It’s a bright blue afternoon in Uganda, and under a mango tree in the courtyard of an elementary school, 12 students are making an impassioned plea for respect and dignity.
“Why deny our comrades a right to love and care?” they chant in unison. “Let’s stand up and challenge the evil!”
In northern Uganda, where the memory of two decades of brutal civil war sits just under the surface of daily life, these kinds of calls for peace and social harmony aren’t uncommon. What is unusual, however, is the subject of these students’ activism.
“Animals deserve our respect,” they continue. “Together we shall care about animals ... for God and for our country!”
As the poem finishes, the crowd of parents and passersby break into claps and cheers. Meanwhile, in the back row of the audience, Emmanuel Otim and Stephen Odoch breathe a quiet sigh of relief.
“We practiced [this poem] intensively for weeks so that these kids can talk about the value of animals to the society,” says Mr. Otim, who with Mr. Odoch is a founder of Art for Animals (AFA). Since 2017, the organization has been working in northern Uganda to fight cruelty against animals, mostly focusing on dogs and cats.
AFA has a simple premise: People treat animals badly when they fear them.
And to change that attitude, people have to be shown a different side of the creatures they encounter every day, Otim and Odoch say. For them, art – from performances like this one to murals painted on walls around town – is the most powerful way to convey that message.
“Art is a universal language,” says Otim, a fashion designer.
Snarling vs. floppy-eared
On a wall outside the school where the children performed, St. Paul Labongologo primary school near Gulu, Uganda, an AFA-painted mural shows a woman tossing a flying disk to a floppy-eared black dog. Nearby, a couple lathers a spotted puppy with soap and water. Beside that, a boy is offering his dog a husk of corn.
In much of northern Uganda, these aren’t the kind of images that people associate with dogs, the activists say. Instead, many people think of them as the snarling, snapping hounds used to guard local residences or the quivering strays that wander the city’s streets whining for food.
Much like northern Uganda’s people, animals here live in the wake of civil war, two grueling decades of insurgency that displaced millions and decimated the region’s economy, schools, and health care. As communities have struggled to rebuild, dogs and cats have often been at best a nuisance and at worst a direct threat to limited resources.
Because of that, neglect, starvation, and brutal punishment of dogs are “almost normal things” in many parts of northern Uganda, says Otim, who grew up in a house full of animals. For years, he says, he has been informally taking in and nursing stray animals and trying to persuade anyone who would listen to treat animals with compassion.
Last year he joined Odoch, a childhood friend, to begin painting murals around Gulu and the nearby Omoro district. Encouraged by the response, the two soon started organizing plays and other performances in schools, churches, and markets around the region. (Today, their group regularly visits 19 schools in the area.)
Since socially conscious and educational theater was already popular in Uganda, the plays in particular took off.
“If it’s a drama [being performed], the crowd is even bigger compared to other activities,” says Boniface Bua, who organizes after-school activities at St. Paul Labongologo. “Many people are eager to see what new thing will be performed.”
Help from an animal hospital
As their activism spread, Otim and Odoch were soon being approached by community members with sick or abandoned dogs. Knowing they couldn’t take care of all those animals on their own, they turned to Sarah Schmidt, an American who manages The Big Fix Uganda – the only animal hospital in the northern part of the country.
Ms. Schmidt says she was eager to work with the young activists, in part because it represented a kind of free publicity for the hospital’s services.
“With rabies prevention and education, people don’t fear dogs to the extent that they don’t kill them anymore,” she says in an email interview. “Many thought [rabies] was a product of witchcraft. So, there was a lot of fear.”
More recently, AFA – with support from The Big Fix – has begun providing stray dogs it rescues to the Comfort Dog Project, which pairs dogs with trauma survivors as a form of therapy and companionship.
“Most dogs that Art for Animals gives us are neglected [animals] that have faced a lot of hardship,” says Francis Okello, who runs the program. The dogs’ “background is important for our therapy because our patients went through the same [situation]. This eases bonding for both parties,” Mr. Okello notes as he runs a red grooming comb through a dog’s fur. To date, AFA and the Comfort Dog Project have paired more than 300 people with dogs.
Back at St. Paul Labongologo, Joseph Kizza, a seventh-grader, says AFA has taught him about more than just relationships with animals.
“I picked up a few things from AFA that have shaped me as a person in terms of character,” he says. “I have learned to respect, be compassionate and kind at the same time to people since we are taught [by AFA] to do the same to animals.”