An African Tale: First Hell, Then College

At age 15, Akallo Grace Grall came to know violence and war; now she is studying journalism

When Akallo Grace Grall woke up, she could feel the cool night air on her face, but she couldn’t move. Most of her body was under sand. Where was her gun? If she’d lost it, her commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army would beat her up. As she dragged herself out of the shallow grave, everything that had happened that day came back to her.

She had left the base camp in southern Sudan with a patrol of guerrillas around her age — 15 years old — to raid a village for food and water in the summer drought. But the commander had kept the water for himself, and on the way back Ms. Grall had fainted from thirst. The others must have thought she was dead, and buried her.

Which way now? For the first time since the guerrillas abducted her from high school five terrible months earlier, she was alone. But even if she guessed the way home to Uganda, she knew she couldn’t cross the arid landscape on foot. In the moonlight, she hurried to catch up with the rest of her patrol. The corpses of child fighters who had died of thirst marked her way, like cairns.

Eventually, Ms. Grall escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2002, five years after regaining her freedom, she reached one of her own goals: She went to college. Although she faced far worse difficulties than most African women, her odyssey epitomizes the persistence and courage of those women who matriculate despite the challenges. In sub-Saharan Africa, only one-quarter of the students enrolled in postsecondary education are women, according to a World Bank estimate from the mid-1990s. About 60 percent of African women live a life that consists of working the land and raising children. Ugandan women bear an average of 6.8 children, and early marriages are encouraged, with rural women marrying as young as 14 years of age. Uganda awards 900 scholarships each year to help women get into college: 10,000 women apply for them.

If more women could reach postsecondary education in Africa, the change could have a ripple effect across the continent, improving the salaries, health, education levels, and aspirations of entire households. But, as Ms. Grall’s story shows, a complex net, woven of traditions, violence, poverty, AIDS, religion, the attitudes of families, vestiges of colonialism, and many other factors, keeps women out of college and, for those who manage to enroll, makes the prospect of graduation difficult. And when African universities are under economic pressure — as they usually are — women tend to have an even tougher time, says Andrea Johnson, program officer of the international development program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. “The worse things are,” she says, “the harder it is on female students.”

While Ms. Grall’s story is extraordinary, many of the hurdles she has faced are, by themselves, very ordinary in Africa.

The village of Bykomile, in northeastern Uganda, was silent on the day of Ms. Grall’s birth in 1981. Her family’s rounded earthen hut had not changed since the days of her ancestors, but the dances that the Iteso people once performed for important occasions — courtship, marriage, death — had disappeared from memory with the spread of Christianity. Her life was fraught with danger. As a small child, she remembers peering up at the cattle raiders from the Karamajong tribe who had chased her family into the bush. Armed with guns, they demanded everything her parents had, even the clothes off their backs.

Her mother had gotten pregnant at the age of 15. A few years after Ms. Grall was born, her maternal grandparents were still pressuring her father to follow tradition and pay a dowry for their grandchild as a proof of marriage. Tired of being nagged, he left his wife and children behind in the village and opened a one-room grocery store far away, in the town of Lira. There he married another woman, who insisted that they couldn’t spare the money to send his daughter to school. Ms. Grall’s uncle, a farmer even poorer than her father, offered to pay. “He was kind to me,” she says.

She thrived in grade school. But she grew restless, curious about the world beyond the village. She knew that she was expected to walk in her mother’s footsteps, hoeing their fields of sorghum, maize, and sweet potatoes, day after day, and fretting over the lack of rain.

When Ms. Grall was about to begin junior high, her uncle was killed in a car accident, and with him went the money for her schooling. She was devastated. She dropped out to help her mother in the fields. Going to college became an even more distant dream.

In fact, until recently, there were no colleges in the whole northern half of Uganda. When the British arrived, in 1887, they preferred the fertile south and built the territory’s first university there, in Kampala, to train civil servants. But the colonial powers enlisted soldiers from the drier, cattle-raising north, driving a political wedge between Uganda’s two halves. One region developed a military tradition, and the other became a wealthy administrative center.

In recent years, the north has lost its influence over the military and drifted further from privilege, its problems often ignored. Groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army have arisen as a result. The agenda of its leader, Joseph Kony, is simple: to overthrow the president and rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. The group was little more than a cult until neighboring countries, like Sudan, hostile to the new Ugandan president, began assisting it with an array of weapons and well-equipped bases across the border.

Since its inception, in 1986, the Lord’s Resistance Army has recruited child soldiers by force. Elsewhere, children have fought alongside adults, particularly in Burma, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka. But the LRA presses more of them into service than does any other armed force in the world. Kony-led guerrillas have abducted 14,000 children over the past 16 years, some as young as 7. Amnesty International estimates that 90 percent of the guerrillas in the group are under the age of 18 or were forcibly recruited by that age, and that militarily, the guerrilla force could not survive without them.

After Ms. Grall had missed a year of school to work in the fields, her father finally came to collect her from the village. He had found a place for her at St. Mary’s, a convent high school in Aboke. Even though the isolated school was within range of attack by the guerrillas, Ms. Grall was ecstatic — she had feared that she would never get beyond grade school.

In some months, her father couldn’t pay all of her school fees, but the elderly Italian nuns allowed Ms. Grall to stay. She made a close friend, Agnes Gillian Ocitti. The nuns encouraged their adolescent pupils not to forget their respective traditions. Ms. Ocitti, who is from the Acholi people, taught Ms. Grall the steps of a courtship dance, kicking up the dust with the other girls in a glade under the tall gum trees.

Ms. Grall’s bliss lasted 10 months. The dozens of Lord’s Resistance Army fighters who gathered outside her dormitory on October 10, 1996, were teenagers, not much older than herself. In the light of their burning torches, she could see their gumboots and the belts of bullets slung over their shoulders. Ms. Ocitti recognized some of them from a nearby boys’ school.

When the schoolgirls refused to open the door of their dormitory, the fighters tore a window out of its frame and pulled the terrified girls out from under their bunk beds. Ms. Grall was in her nightgown. The fighters led away more than 140 pupils from St. Mary’s, tied together in small groups, and then burned the school’s SUV.

When dawn came, one of the nuns followed the soldiers’ footprints. Alerted by one of several girls who had managed to flee the forced march to Sudan, she caught up with them at a banana plantation. After hours of pleading, the nun succeeded in persuading the commander to let 109 captives go free. But he kept 30. “Jesus chose 12 apostles,” he said. “We choose 30 angels.”

Akallo Grace Grall and Agnes Gillian Ocitti were among the angels. Soldiers smeared shea-nut oil in the shape of crosses on the girls’ foreheads, chests, and shoulders.

The 30 girls were marched north toward Sudan, evading troops of the pursuing Ugandan army, who sometimes swept overhead in helicopters. Awakened before dawn each day by rebel soldiers, Ms. Grall wrapped her blistered feet in banana leaves and walked until sunset. She gave up thoughts of escape after the new recruits were forced at gunpoint to encircle a small girl who had tried to run off, and to beat her to death with pieces of firewood. The soldiers themselves beat any girls who hit her too softly. As the fighters kidnapped more recruits on their way north, Ms. Grall would witness versions of that scene many times.

After a few weeks, when group was split up to travel faster, Ms. Grall and Ms. Ocitti were separated. When Ms. Ocitti’s group emerged from the bush to cross a main road, it was ambushed by the Ugandan army; in the melee, she managed to escape. Ms. Grall’s group had taken another route. After several weeks, she crossed the border into Sudan, where, officially, the Ugandan army could no longer pursue them.

A few days later, upon arriving at the rebels’ base camp, Ms. Grall realized why the girls had been kidnapped. Joseph Kony had ordered the attack on St. Mary’s because of the convent school’s reputation for educating smart girls. Their offspring, he thought, would make clever soldiers. On the camp’s prayer ground, Ms. Grall was awarded to Lakati, a trusted lieutenant, as his fifth “wife.” Kony spoke for hours in front of his assembled troops, delivering the message that he said God had given him: that his soldiers must eradicate other Ugandans and produce their own children, to deliver a new generation.

Lakati was her grandfather’s age. Ms. Grall doesn’t speak at all about the night when he called her into his hut and forced her to lie down.

In the daytime, Ms. Grall had to fetch water and hoe and plant and weed. At the age of 15, she felt that she had ended up in her mother’s life after all, her back bent in the fields. A commander taught her how to assemble and load an AK-47 and how to fight guerrilla-style — crawling, hiding, moving quickly.

At night, she slept with her gun tied to her body, to prevent being beaten for misplacing it. Or she lay awake in a trench, on guard duty. In the dry season, the rebels sent out armed patrols to loot nearby Sudanese villages. Ms. Grall, aching for the food and jerrycans of precious water they could find, was surprised how easy it was to pull the trigger.

Half a year after Ms. Grall’s abduction, a vanguard of the Ugandan army crossed the Sudanese border, in secret, and attacked the Lord’s Resistance Army base camp.

The ensuing battle lasted for several days. Hundreds of young recruits who had been abducted were cut down by the fire of mortars, tanks, and machine guns.

Ms. Grall saw that this was no rescue operation — the Ugandans aimed to crush the rebels, no matter what the cost.

At length she found the shade of a tree and simply sat down on the battlefield, too tired and hungry to care if she was shot, or if her commander noticed that she was no longer fighting. Somehow she felt safe under the tree’s boughs. By the day’s end the battle was raging in the distance, and she realized that, other than the corpses around her, she was alone.

She discarded the saucepan and the bales of her husband’s clothing that she was supposed to carry, but kept her gun and magazines. If she was caught again, she could tell the Lord’s Resistance Army that she had lost her way. After three days of walking vaguely south, navigating by the sun, she came across eight young girls from the camp and persuaded them to escape with her.

They eventually crossed a river, where Ms. Grall told her eight charges — who had begun calling her “Mommy” — to throw away their guns. It took many more days for Ms. Grall and the girls, traveling through hostile villages and, once, catching a lift on top of a tanker truck, to reach safety in Uganda.

Ms. Grall had been away for six months, but her life as a soldier was over.

At St. Mary’s once again, she was determined not to fall behind a year, as she had when her uncle died, and she easily caught up with her classmates. She tore up the photograph that the Ugandan army had taken of her shortly after her border crossing; it reminded her of how emaciated she had become in captivity. When the nuns took her for an AIDS test, she wasn’t convinced, even after the test result came back negative, that she had escaped infection. The AIDS rate among those who have escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army has been very high.

Ms. Ocitti, too, had found her way back to St. Mary’s. In spite of the horror they had both experienced, the two friends laughed over Ms. Grall’s story of how she yelled “I just want food!” in the face of General Kazini, chief of the Ugandan army, who had interrogated her after she crossed the border back into Uganda. Ms. Grall was afraid of any sound resembling gunshots for a long time after her return, says Ms. Ocitti, who calls her “special one.”

By late 1999, rebel attacks again drew close to the convent school, and Ms. Grall fled to her father, in Lira. There she spent her last two years of high school at St. Catherine’s, which hadn’t been attacked. Lira is not far from Aboke, however, and word of her past reached the school. Her classmates taunted her: “Kony’s wife! Kony’s wife!” Her grades slid. Unlike Ms. Ocitti, who had stayed at St. Mary’s, Ms. Grall didn’t make it into Makerere University, Uganda’s premier institution.

In some respects, Uganda is ahead of the rest of the continent in encouraging women in higher education. Makerere’s student body is 40 percent female, and its progressive policies have led to support for 233 women’s scholarships from the Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller foundations in the United States. At the same time, a lack of respect and encouragement for girls in high school means many of them drop out before applying to college, says Joy C. Kwesiga, dean of social sciences at Makerere University and author of Women’s Access to Higher Education in Africa: Uganda’s Experience (Fountain Publishers, Uganda; 2002).

While Ms. Grall was held captive, St. Mary’s had begun an international campaign to publicize the plight of the 30 pupils abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. They became know as the “Aboke Girls,” a term that has been sounded on Ugandan radio stations, in African newspapers, and, in the United States, on the Oprah Winfrey Show. A Belgian philanthropy offered to pay for college educations for any girls who managed to escape from the guerrillas.

A distant relative sent Ms. Grall a pamphlet on Uganda Christian University, a private institution founded in Mukono, near Kampala, in 1997. Nearly half the students there are women. Indeed, the growth of private institutions — there are now 12 in Uganda — has helped to give more women access to higher education, says Ms. Kwesiga.

“My parents told me I should not study,” says Ms. Grall — a good daughter should get married and raise children — but she applied anyway. After she was admitted to the university’s law program, in September 2002, she realized that she didn’t want to imitate Ms. Ocitti’s career choice. Ms. Grall decided to study journalism.

In Mukono, close to the equator, the rain falls throughout the year, swollen clouds massing in the afternoons and turning jet-black before bursting open. The weather makes Ms. Grall wish she had a secondhand jacket she saw in a street market. Growing up in the hot, dry north, she hasn’t needed a jacket until now.

So far, she thinks, college has given her an abundance of things she has longed for, including new friends. When she was working in the fields, she wanted this life of spirited debates and library books. And the college, which was founded by the Anglican Church, has a reputation for safety and tranquility. Maybe when she’s a senior, she thinks, she will break with her village tradition and wear pants for the first time.

A few weeks into her first semester, Ms. Grall attends the midday prayer meeting, where most of the campus’s 2,130 students are gathered. After they all sing psalms, the president, Stephen Noll, an American theologian, officially admits the freshmen to the college.

The crowded hall is open on all sides, to let in the breeze. When the dean of her faculty takes the podium, Ms. Grall stands up with her classmates and promises aloud “to promote Christian moral spiritual principles in the spirit of the university motto: ‘God, the beginning and the end.'”

On Sundays, the university chaplain prays for the girls abducted from St. Mary’s, not realizing that one of them is before him. Head bowed, her lips moving fervently, Ms. Grall sometimes wonders how the God she believes in could have let her be kidnapped.

After the vow, Mr. Noll, in his clerical collar and saffron academic gown, exhorts the students to study diligently and not stray from the straight path. Instead of going to the disco in town on Friday nights, he says, they should come to the films he has chosen to show in the meeting hall. This Friday it is Lord of the Flies, which elaborates on the theme of sin. Ms. Grall listens to him tell how he found his calling in Christianity while studying history at Cornell University, and how he met his wife there. Uganda is a traditional society when it comes to marriage, and the students murmur with approval that he married while still in college.

“Not me,” says Ms. Grall, when the ceremony ends. She doesn’t tell her friends, but she doesn’t want to marry. Many students head to the canteen, a wood-and-cloth pergola where they can drink 7Up. Ms. Grall doesn’t go. That’s where couples hang out, she says.

That Friday evening, rather than stay in her small, rented room in town, Ms. Grall walks to the campus. Sitting on plastic chairs in the hall, the crowd of students watches the Lord of the Flies unfold: A group of young cadets, shipwrecked on a tropical island, grow ever more wild and superstitious. The students gasp when, on the flickering screen, a crowd of children, faces streaked with red, shout as they pound their sticks into a boy cringing at their feet.

Ms. Grall knows that if the scene were real, the child would have taken longer to die and would have convulsed in spasms at the end. She leaves feeling disgusted at the sight of blood, but not sinful: She had seen Kony’s commanders force new recruits to go through the same initiation as her — killing a child — enough times to realize that it wasn’t just pointless savagery, as in the film, but a technique to break their bonds with home.

It’s late. Ms. Grall has to walk back to her room in town. She hopes to move into a dormitory on the campus, but Mr. Noll says there are only about 450 such beds available. “This is a major deficiency,” he says. He has applied for a development loan and a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to build more dormitory rooms. It is the same problem faced by many other African universities: far fewer spaces than willing students.

Ms. Grall asks an acquaintance to walk home with her — somebody could accost her on the unlit road. It is the same reason she leaves the library before nightfall. She walks fast in the dark, her companion struggling to keep up, while the cicadas rasp under the stars.

One Saturday morning, Ms. Grall heads to the produce market in the center of the capital. She is planning a dinner party in her room, to celebrate her arrival at the college. The taxi-van passes through lush plantations as its tout, balancing on the running board with the door open, yells “Kampala!” at pedestrians.

Wandering up and down the aisles of the market, smelling the curry sold from open sacks of spices, Ms. Grall looks for bean leaves and okra to make boyoyo, a buttery sauce to go with the millet, cassava, and yams she’s stored under her bed. On the paraffin stove she keeps in her room, she’ll also prepare sesame-seed paste, fried plantain, eggplant, and peppers, with sweet melon and pineapple for dessert.

That night, after her classmates have eaten, gossiped, and laughed together, her friend Doreen Abalo sweeps aside the lace curtain hanging in the doorway of the room. Ms. Abalo missed the dinner party because she went on a college-sponsored outing to Lake Victoria, and she’s bursting to tell Ms. Grall about it. On the outing, the chaplain asked all of the students to sign a declaration promising to wait until marriage before having sex.

The first words printed on the yellow card are “True love waits,” a slogan in an American church campaign that has become part of Uganda’s national AIDS policy, which emphasizes abstinence. Ms. Grall hands it back to Ms. Abalo, saying how nice it is. Of course, she says later, she would sign it: She doesn’t want her new college friends to suddenly start chanting “Kony’s wife, Kony’s wife,” as the girls at St. Catherine’s had.

That night, like most nights, Ms. Grall waits until her roommate falls asleep on the other single bed, pushed up against hers in the shape of an L. In the dim light, she gropes inside her pillowcase for her red-covered diary. She searches for a pen in her bag full of college notes, hanging on a hook alongside her clothes. She has kept the diary since her escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The rain drums on the corrugated-iron roof as her roommate sleeps.

Sometimes Ms. Grall writes about her family. She has had difficulty staying in touch with her father. He wires her money when he can, for the photocopies and food that her scholarship doesn’t pay for, but at the beginning of the semester, he had no way of telling her that he had done so, since he has no telephone, and she didn’t know her phone number. When the money does arrive, it often isn’t enough — her father has told her that his meager income is best spent on educating her younger brother. Nevertheless, when she becomes the first in her family to graduate from college, she says, she will support her family. It’s the Ugandan way. She suspects that this is why her father relented and let her go to college.

On Monday morning, she heads to class. She walks fast, her cotton dress — green with white polka dots — flapping around her calves. Now it’s not fear that drives her forward but habit: She learned to walk fast in the Lord’s Resistance Army. When she is early, she wanders the high-fenced grounds, sometimes gazing up at the Bishop Tucker building, oldest and tallest on the campus. Made of brown stone and capped with a bell tower, it houses a chapel, classrooms, and president’s office. It was a seminary, built in 1913, which was absorbed into the college. Spread around the campus are one-story buildings, narrow and long, where students take courses in law, social sciences, business, theology, and, the ones she attends, in mass communication.

In the library, Ms. Grall used a computer for the first time. As she walks to class along the brick pathways, she can name the trees that she passes under. That she has already explored every inch of the campus in the few weeks she’s been here pleases her.

Ms. Grall finds her seat in the open-sided hall, where the main campus activities and large classes take place, to chat with her new friend, Adeline Kamwasir. They met in broadcasting class. A lecturer raises a question about whether a female employee should be promoted if her husband is already successful. One male student suggests that the origins of the word “woman” is “worker for man.”

Ms. Grall’s hand shoots up. She argues heatedly that a woman should not be measured by her husband. Ugandans, who have a strong oral culture, like talking and arguing. That makes teaching far easier than in more passive cultures. Ms. Kamwasir, who likes Ms. Grall’s style, passes forward a note asking her to meet for lunch. The two help each other to make the most of their new educational opportunities: Ms. Kamwasir is teaching her friend to use e-mail, and Ms. Grall is insisting that they both approach big-city newspapers for internships, a new concept in Uganda.

Ms. Grall says she chose journalism because she wants to listen to other people’s experiences. Her favorite lecturer, Ben Bella Ilakut, is a seasoned journalist who studied at Indiana University at Bloomington and is training manager at the Ugandan government’s newspaper, New Vision. He tells his students that growing up with adversity can prepare them for what they will face reporting in Africa. (In the 1970s, Mr. Ilakut was arrested by the murderous dictator Idi Amin and went into exile.)

Mr. Ilakut is one of the few people at the college who can speak Ms. Grall’s home dialect. She sometimes feels isolated because she can’t speak Buganda, the language of the majority of students from the surrounding region. She uses English as a lingua franca; all of her classes in the school of mass communications are taught in English.

A fellow journalism student joins Ms. Kamwasir and Ms. Grall at lunch and sits on his haunches in front of them. He asks Ms. Grall if he can read her version of an essay that they all have to hand in. The topic is Joseph Kony, who is still at large. Ms. Grall makes excuses, pretending that she doesn’t know much about him.

The student boasts that he could become a famous war photojournalist, if only he could go north. Ms. Grall doesn’t mind his warm hand holding hers; it’s a Ugandan custom among aquaintances. She smiles and lets him keep talking about how he’ll be the first war photographer to get pictures of Kony. On the surface, she is gregarious — she always has friends around her — but she often hides the vulnerability she feels in social situations.

Part of the reason Ms. Grall has not yet shared her past with her friends is that she does not want to be pitied. “I hate it when people think we are fragile,” Ms. Ocitti tells her.

But sometimes the emotions well up inside her. In one class on “persuasive communication,” a lecturer shows a black-and-white documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. Like the other Ugandan students in the room, Ms. Grall didn’t know who King was, but the images quickly seize her. In the first scenes, black protesters are running from the Montgomery, Ala., police. Ms. Grall is mesmerized by the awkward, loping gait of two teenage girls, making a dash for freedom when police officers bundle them into the back of a van. Reminded of herself and Ms. Ocitti, Ms. Grall weeps, masking her eyes with her hands so that her classmates cannot see. After the session, she seeks out her favorite spot for solitude, a vast mango tree at the foot of a hill.

As the weeks pass, her confidence blossoms. She does well in her first semester — better than in her last two years of high school — getting good marks in broadcasting, public relations, and, her favorite subjects, basic writing skills and “media writing.” She sometimes finds the compulsory biblical-studies class boring — the textbook includes sentences like: “Can we not credit the disasters of the Sexual Revolution to the false spirituality of its high priest Sigmund Freud and all his pop-psychology Levites?” But she gets her best mark in it.

Instead of waiting for the new dormitories to be built, she lobbies college officials until she and Ms. Kamwasir get a room to share on the campus.

The two friends attend a poetry-writing seminar; later, their writing-skills lecturer, Peggy Noll (the president’s wife), is impressed with Ms. Grall’s poem imagining herself as the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Ms. Grall, who is trying to write her own account of her experiences, borrows a book on autobiography from Ms. Noll. At the lecturer’s invitation, the two students start editing the university’s yearly journal of student writing, The Signpost, which will be sold at the graduation ceremony, in October.

Shortly before the campus closes after her first year, Ms. Grall drops her guard and goes on her first date. It makes her feel less certain about avoiding marriage altogether. She is waiting for the young man to return from vacation before making up her mind about him. Unlike the other students, who have gone home during the class break, Ms. Grall cannot go back to Bykomile. Late in June, the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped 100 girls from a high school a few miles away. If the rebels ever catch her, she knows, “they will kill me.”

Early in her first semester, before it became too dangerous to travel north, Ms. Grall decided to visit St. Mary’s and her father, who lives nearby. Ms. Ocitti offered to go with her. The two are still close: “When we are together,” Ms. Grall says, “we can share things we can’t tell other people.”

On a Friday evening, Ms. Grall catches a taxi-van from Mukono to Kampala. On Makerere Hill, she waits for Ms. Ocitti under a mango tree on the university’s campus, where students from the Acholi tribe are performing a traditional courtship dance on a stretch of lawn.

Male students, in the dress shoes and white shirts with ties that they wear in class, stand in a circle, their hands blurring as they beat seedpod drums, called calabashes, with reed brushes. Female students kneel inside the circle with drums between their knees while others take turns in a gliding dance, their hips and shoulders quivering to the rhythm.

In her calf-length dress and black-and-gold pumps, Ms. Grall looks on, feeling wistful that the Acholi students know so much about their traditions. As they pack up their instruments, she sees Ms. Ocitti — in loosefitting blue pants and sandals — running down the hill, law books under her arm, her thin braids jouncing. They embrace and walk off hand in hand to her dormitory.

Early Saturday morning the two students catch the first bus going upcountry. The tropical vegetation thins out into savanna, and they cross the upper reaches of the Victoria Nile, past the lakes and marshes that divide north and south Uganda. At every stop, villagers push their wares into the windows of the bus. Ms. Grall buys a roasted corncob, breaks it, and gives half to Ms. Ocitti. The bus drops them off at a junction, and they hitch a ride on a passing truck to the dirt road that leads to St. Mary’s. For the last few miles they each ride on the back seat of a bicycle. It is the only way to get around here — cars get stuck in the rutted tracks.

St. Mary’s is surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire. Behind the steel gate, guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers, a mural on a memorial wall in a garden depicts the moment when, on October 10, 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army commander chose 30 recruits and set the other 109 free. In the center is a nun on her knees; a man in military fatigues and dreadlocks, representing Joseph Kony, towers over her. To the left are the girls who would go free; to the right, the 30 — one of them Ms. Grall — kneeling in the traditional pose for Ugandan wives, their gaze downward.

Ms. Grall refuses to look. “I hate that picture. I hate it. It disturbs my head,” she says later.

The schoolgirls run to greet Ms. Ocitti and Ms. Grall, who have phoned ahead. An elderly nun brings them inside. Lunch is waiting, made from crops grown on the grounds. “Uganda is fertile,” says Sister Alba. “We only need peace. Nothing else.”

Around the table the conversation turns almost immediately to the 19 Aboke Girls still held captive. Occasionally, news filters back through those who have escaped — 10 so far. One girl is dead, and all of the rest have either given birth or are pregnant. The nuns say how proud they are of Ms. Grall and Ms. Ocitti: They have seen the inside of a lecture hall.