted me positively; I have so far received very good feedback from people who have read the novel. Many people have been motivated and inspired by the novel which is the intention of telling my story. It has made many people to realized that as human beings we all encounter challenges, but we should look at our challenges as lessons to learn and to make our future better and more productive. Injustices will only stop when we find the confidence to challenge our society and embrace the concept of tolerance. It doesn’t matter if your cause is popular or not, as long as you know you’re doing what’s right for the safety of humanity.
The novel has made Friends of Orphans to be known by many people around the world and the work we are doing.
WA: We’re told constantly throughout the novel that the LRA will kill and hunt anyone who escapes. Are you still in danger for speaking out against the LRA?
RRA: No I am not in danger now since LRA are now out of Uganda. We hear that they are in Sudan, DR Congo and Central African Republic.
WA: Can you tell us more about your organization Friends of Orphans and what the donations are used for?
RRA: Friends of Orphans donations helps in the following ways.
Vocational skill training: We provide the children with the life and vocational skills needed to become self-employed and employers. The philosophy creates a society of self-empowered population who are able to address their challenges by themselves. This will help combat unemployment within the communities of Uganda by addressing the challenges and realities of life faced by these children. We give them the tools and skills to earn income with respect and dignity without further exploitation, abuse and discrimination. These helps them become productive members and leaders in their communities. It promotes their ability to earn income via innovative, sustainable and non-exploitative means. These facilitate their long-term social reintegration and enable them to contribute to the development of their communities. Short video of FRO activities on empowering girls through vocational skills training https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIbaWHDG9YI
Truama healing program: We rehabilitation, reintegration and empower former child soldiers, former abductees, child mothers, orphans and war affected communities. FRO is working hard to help build lost hope and confidence in children whose early lives were stolen away. They have lost families, homes, lives and a sense of belonging. Many have perished and have been deprived of their families, education and health facilities. These children grew up illiterate in violent situations and with ignorance, knowing only how to operate guns. They have no employable skills, but Friends of Orphans, helps them get back on their feet and on the road to self-sufficiency and success.
FRO believes that these children have wounds in their hearts and minds which need to be washed clean and treated through rehabilitation. Our approach helps the children and the communities to dry their tears and restore meaning in their lives. War affected communities, former child soldiers, orphans, child mothers and abductees do not have to stay victims forever. They can take control of their future and stop the cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
FRO knows that former child soldiers can work themselves out of poverty with respect and dignity if they are not treated as objects, but rather, as subjects. Therefore, we uses multiple strategies to combat unemployment by addressing the challenges and realities of life faced by former child soldiers, child mothers and orphans since we know that children born in these situations are not of their own making. Video of FRO activities on post-traumatic stress disorder https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0dNCWBT2g8
Education program: We provide sustainable access to vocational skill training, primary and secondary education for acutely marginalized war-affected children and young people in Northern Uganda. We promote their ability to earn income via innovative, sustainable and non-exploitative means. A wealth of research has highlighted the cumulative benefits of education in conflict-affected countries; there are clear links between education and children’s improved ability to protect themselves from harm, as education develops the life skills, self-esteem and cognitive abilities children require to increase their resilience to potential abuse and poverty itself. Indeed, it has been noted that children and young people in Northern Uganda who had low educational levels were more vulnerable to abuse and felt the most excluded from their communities.
The rehabilitation in FRO’s program is the key to helping the youth heal the wounds of their pasts, but FRO’s education program is the key to restoring hope and potential in their futures. Education helps to facilitate the long-term social reintegration of these children, enabling them to contribute to the development of their communities with newly acquired skills and competencies.
Peace building, conflict management and resolutions leading to reconciliation program. We restore hope, built confidences, spoilt relationship, consolidate tranquility and encouraging societal healing using the locally available coping mechanisms and systems. Our aim is to strengthen reconciliation initiatives without which lasting and sustainable peace is hard to come by. We involve participation of the different stakeholders affected by conflict with the aim of emphasizing the value of legitimate reconciliation which is the only option for lasting and sustainable peace. Through dialogues, different peace actors are able to share their experience and these way new ideas are generated to improve on the intervention mechanism of stakeholders in peace building by emphasizing the importance of making the local population partners rather than witness in the peace process.
The voices of women and children in conflict management and resolution are largely unheard yet women and children bear the most burdens in times of conflict. Friends of Orphans have created a forum for women and children to express their views on peace building and conflict management leading to reconciliation.
Women empowerment program: We empower war affected women through micro finances training and support, educational and income generating activities. Women in Northern Uganda have become bread winners since most men were killed during the war. The few men spent most of their times drinking and gamboling in trading centers. For these reasons FRO has decided to empower these women through education and micro finances training and support this is aimed at allowing the women to support themselves and their families.
FRO has created 100 different women groups of 60 members each in the war affected communities of Northern Uganda. FRO is supporting these women groups with revolving grant funding for microfinances enterprises, we help in training these different women groups in entrepreneurship skills, communication skills, customer care, basic arithmetic and numerical, basic record keeping, saving skills and financial management. These different women groups meet and save money weekly, the meetings is also to access them self and how they are doing; this is aimed at reducing the risk on the revolving fund while increasing their savings and lending rates. The women have set up different income generating activities and have become entrepreneurs within the communities.
FRO addresses gender violence and harmful cultural practice in relation to the spread of HIV/AIDS. We work with a range of stakeholders to ensure all voices are represented.
We provide HIV/AIDS home-based care, support and prevention amongst the community of northern Uganda.
We provide care to people who are dying of AIDS so that their last weeks, days, hours are free from pain, humiliation and indignity.
Support people living with HIV/AIDS to educate themselves and share information with the broader community on prevention, treatment, care and the elimination of stigma.
FRO Mission is to contribute to the trauma healing of war affected communities, former child soldiers, orphans, abductees and child mothers through rehabilitation, education, vocational skill training, peace building, women empowerment and HIV/AIDS programs.
The vision is to have a society in which the vulnerable are empowered to achieve their full potential and contribute to the development of their community.
Thank you, Ricky. Friends of Orphans are still in dire need of support and aid, to donate and help their righteous cause, click this link http://frouganda.org/donate/