Role model for Ugandan teens
January 27, 2010
WHEN Staff Sgt. John Okumu joined the U.S. Army five years ago, he never dreamed he would one day deploy to Africa, the continent he once called home.
Okumu, who originally hails from Kenya, was among the 21st Theater Sustainment Command Soldiers supporting Natural Fire 10, a 10-day, humanitarian and disaster relief exercise, in Uganda. At Kitgum High School, the logistics noncommissioned officer was surrounded by curious teens eager to learn more about the American sergeant who spoke their language.
Okumu, 35, welcomed the "ambush," responding to a barrage of questions from the uniformed high school students. Within minutes, a small circle of a dozen students grew into a crowd of 60 or more.
"How can I go to the United States and become a Soldier like you'" one teen asked.
What began as an impromptu discussion grew into a huddle of dozens, hanging on Okumu's every word. He told them how important it was for them to do well in school and reach for their goals.
"Education is the key," Okumu said. "Everyone has a talent. You just need to find out what yours is."
The students paid close attention and asked many questions. At one point, they broke into laughter after one student asked a question the others thought was silly. Okumu was quick to jump in, telling the students never to be afraid to learn by asking.
"There's no such thing as a stupid question, except to the question that's never asked," Okumu said.
The conversation went on in English, which the teens learn in their classes. But they were initially drawn to Okumu when they heard him speak Luo-the language spoken in northern Uganda, which is what Okumu learned as a child in Kenya. He moved to Missouri in 2000.
Okumu made sure Kenyan teens understood the importance of education to their future success.
"Good grades and test scores may qualify you for scholarships to the U.S.," Okumu said. "Do your best."