In Uganda, a bloody civil war has raged for nearly 24 years. To maintain troop numbers, rebel leader Joseph Kony has kidnapped children as young as 5-years-old, training them to fight in his army. The children are forced to endure terrible living conditions, suffer physical and sometimes sexual abuse, and become soldiers for a cause they cannot possibly understand, all while witnessing the gruesome atrocities of war.
And nearly 8,000 miles away, in Iowa City, one student is fighting to make a difference in the lives of those children.
A cause for change
“That’s not a childhood,” Keely Kemp said. “Every child deserves the right to laugh and play…They shouldn’t have to grow up the way that they’ve had to grow up.”
Kemp, a UI sophomore, said she is dedicated to the cause and is doing her part as president of the UI Chapter of Invisible Children.
Invisible Children is an international organization that looks to aid the children of Uganda and bring peace to the war-torn country. The organization has several projects including the rebuilding of schools, a teacher exchange program, and a scholarship program. They also tour the country giving screenings of documentaries about the war in Uganda.
Kemp said she became interested in the group in high school, after a screening of the first Invisible Children documentary left her in tears. So when she arrived at the UI last year and discovered there was already an Invisible Children group on campus, she said she knew she had to get involved.
Bringing the fight to campus
Now the young journalism student said her group works to bring the national screenings to the UI campus and get the word out about the situation in Uganda.
“We are trying to get the students who go to school here more involved, we’re trying to get them to care about what’s going on,” Kemp said.
But it hasn’t been easy going, Kemp said. While she has garnered a lot of student support through a group on Facebook, actual attendance at their meetings is low, and she has difficulty getting funding from the university. Kemp said these factors make it hard to create the change she had hoped for.
“My lack of membership is really preventing me from doing what is necessary,” Kemp said, but added that she maintains a positive outlook. “I’m not going to lose hope yet, because people are still showing up and word is still spreading about it.”
Katie Mietla, who became vice-president of the UI Chapter of Invisible Children at the end of the fall semester, praised Kemp’s leadership skills and hard work.
“She puts forth a lot of effort in anything she tries to do for the group,” Mietla said. “She’s passionate about the cause.”
She also said Kemp’s eagerness to work on such a serious issue has not gone unnoticed.
“She’s so alive and enthusiastic about it,” Mietla said. “People can sense her dedication.”
Dedicated from the start
Kemp said she has always enjoyed activism and has an intense interest in politics, an interest which she credits to her father who was very outspoken and politically active in the 1960’s.
But growing up in a conservative suburb of St. Louis, Kemp said she often felt like she was “swimming upstream.” She called herself the “completely outspoken, opinionated liberal” in her conservative high school and said she wanted to “change the world single-handedly.”
She said she now realizes that while she may not be able to change the world on her own, she can at least do her part. And while her ambitions may have changed slightly, her principles have not.
“It’s important for us to stick together because we’re all human, and we’re all equal,” Kemp said. “If I don’t give a voice to those who don’t have a voice, then mine is pretty much worthless.”
More than just a cause
But activism isn’t the only thing that drives this young student. Kemp said she is a big sports fan who loves to play basketball and watch hockey with her family. The oldest of four children, she said her best friend is her younger brother Keaton, who has a mild form autism. Kemp said they do everything together, including going to movies, playing video games, and annoying their sister McKinley.
Her other brother, Colin, suffers from Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, which causes profound mental retardation. When he was very young, doctors were uncertain about how long he would live. Now sixteen and having defied all expectations, Kemp recalled the frail state in which her brother lived, and spoke with love and awe at how far he has come. But at that early age, Kemp said her brother helped teach her the true value of life, an understanding she realizes not everyone shares.
But Kemp, who understands all too well that you can’t take life for granted, said she will continue to work for progress and the rights of children no matter what the obstacles.
“All of our work will eventually bring peace to the children, and I think that’s what keeps me going,” Kemp said.
– John Doetkott