HIS voice exudes nothing but strong will and determination. Having grown up in a harsh semi-arid environment that he so desired to improve, Mark Loli always nursed an irresistible quest for knowledge and ideas.
The old saying: 'Uganda will not wait for Karamoja to develop', gave him an insatiable resolve to excel and show the world that being Karimojong was not a sentence to a life of deprivation, ignorance, nomadism and cattle rustling, as the architects of phrase would want people to believe.
Pushed by this urge, Loli has treaded thorny paths, defied the popular norm and delivered home a first class Diploma in Sustainable Agriculture and Extension services from Ndejje University.
Loli belongs to the Matheniko clan and hails from Moroto district in Karamoja region. Like many of his kinsmen, he thought his life was destined to be in the kraals, roaming the wilderness in search of water and pasture for cattle.
But he realised he had a different calling - to study and grow up into a spirited young man who would bring hope to his people. And the answer was in embracing formal education, through Save the Children's Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK) programme.
"I was born in a very poor family where education meant nothing. Everyone you told you were going to school looked at you with disdain. They thought you were a spent force as to them, keeping cattle was the most venerable thing.
No amount of persuasion that would convince them a young man, in his normal senses, could abandon his father's herd and opt for school," Loli reminiscences.
In Nabokat village, Naitakwa, Nadunget sub-county in Moroto district where he was born 1985, education was outlawed. All they knew was cattle and as a young boy, Loli used to travel away from home for as long as six months grazing the cattle.
"The older boys and men could spend even a year away with the cows. Any place could be called home as long as one was with his animals a typical nomadic life of the Karimojong," Loli explains.
"I didn't go to school until I was 11 years because I was the one in charge of my father's cows. I would walk long distances with my elder brother and sometimes come back home after three months or more depending on when the rainy season started," he adds.
A group of Karimojong herdsmen gather around a kraal. Many youth spend time cattle keeping so they do not get time to go to school
One day, he says, a group from Save the Children Uganda, under ABEK came to the area to sensitise people about the importance of formal education. The sessions were conducted under tree shades as there were no buildings.
"As the ABEK people talked to parents, my father picked interest and asked me to start attending classes since it could only take two to three hours, then we would go back to look after the cows. I reluctantly attended the first session, but concluded it was a waste of time.
"My father forced me to go back and listen to what other children were being told. Gradually I picked interest and in 1998, on realising my potential, ABEK decided to fund my education," he says.
ABEK was established in 1998 as a response to the low enrolment and retention at primary school level in UPE schools in the region.
Until recently, the Karimojong paid no attention to formal education and only 11.5 % of the 1.1 million people in the region are literate.
Loli started Primary One at Moroto Municipality Primary School in 1998. "I found boys speaking English. I also met one small boy who was recording our names and I was inspired to do the same one day."
"I worked hard, became the best in my class and was promoted to Primary Two," Loli adds.
Because of his excellent performance, when he joined Primary Three he was allowed to do Primary Five examinations which he passed well. He skipped Primary Four and in Primary Five, he again excelled and then sat PLE when in Primary Six. "I got first grade and everyone was surprised.
ABEK, with funds from Save the Children, took me to St Mary's Seminary in Nadiket in 2003 and it was about this time that my father died," he says. "I assumed the responsibility as the head of the family to look after my siblings since our elder brother was not of any help. I made sure I read hard and in 2006 I sat my Senior Four, passed and joined St Paul's College Mbale for my A'level."
There, he passed very well and was admitted to Ndejje University for a degree in Forestry but he wanted to do agriculture innovation, a course his sponsors could not pay for as they were only willing to pay half of his tuition per semester.
On a friend's advice, Loli did a diploma in sustainable agriculture and extension since the money Save the Children was paying was enough for the full course.
"I remember when the chancellor was addressing us on our first day at campus, he told us that whoever passed with a first class would be admitted for a bachelor's degree for two years, so I made sure I read hard and today my hard work has paid off; I am now ready for a bachelor's and will settle for nothing less," he vows.
Loli is now working with Arbeter Samariterr Bund (ASB) as a livelihood officer, supporting people to grow food in their homes.
He is paying school fees for his four siblings.
"We don't know what would have happened without him since our father died. He did odd jobs to support us even when he was a student and needed support," says Mary Akiru, Loli's young sister, now in Senior Three.
Angela Apule, his cousin, says he is like a brother because they we all depend on him.
"I am in school because of Loli; he encouraged and inspired all of us. He is a living testimony that Karimojong are not just a sleeping lot," Apule says.
Samuel Lolem, a neighbour, recalls how Loli has struggled. "He has taught us many things, among them that where there is a will, there is a way. We used to look after cows with him and now he is a leader in the village. He is our role model."
Stella Chandiru, the Save the Children education adviser, says the first time they saw Loli in their meeting under a tree in Moroto, they saw a bright future in him because of the way he conducted himself. "Loli asked questions in his language and even when his friends laughed at him, he never coiled.
He is a testimony that Karimojong are a treasure. the children we have sponsored in Karamoja are very bright and now Karamoja is ready to move with the rest of Ugandans in terms of development," Chandiru says.
Loli is a living testimony that given the right information and privileges, the Karimojong are a force to reckon with.
Karimojong from Moroto district display posters during Womens' Day celebrations. More Karimojong are being taught the value of education