Dennis Okwera: From Lumule to London

PHOTOGRAPHY BY: MARK PONEKA

An inspirational story of survival and hope…

Hidden away in northern Uganda, on the border of South Sudan, lies a town torn apart by conflict – Lumule. You’ve probably never heard of it because stories of Lumule and its heartbreaking past have been largely untold. 

Forgotten by mainstream media, the town suffered a civil war for almost 30 years. Schools were occupied by rebel forces, using them both to camp out in, and as bait to lure innocent children. Young boys were abducted and forced to do horrifying acts to prove they were worthy of their lives, while young girls were abused, and adults were murdered if they resisted.

Villagers who survived fled their homes in search of refuge. Among those survivors stands Dennis Okwera—a symbol of strength, resilience and hope. Dennis is giving Lumule a voice. He’s giving the community a chance to know love and security. He’s rebuilding what was taken and helping them heal from their past.

This is Dennis’s story.

“My last memories of Lumule were running to hide in bushes almost three times a day”

Lumule Primary School was Dennis’s first school. “I used to study beneath the shade of a tree which still grows to this day”, he says. But, due to the rebels frequently attacking his village, looting houses, kidnapping children, and burning homes down, he was often taken on the run to hide in the bushes by his teachers until it was safe to return to the village.

Dennis’s father had fled Lumule when he was just 5 years old to seek out a better life for him and his children, and by custom, his mother had returned to her own village following their divorce. So, young Dennis and his little brother lived with his nan but didn’t always sleep under her roof because, sleeping in bushes was safer to avoid capture by the rebels. 

He remembers his first interaction with one of the men. “I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for school, and then saw men in army uniforms running around chasing a chicken”. This chicken is a valuable source of food for his neighbour. “I shouted at the man in my tribal language to leave the chicken alone”. The man halted in his tracks and turned his gaze to the brave voice that had called out to him, staring for some moments before returning his attention to chasing the chicken. Dennis’s nan hurried him back inside, but keeping a 7-year-old indoors for long isn’t easy. 

“There was one time me and my cousin Patrick went to play; it was safe”. The boys had an old bicycle wheel and would use a stick in the spokes to wheel it along the dusty roads. Never letting it lose momentum, running faster and faster until they lost track of how far their feet had taken them. “The rebels came that day”, Dennis says. They were too far from home to seek shelter, but thankfully, a local woman bundled them into nearby bushes along with some other stray children to hide. “I remember it was a tough night this night. It was really raining, so the woman gave us sheets to cover ourselves. I could hear gunshots; I was really, really scared”

In Lumule, the school bell was more than a call to class; it signalled safety. However, if no bell rang, children were to remain at home. Dennis remembers his last day in Lumule. The bell had rung; it was safe to go to school. But as he approached the grounds, he saw a group of strange men surrounding some children. “I looked behind me, and I saw my nan calling me to come back”. The men were rebels, and many children were abducted that day after assuming it was safe. “My nan told me later that the bell didn’t ring like the usual school bell”. Her suspicion and quick thinking had possibly saved Dennis from a harrowing fate.

The next day his aunt collected him and took him to a city, Gulu, a place that was safer than Lumule, but still far from safe. 

“I was looking for safety, for freedom that I’d never had”

After years of evading the rebels’ reach, moving from place to place, Dennis and his brother Chris were granted asylum in the UK and reunited with their father. 

It was a cool March day when they landed in London. The unfamiliar chill hit their faces as they stepped off the plane. But amidst the bustling crowd at immigration, spotting their father proved challenging. It had been years since they’d seen him, as he’d been fighting tirelessly to secure a safe haven for his family. The excitement on the face of an approaching man and a distant familiarity confirmed that this was him. “I think at that moment in time, had that person not been my dad, I would have still said, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad’. I didn’t want to go back. I was desperate,” Dennis recollects.

Dennis’s father had yet to secure a permanent residence, and the boys couldn’t enroll in school without one. They squeezed into a small bedsit in Bethnal Green, but their concerned landlord reminded them daily that the children weren’t supposed to be there. “We used to hide inside because someone told my dad you could get arrested, or your children could get taken from you if they’re not in school.” 

Over the years, Dennis and his family survived on food stamps, each time walking miles to the only supermarket that accepted them. They’d live out of their packed bags, hopeful that their daily visits to the homeless shelter would one day result in a forever home. Although these struggles weren’t quite the same as those they’d experienced in Africa, living was still a challenge. Dennis says he tried to remain positive, “We can sleep, there are no bombs, our neighbours aren’t being abducted, it was bearable”, he would tell himself.

“Education was everything”

After years of moving between temporary accommodations, Dennis and his family finally found a stable home in Mile End. He was able to register with a school and begin studying.

Back in Lumule, education was a luxury and carried a hefty price tag. Only 33% of children complete primary school, as parents must choose between providing three meals a day or selling the food to pay for school fees. So when Dennis started to receive money in the form of a student loan, he chose to use some of it to help his father support their family back in Uganda. He generously paid for his three cousins’ school fees, ensuring they had a chance at a full education.

“I signed on a Thursday, and by Saturday, I was shooting for i-D magazine”

Fast forward to today, and Dennis is making a name for himself in the modelling industry. A stark contrast to his life in Africa, he’s worked with clients such as Christian Louboutin, Gant, Dazed Magazine and Vogue. 

When discussing the start of his fashion career, Dennis explains that he was scouted multiple times before finally signing with an agency. “I felt like I wasn’t ready for it, worried my education would come second”. Dennis’s father firmly believes education comes before anything, so for Dennis it was never a question that his studies must come first, but when he was close to graduating in Biochemsitry at East London University, he was again offered a modelling job, a few hours work that was over half his monthly salary, he accepted. 

He recalls walking his first runway in London Fashion Week, “Before I knew it, it was my turn, and I could feel my heart racing”. He laughs as he reflects on feeling utterly clueless, especially when they started to dress him, “I remember thinking – I think I can do this myself, you know!”.

But the true driving force behind Dennis’ career has always been his desire to help his family and the people of Lumule.

“I didn’t know what it was like to have your own mum”

Dennis uses much of his earnings from the fashion industry to support his family and community in Uganda. Sending essential supplies such as nappies, formula milk and school materials whenever possible. 

When he learnt that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary products, he took it upon himself to make a change. In the evenings, before they restocked the shelves, he would go to the local Tesco and ask if he could buy all of the sanitary items. “I didn’t want to go during the day and buy the whole lot, and then nobody’s left with any”, he explains. He would go so often that eventually, the staff would know him by name. He filled blue barrels with all the sanitary products and shipped them to Uganda, where they’d eventually reach the girls in Lumule. The barrels were then reused for families to fetch water. 

In August 2022, Dennis returned to Lumule for the first time in more than 20 years to meet the community he’d been supporting. Along with an emotional reunion with his mother, who he hadn’t seen in over two decades.

When he arrived at Lumule Primary School, what he found was worse than he had imagined. Bullet-riddled walls barely stood, and the children lacked access to basic food during school hours. They would spend lunchtime beneath trees with empty stomachs, unable to concentrate during lessons.

It became clear to Dennis that Lumule needed more than just his support; they needed a voice. So, upon returning to London, he started the Lumule Foundation, determined to help the community access education and opportunities needed to succeed in school – and in life.

“I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I want to extend my luck as far as I can back into my community.”

Now that the region is relatively safe, Dennis dreams that the Lumule Foundation can help rebuild the school and transform it into a safe learning environment. He has recently set up a school meal programme to feed the children of Lumule Primary School with a functional kitchen, store room and eating area. He has a vision of a playground where children with full bellies have the energy to play freely without the threat of danger. The Lumule Foundation aims to create a space where girls can learn life skills and where boys returning from war can find support to forge a brighter future.

Thanks to the invaluable support of Lumule Foundation’s current backers, a Health Hub has already started to take shape. In this sanctuary, women can receive free sanitary products, sexual health advice, and family planning guidance. “The average age of a mother of three is no older than 24 years old”, Dennis explains. “I’ve never seen women so desperate. They are so eager to be self-sufficient”. 

“It is our vision to create a safe place for girls and boys to feel protected, loved and supported as they learn”

If you’d like to support Dennis’s mission and the Lumule Foundation to turn Lumule Primary School into a place where the bell rings every day, and every child arrives fed and ready for class. Where parents no longer need to choose between whether their children eat or learn. Where girls no longer need to skip class because they don’t have basic sanitary products during their cycle or to provide their babies with formula so they can be left in the care of their families whilst they receive an education to build a better future. Then please donate today, set up a fundraiser, or become a corporate partner. It could be the most powerful thing you do.

Visit www.lumulefoundation.org to make a difference now.