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Stretching for serenity


A local woman travels to Uganda to teach yoga to victims of Joseph Kony.

Mia Cantu March 28th, 2012

After an eight-hour drive through back roads and over potholes, Oklahoma City yoga instructor Laura Lester reached the St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring Centre in Gulu, Uganda. She was there at the invitation of Pros for Africa, a locally based nonprofit that had asked Lester to teach yoga to the students between March 8 and March 16.

These are not ordinary students. Founded by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, the school is designed to protect and empower African women who have been abducted, raped or abandoned. Many of the estimated 200 young women at the center were victims of warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, where they were forced to serve as child brides or child soldiers.

Lester didn’t hesitate. “Yoga is a lot more than just practice on a mat; it’s a lifestyle,” she said. “I really felt like going on the trip and sharing yoga with others is what I was meant to do.”

Pros for Africa began in 2009 by Oklahoma City attorney Reggie Whitten. The nonprofit, which taps the marquee appeal of professional athletes, visits Africa several times a year, bringing doctors and nurses to schools in Gulu, Atiak and other communities.

Yoga in Uganda 

At St. Monica’s, Nyirumbe teaches students how to sew and provide for themselves. Among the goods they make are purses of thread and sodacan tabs, materials that are donated by Pros for Africa. The purses are sold locally or via the Pros website, with all proceeds going directly to the students.

While there, Lester rose early each morning and helped care for infants in the St. Monica nursery. She would then brave the heat and teach yoga to the St. Monica students. The girls used donated mats and attire that Lester had brought.

“So many of the women there have suffered traumatic experiences,” Lester said. “Through yoga they learned to reconnect with their movements and to find joy within themselves.”

‘Language of laughter’

Although Lester and her students spoke different languages, they learned to communicate through movement and smiles.

“Laura mastered this language barrier with her ever-patience and it was really beautiful,” said Whitten. “Some of the kids didn’t speak English, but they spoke through the language of laughter.”

Tommie Harris joined one of Laura Lester's yoga classes during her Pros for Africa trip to Uganda.

Former University of Oklahoma football player and current San Diego Chargers defensive end Tommie Harris also joined Pros on the trip.

Although he attended Lester’s yoga classes and gave it his best try, Harris learned — much to the amusement of the yoga students — that he is better suited for defending the ball than crow pose.

Nyirumbe told Lester that she had made a positive impact on students whom the sister had never seen smile or heard laugh before the yoga classes.

Whitten hopes to gain more volunteers like Lester for these trips. He said the organization is looking for professionals from all realms.

“Whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer, you quickly lose your title because we’re all just human beings. A trip like this can change your perspective,” said Lester. “I can still hear their laughter, and that’s something that will always stick with me.”

For more information on purchasing a soda-tab purse, contact Pros for Africa through prosforafrica. com.

 
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