Monday, July 30, 2012

Watching Worlds Go By (And Change)

Each day in Gulu brings new discoveries and experiences. At TAKS art center, Katie plucked a chicken for lunch and is learning web design, interviewing young dancers and putting their videos and profiles on line. Kaitlin and Candace helped to deliver ten newborns in one overnight shift at the hospital, including a c-section and one surprise live birth that the nurses (and mother) expected to be stillborn (I think this makes them the ‘doulas of Gulu’!) Jody assisted in major surgery: a femur replacement for a woman under local anaesthetic. He has also learned how to test viral loads in HIV+ blood samples. Hannah and William have made several trips to the police station in the company of local lawyers to try to gain access to imprisoned street children. Brook has twice participated in a mediation of a land dispute with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative – in none other than Joseph Kony’s home village. Michael is seriously pursuing his Luo language lessons with Stephen, a friend from Lacor Seminary who spoke to our class about his experiences as an abductee by the LRA and now comes regularly to Gulu to visit. As I write this, Candice and Joshua are bumping out to the village of Pagak in Father Joe Okumu’s land rover, where they teach children how to use computers and in exchange learn how to make useful items from local materials and play games.  On Friday I watched Helena walk off to visit a home for orphaned children in the company of its founder, a young man who was himself orphaned by the war.  There is so much going on with the students I can hardly keep up, let alone hear the details of what it means to them. 

So when they ask me, “Dr. Trish, what did you do today?” it almost occurs to me to be envious. Perched on my fourth floor balcony in the new “deluxe” Kakanyero hotel I sometimes feel a world away as the streets bustle with life below me and I catch glimpses of the students as they come and go. They don’t know it, but I sometimes watch them as they move down the street: Hannah and Michael going out for a run at Pece Stadium, Brook and Jody satirically experimenting with the local custom of same-sex friends walking hand in hand, William and Kaitlin and Candace on an errand to the market or the Uchumi grocery store, dark-haired Candice in the constant company of Dennis, one of the young staff members of the hotel. Their laughter echoes at night through the courtyard that connects our hotels.

Even though I am here with them in Gulu, I am not savoring the muchomo – the delectable local dish that is a metaphor for life in this vibrant place – the way the students are. For a professor’s life is different from that of student. No matter how much I wish it were a more sophisticated extension of the latter, my responsibilities are different. “Dr. Trish, what did you do today?” is not nearly as fun to answer as when I direct that question to the students. Yes, my room at Kakanyero deluxe is spacious but it feels awfully small and distant from the worlds going by – and changing all the time - as I log the usual hours on my laptop. Requests for assistance on Eritrean asylum claims continue to roll in despite my auto-responder message: “I am in Uganda and may not respond to email immediately.” There are publishing deadlines to meet and therefore research articles to finish. Students’ assignments must be read and commented upon in a short time frame. Constant work-related emails require answers, courses must be planned for fall semester (which begins less than two weeks after we return), and requests to review colleagues’ articles and research proposals never stop coming. And there are plans to be made here as well: a trip to Murchison Falls coming up next week that must be arranged along with other activities that ensure the students get all they can out of the program. And of course there are Eritrean friends here in Uganda with whom I must find time to reunite somehow. Not to mention my daily ritual supplication to the ATM machine in the hopes it will give up its treasures to me so that our bills may be paid in time.

I am acutely aware that my experience in Gulu is but a pale imitation of the richness the students are taking in daily, but I am also deeply satisfied by the knowledge that they are engaging to the fullest with what it means to ‘study and serve abroad.’ Although they may question how much ‘service’ they are truly providing in what now feels like an extremely short time, I am reminded again of a Mark Twain quote that is pinned to the wall at TAKS art center. To paraphrase, the best way to be happy yourself is to make another person happy. And I can see very clearly –from my ‘office’ on the balcony of room 401 and in the lit-up expressions of the students as they share their goings on – that there is more than enough joy to be shared with one another and with our Ugandan friends. Even if it is inseparable from the sorrows no one can shake, whether from the trauma of war or persistent poverty that still cast their shadows over northern Uganda, or the bittersweet knowledge that we will soon enough leave this place again and must say goodbye, this is the joy of human solidarity and mutual discovery.  We can, and do, change each other’s worlds, even if it sometimes feels like we’re just watching it all go by.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Break Dancers At TAKS (Through Arts Keep Smiling) Center

This is one of the songs they were practicing when we came in:

I stopped by yesterday and interviewed all of the guys to find out a little bit about the group. They were really fun and I think they enjoyed doing this. We talked, laughed, and took pictures after the interviews and they really are a great group of guys. 

Eric Onono 
- Trainer, Choreographer, and Leader (21 years old)
- Has danced his entire life but developed a passion around 7 or 8 years old. 
- Loves school and education, watching movies, playing football (soccer) when not busy dancing, and reading.
- Favorite song to dance to: Sensual Seduction by Snoop Dogg 
- Currently choreographing dances for I Feel the Rain by OJ Maxwell, a local Acholi musician. 
- Hardest struggle: For the general population during the war, Eric said, "People not being able to express themselves was tough because being concentrated was a major challenge. There was no room to dance. Life became survival so people couldn't express their talents." 

Richard Asaba
- Trainer and Choreographer (20 years old)
- Has danced for 10 years.
- Favorite thing to do apart from dancing: Football (soccer).
- Favorite music to dance to: Breakbeats
- Hardest struggle: Growing up with no father because he was taken by the LRA.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Even if nothing comes from dancing, I will stick with it. I love to teach the younger people. Dancing and laughter for the little ones is the best.”

Erick Okumu
- 19 years old and has been dancing for 5 years.
-Favorite thing to do apart from dancing: “Games, basketball, and volleyball.” He laughed and added. “Any sport except tennis, baseball, and golf.”
- Favorite song to dance to: Famous Girl and Lady Next to You, both by Chris Brown.
- Hardest thing you have gone through: For a year when Erick was younger, he had TB. He told me he was always sick and weak. He said the toughest part had to watch other kids play outside when he couldn’t.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Everything. When I’m stressed, dancing relieves me of the stress. It makes me relaxed when I’m sad or mad.”
- One message you want to send to people who may read this: “In life, just do anything. Don’t give up on life. If you try at whatever you want to do, one day you will succeed.”

Erique Honicker
- 17 years old and has danced for 4 years.
- His favorite thing to do when not dancing is gardening and art. Erique actually does a lot of the painting that are found throughout the TAKS Center.
- Favorite song to dance to: Next to You by Chris Brown.
- Hardest struggle living in Northern Uganda: “Having to get used to the North.” Erique explained that during the war his mother sent him to Kampala to live with his aunt and he returned 5 five years ago after things were better.
- What does break dancing mean to you? “Makes me forget about problems. It’s a stress reliever.”
- One thing you want to say to the people reading this or that you want to say to the world: “Thanks everyone for the support through the struggles and the war. Whether it was food, water, or anything thank you, because my mother was a beneficiary.”

Michael Inman
- Michael is 16 years old and has only danced for one year.
- His favorite thing to do besides dancing is reading.
-Favorite song to dance to: We Found Love by Rihanna.
- Hardest thing you have experienced: Father passing away.
- What does dancing mean to you? “It helps me forget the crazy stuff. It keeps me away from bad things like stealing.”
- What would be one thing you would say to the world? “Everyone is connected. Dreams bring us together, so dream big.”
- I liked that answer so I asked him what his dream is: “To be a famous dancer one day.”

Kennedy Abrahim
- Kennedy is 18 years old and has danced for 9 years.
- Favorite thing to do: Homework, football, basketball, rugby, and he loves books.
- His dream is to one day be an engineer or a dance instructor.
- Favorite song to dance to: Ice Box by Omarion.
- Hardest struggle in life: Losing grandfather in 2006 from an LRA shooting.
- What does dancing mean to you? “Helps me to forget the hard times. By being traumatized by the war, dancing and books can change anything. When the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were here, they did not see the importance of dance.” I told him a little about how important sports are to me and how much I believe sports and arts can be a peace building tool as much as psychiatry or other mental help strategies. He told me he always thought yoga was a thing for women, but he tried a yoga workshop and realized how much it can help a person mentally.
- One message to send, or something you want the world to know about you: “I love to be encouraged and supported. I hope people like the video you will post.”

Another video featuring a few of the guys:

Seeing these young guys dance was really awesome in the sense that break dancing is simply impressivein itself. In another way though, it's touching because of what these kids and community have gone through in the past. Doing flips and handstands does not come in just a few days of practice. This is something they have always done no matter what was going on around them during the war. This is encouraging to me because it sends a message that the combination of art, dance, and sport will always be a source of happiness.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stakeholder Dialogue in Support of Victims/Survivors of Torture in Northern Uganda

On Wednesday, 25th July I, along with internship supervisors from the Centre for Rehabilitation and Reconciliation and fellow students William Shows and Elliot Bertasi observed the 25th Anniversary of the Convention Against Torture by attending the Stakeholder Dialogue in Support of Victims/Survivors of Torture in Northern Uganda held at the Bomah Hotel, Gulu Municipality. The occasion was moderated by Patrick Amihere, Team Leader and UN Human Rights Officer for Gulu District, in conjunction with the resident judge of Gulu District. Sponsored attendees included victims/survivors of torture who provided personal testimonies, the Regional UPDF Commander, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Local Council V (LCV) representative for Gulu District, the Regional District Commissioner (RDC) for Gulu District, and representatives from the UN Human Rights Council (UHRC), the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV) and Human Rights Focus (HURIFO).

According to the UHRC,“Torture is still an everyday problem for victims,” but he admitted to not having concrete statistics due to late notice of the conference.  Although there was recognition that perpetrators of torture are broad in spectrum, the overwhelming majority of victims/ survivors identify the police or the military as the perpetrators. The LCV Representative provided the opening remarks for Uganda’s Anti-Torture Bill 2010 [The Prohibition and Prevention of Torture Bill, 2009] that, modeled after the human rights legislature used in the Philippines, is pending presidential consent. The Deputy Country Representative for OHCHR provided a brief overview of the history and milestones in the development of the bill. Following the overview, a representative for ACTV highlighted its key pillars: 1) it adheres to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT)’s definition of torture 2) criminalizes torture, assesses complicity and addresses repatriation 3) examines accessories to torture to assign accountability [members of household and domestic violence are excluded] and incorporate mechanisms for assigning individual responsibility 4) provides witness protection for persons reporting torture 5) states that information derived from torture will not be used in court 6) assigns cases involving torture to the Chief Magistrate Courts and 7) addresses the role of the courts in providing compensation, rehabilitation and/or restitution for victims/survivors of torture.

An interesting and unexpected turn of the conference was the focus on Uganda’s high rate of domestic violence. The honoured guest and resident judge gave a speech on the obligations of the state in “promoting and protecting human-rights mechanisms in place and with respect to the domestication of CAT,” which he extended to domestic violence. His immediate objective was to alert police, army and other public officials to not only the frequency, but severity of domestic violence cases, some of which qualify as torture under the new bill. Referencing two domestic homicide cases over which he presided this spring, he outlined how domestic violence led to the death of a spouse in one case, and torture prior to death in the other. Currently, there is a bill for the prohibition and prevention of domestic violence that is awaiting presidential endorsement. Once both bills pass into law, domestic violence will carry a maximum 2 year prison sentence and torture will carry a maximum sentence of 18.  The lawyer from CRR with whom I was attending the conference asked the Deputy Country Representative for Human Rights how the courts will proceed with domestic violence cases that also qualify as torture. Although her question went unanswered, a reading of both bills points to the potential for dual-conviction and joint prison sentencing.   

The broader point that the resident judge made dealt with issues of causality. He said that violence in any form was not born out of war, but rather amplified and that it has eroded the moral fabric of Ugandan social and cultural society. He cited the preponderance of land disputes that resulted from war-generated dispossession, displacement and generational gaps. He also cited the disproportionate and appalling nature of domestic violence following petty martial disputes (examples given were power struggles over gender roles, household spending, and the leading culprit—accusations of adultery) is often the physical manifestation of deeper, untreated psychosocial trauma whether directly or indirectly caused by the war. Indeed, the details of each case—both from districts in northern Uganda— indicate that the war, though ended, left a scarred society in its wake. Torture is a horrible historical reality in Uganda that the Anti-Torture Bill strives to cease.  Unfortunately, the courts and NGOs like CRR confirm that torture is still part and parcel of the everyday fabric of life; in this patriarchal society, this is particularly the case for women and children.

There seemed to be a lot of confusion regarding issues of causality, which poses challenges to finding a productive way forward with the implementation and domestication of both bills. ACTV felt that psychosocial issues, which they holistically treat, are the unambiguous bi-product of two decades of war.  Others, namely representatives from the military and police force felt that community, family, and individual problems, underscored by a lack of education and a youthful population that is “drunk on freedom” were the root causes of violence in the home and in society at large. According to the police and the military, the general population is undisciplined and fails to respect the rule of law. According to victims/survivors and third party organizations dedicated to their medical and psychosocial rehabilitation, the police and military rank number one on the list of perpetrators, the courts fail to follow through with financial compensation and there is an overall struggle to assign accountability to anyone.  The courts would like to see perpetrators dispense financial compensation to their victims, a responsibility currently assumed by the state. The only statistics that were given by the UHRC stated that  of the 20 cases before the court this year, 19 out of 20 ruled in favor of the victims and 7 were awarded governmental compensation. However, there have been consistent struggles with the appropriation of state/ governmental compensation due to a lack of transparency and accountability. Several of the victims present were awarded compensation in the form of millions of shillings but never received the money. In short, there was a lot of rhetorical finger-pointing. Four of the five victims who gave their testimonies identified the UPDF, the police and/or government- prison staff as their perpetrators. The UPDF and police representatives present felt marginalized as the only parties blamed for committing acts of torture, defilement, cruel or inhumane treatment. Several questioned the validity of victim’s testimonies, claimed that war is fraught with confusion and one of the RDCs present, a former UPDF soldier, suggested that some of the victims were bribed. 

Amidst resounding condemnation of torture, the conference illuminated some of the challenges of extricating one aspect of a conflict that has slowly become embedded in post-conflict civil society. This bill may be a milestone, but it is reactive. To break the cycle of violence requires what one LC representative termed, “societal reconstruction,” or the proactive integration of more psychosocial support services at the community level (ACTV is a good role model ) and better, more accessible education for the rising generations. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Welcome to Pagak

Today was my third day out in the field with fellow GSSAP member Candice Patton.  We are both interning with an NGO called BOSCO-Uganda for the next couple weeks.  BOSCO is an information communication training (ICT) center that uses solar panels to provide power for computers with Wifi internet connection.  This computer training is used to teach children and adults how to use computers with the end goal of promoting economic sustainability in rural regions by providing a connection to the global economy.  Anyways, Candice and I are stationed to work at a BOSCO facility stationed in Pagak (pronounced Puh-gawk) Primary School.  The following is a run-through of our interesting day.

Pagak is a small village off the beaten trail on the one road leading north out of Uganda into Juba, South Sudan.  It is about a 15-20 mile drive on a dirt road to reach Pagak, but if you have ever been nauseous while driving this road is not for you.  Although there is amazing scenery along the way with rolling hills of open safari land that even a Nikon couldn’t do justice, it is not for the faint of heart.  This road was meant for people who love rollercoasters.  Luckily for me, I worked at Dollywood a few summers ago and rode enough rollercoasters and motion rides to prepare my stomach for just about anything.  As if the bumps weren’t already exciting enough, there’s the added thrill of blaring your horn to narrowly dodge an oncoming bota bota (motorcycle), bicycles, pedestrians, and even goats.  The ride to Pagak is incredible to say the least.

Once we reached Pagak, we were greeted (swarmed) by the 800+ children just like Justin Bieber is at his concerts full of tween girls.  After settling the children down, we are able to work with around thirty children (age 9-17) who are in the ICT program.  This week the children and the volunteer teacher are sharing their culture with us.  Next week, Candice and I will be showing the children how to perform specific tasks on the computer, such as setting up email accounts and uploading pictures.  Today the children showed us how to make handmade stirring spoons, which are two feet long and about one and one-half inches in diameter.  After this, Candice and I went to a town hall to witness a land dispute.  I won’t go into detail here, but everyone reading this should do some research (or atleast one small newspaper article) to become informed about the world.  After nearly two hours of hearing Acholi clan elders discuss the land settlement, we went back to Pagak Primary.  The kids then taught us how to make homemade jump ropes made from braided grass. Next, we made a ring made from twigs used to practice throwing spears.  The day finally came to an end by building a small fire and roasting some maize (similar to corn) over the fire.  All in all it was a phenomenal day, and it’s only going to get better.

Monday, July 23, 2012

First Day With ARLPI

The first day of my internship was definitely an experience to remember. I arrived at the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) building a little before nine and witnessed the ending of morning devotion. I was a little nervous because I did not know what to expect; however the nerves quickly passed after a short introduction by the programs coordinator Patrick. Immediately after morning devotion (which is just singing, praying, and a quick sermon) it was suggested to me to attend the prayers at the local seminary. I really wanted to see the Gulu seminary because of my future interests (grad school/seminary), so I was willing to go. After dropping the others off at their own destinations, I was left with Jeffery. He told me that we are picking up the Sheik, who is the Vice-Chairman of (ARLPI) and a very prominent Muslim leader here in Gulu. So in other words, he is pretty important. When we picked him up he hopped into the truck with a huge smile. He and I spoke about the many different states and universities that he has traveled to in the USA. He is the resemblance of the true meaning of Islam (which is peace). This man has worked alongside Bishop Ochola and Archbishop Odama in promoting peace throughout Uganda and even the world. It was such an honor to be in his presence laughing and talking about our histories. We also picked up Florence the treasurer of ARLPI who was also extremely nice and took care of me when I became a little sick. Once we arrived at the seminary I expected to be in a room full with seminarians to listen to a homily and prayers. Oh how I was wrong. What I was to experience was the 25th Silver Jubilee of two priests. This was no small event. There were over 200 people in attendance. The choir was playing Acholi instruments and singing in Luo. Because I was walking with the Sheik and Florence, I was introduced to a number of people; even though I had no idea who I was meeting, I just knew they were important. As we sat down in the V.I.P. section the event proceeded to begin. A huge line of priests, escorted His Grace Odama up to the pulpit. After the singing and praying, Archbishop Odama began the mass. His message was beautiful. His words were about how all of mankind is God’s the “beloved”. He drew upon the Qur’an and explained how the Jihad is a spiritual fight for finding the purpose for one’s self and how it promotes peace rather that what extremists are using Jihad for. He then went on to emphasis the importance for religious leaders to uphold the holy text’s doctrines. Finally the most beautiful analogy he gave was when he held up his hand and said, “Look at my hand. On the front (the palm) it is brown or light. That represents non-Africans in the world. On the back, it is black. That represents the Africans. God created us to live in peace together. Just look at your hand!” Everyone began to look at their hands, including myself. Of course my hand is a little different but I sincerely appreciated the message. When leaving I met more important religious leaders and got to say “hi” to his grace. The ride home was bumpy and the Sheik joked about how “Uganda has such nice roads.” Besides the upset stomach, I had a wonderful first day with the Sheik and Florence.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Follow Up to "Getting Sick in Gulu"

While I think I accurately portrayed my personal experience of being sick in Uganda, I sensed as I was writing it that I was not representing what a typical person from Gulu might experience when they are ill. Below is a response paper I wrote about my first days interning at Gulu hospital. The hospital does not charge for its services and therefore is frequented by much of the population in Gulu. I hope these two posts will show a more comprehensive view of health care in Northern Uganda.

The deaths I’ve experienced at the hospital aren’t sad, they are infuriating because they are so preventable. I’d always assumed that the problems with the health care industry in developing nations were primarily technological and financial. The image I had in my head was a hospital with staff who lacked the equipment, the supplies, and the money to assist their patients to the fullest of their abilities. However, at Gulu Hospital most staff leave after lunch due to their extremely low salary (a consequence of a government that regularly lines its own pockets rather than paying its employees). The new ambulance supplied by a government official looking to boost his image lays unused more often than not because he did not consider fuel costs. When it is used it’s solely by administrators looking for a free ride to another section of the city. Nurses have explained to me that frequently wards will be left with only a single nursing student or even totally unattended because of understaffing.
These nursing students have to choose between retrieving blood, labs, or medicine for their patients or remaining with their patients to monitor their status. A student named Florence explained to me that a child came in very ill during the night shift when no one else was there to assist her. She called the doctor on call, but these doctors are rarely available late at night. So she chose to leave her patient to retrieve blood for him. By the time she had returned the child had passed away. Lindsay McClain told me a story of a friend from her work who had given birth in the maternity ward. Her new baby needed oxygen after the birth, however, the cabinet that had the oxygen machine was locked and they couldn't find the key. The baby passed away.
As westerners we have a tendency to pay attention to the horrific symptoms of the massive structural problems that plague many developing nations rather than the economic and political issues that cause them. We see lack of clothing, child soldiers, epidemics, and hunger rather than the source of the rebellion these soldiers are fighting for, the agricultural issues that lead to lack of food, or the government corruption that leaves many without a livelihood. I thought that poverty and lack of medical supplies were the reasons people die. That people die dramatically due to gross injustices carried out by large groups of villainous fighters on either side of the conflict. But the hospital shows me that people are dying quietly. People are dying because of regular, hardworking staff forced into an infrastructure debilitated by small errors, laziness, and greed.
This realization makes me incredibly overwhelmed. There are no simple solutions, because these are not simple symptoms on which Band-Aids can be placed. These are large-scale problems within the health care infrastructure and culture. I do have hope however, I’ve noticed that much of the nursing and medical students within my age group are hardworking, caring, and tenacious. I’ve noticed the same tenacity in the young scholars that have come and spoke to our class. While I do feel overwhelmed by the massive structural adjustments that northern Uganda needs, I feel hopeful for the upcoming generation of scholars and professionals.  

Getting Sick in Gulu: Get Me Home?

“Ok, get me home.” I groaned to myself. I was lying on the floor in my hotel bathroom in the middle of the night, running a 101-degree fever, tired and achey to the point that I couldn’t move back to my bed. The power was out in our hotel (a frequent occurrence in Gulu), so our fan was not working and the stagnant air seemed to be pressing down onto me. I hadn’t felt such an extreme level of discomfort in a long time and I longed for my couch in Knoxville. I mulled over what exactly makes being sick in Uganda so different from being sick at home.
The types of disease in Uganda make the prospect of getting ill in some ways slightly scarier, but primarily frustrating. In northern Uganda, deadly illnesses such as “Nodding Disease” wreak havoc on communities with no known cure. Even though I didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms of Nodding Disease (namely, seizures) I certainly had a brief “tell my mother I love her – here I die in Uganda” dark moment. The moment passed and was followed by a realization that Malaria was most likely. My symptoms matched this disease. I was lucky that for me it would not be a death sentence, but I knew the treatment process can be incredibly strenuous. The existence of easily eradicable diseases like Malaria made the whole situation depressing. I was frustrated for the many Ugandans who could not afford antimalarial prophylaxis and bed nets to protect them from this disease.
Oddly enough this was the first time I had so much attention paid to me when I was sick.  Dr. Hackett pointed out to me the major cultural difference between Africa and America in how we treat the illness of a peer. In America, the attitude is to push away sickness as far as possible. In contrast, she told me a story about when she was sick in Nigeria and several students prayed for her in her home. I did not experience such an extreme example of kindness, but I did notice a less fearful approach by the hotel employees who helped clean my room and assist in bringing me to the local clinic. No one was afraid that I would contaminate them with whatever disease I had contracted, but simply seemed eager to ensure my recovery. Since my illness, I have had most of the hotel staff inquire into my wellbeing and Grace, the receptionist, happily comments on how much stronger I look on a daily basis.
Finally, this was easily the least painful experience I had ever had at a clinic. Now, I would not say that my experience was relevant to the typical experience of a Ugandan. Not many can afford to go to the clinic that I went to. That being said, the Fitzmann clinic was incredibly efficient. I saw a doctor, a lab tech, and had three tests in under an hour. I quickly was informed I did not have malaria, but a severe bacterial infection. The whole experience cost 24,000 Ugandan shillings. Which converts to 10 USD. Clearly, the price of Ugandan health care has not been touched by the private sector like in America.
So, all in all, I am not sure if being home would have made for a more comfortable experience. Perhaps, air conditioning and Netflix would have offered some temporary comfort, but I don’t think they can replace the care of my peers and staff on the program. Plus, the public health nerd inside me is happy to have experienced some of the health care in Gulu. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Internship Day

Internship day means a conclusion to the intensive IPSS course and dispersing around various areas of Gulu. I have been placed, along with Hannah, at the Center for Rehabilitation and Reconciliation, a new partnership for GSSAP this year. After two separate boda boda interactions and a few vain attempts at asking for directions on the roadside, we managed to find the location directly at the end up the main market road. The program coordinator received us at the gate and led us into a house turned NGO building. CRR really is the embodiment of a grassroots, community oriented NGO provider. The Center provides legal aid, largely focusing on land mediation at the village level, and psychosocial support services. The focus around mental health, land dispossession and mediation illustrates in post conflict Northern Uganda - the two are deeply connected. Understanding the importance of the homestead as economic provider and cultural institution allows CRR to address both making the organization fully committed to a multi-pronged approach to transformative justice.

We were introduced to a relatively small staff: financial officer, two paralegals, counselor, security, one lawyer, and two interns. After introductions we were pointed to our desks just in time for breakfast & tea, which is provided daily by the organization, well up to 500 Uganda Shillings per person. Winnie, a fellow intern, came out of the kitchen and asked Hannah and I “What escort would you like?” I don’t quite recall the jumbled words that came out of my mouth, but I think I must have explained than I can consume my breakfast on my own. Thanks. My blank face prompted an explanation followed by prolonged laugher from the staff. “No, what food would you like to escort your tea. Egg, fruit, chapatti, or samosa.” Oh. Right. The staff seemed to find the whole misunderstanding quite entertaining and made it a running joke for the remainder of the week.

The day was characterized with stereotypical Acholi hospitality and I immediately felt welcome. We definitely fired off a range of questions the first day pertaining to land reconciliation, community organizing in Northern Uganda, and the changing NGO landscape in Gulu that were all patiently answered. We continued the conversation at a traditional restaurant during the hour lunch break at a nearby restaurant. Our coordinator Simon made sure we sampled a range of items - millet bread, gnut sauce, goat, sweet potatoes, ect. Work will definitely pick up next Monday as we will have a participant-observation opportunity with a counselor working with juvenile offenders at Gulu Prison, attend a conference on survivors of torture CRR was invited to at Boma Hotel led by the UNHCR, and attend a land mediation case in the outskirts of Gulu.

Our Local Mama!
Grace is the wonderful young woman who takes care of us at our hotel. She works seven days a week from 6am to 11pm. This is a small interview I conducted with her.

Kampala Madness

     Kampala streets are forever awash with the undertakings of its citizens. It is difficult to articulate the level of activity as well as the difference to traffic at home. This video provides a look at a normal street in Kampala. Though to truly get the picture you will need to mix the smells of diesel and foreign food all whilst eating dust.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hard Work and Happiness

Since we arrived in Uganda, everyone has been very welcoming and friendly. There is not one person that I have met so far who has not been happy to greet me. When I walk through Gulu, I am not sure how people feel about me being here, but as soon as I smile and wave, they do the same. Anyone will help you learn the language and they enjoy talking to us and asking us what we will be doing with our time in Gulu.

One thing that has really made an impression on me is how much people crave education. We have been here almost two weeks now and have already met several people who work hard every day to be able to go to school. The one thing that stops them from being able to attend is tuition and the cost of supplies. Some can get scholarships, but these are only provided for a few students. For the people that I have met, the cost per semester is around 750,000 Ugandan shillings which is about 300 US dollars. For us in America, that is nothing. We take our easy access of education for granted. Here in Gulu however, education is the only chance people have of getting out of their current situation and providing a better life for themselves. In the United States, I am not sure if we realize how important education is and how lucky we are to have it right in front of us.

What I find remarkable is how these people continue to be positive and they do not give up even though they are struggling to attend school and have to work long hours every day to earn a small amount of money. One young man that I met at Lindsay and Jeff's wedding was excited to tell me what he was studying at the university and asked me the same. As we were saying goodnight, he told me that the only thing that him, his family, and his people care about is happiness. All that matters in life is being happy and that is what they try to focus on every day. I will remember that for a long time. I find it amazing that after 20 years of violent conflict and hardships and having to witness and go through unimaginable atrocities, people continue to move forward. That shows their strength as a people and I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tying the knot (with no loose ends)

Last Friday we had a group dinner at a popular eating spot, CafĂ© Sankofa.  It was one of our weekly gatherings to debrief and reflect on our experiences so far.  As we munched on pizzas and tasty sandwiches in the cool garden, everyone was asked to share a high point and a low point of the trip so far (it was encouraging that everyone had more highs than lows!).  A couple of the students expressed frustration that they had not yet been able to really “connect” with Ugandan young people, given that we were staying in hotels and attending lectures.  This last week, a few of us witnessed the summum bonum of connections, the civil marriage of one of the pioneers of our Uganda program, Lindsay McClain (who returned to Gulu after graduation to become the Communications Officer at the highly respected Justice and Reconciliation Project) and Jeff Korondo (a popular local musician and communications officer at the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies). Family members and some of our GSSAP team sat around the table at District Office and listened to the administrative officer as she spelled out the meaning of marriage from a government perspective, questioning them on whether they had any other spouses (particularly from customary marriages).  She repeated several times that bigamy was illegal and would result in a jail sentence.  When we thought the time had come for the signing of the marriage certificate, the woman who had been typing (and I mean typing not keying in) the names came and apologized for having misspelt some vital information (they told us they don’t do it in advance as people change their minds).  She was making the sign of the cross as she spoke and was clearly begging for forgiveness.  Anyway, it worked the second time around and we eventually exited the building to the stirring ululations of some of the groom’s sisters.  Everyone in the local government offices seemed to have left their desks to see off this lovely international couple.  Surely this union is the icing on the cake of our Uganda program!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Meeting with the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office

It has been our privilege to meet the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office. To meet someone of such a high position in Uganda's government so freely and so early in our travels was something unimaginable for me. In the United States it would have taken a lot of time and a lot of people to go through in order to talk to someone of an equivalent position. I am not sure how many emails or phone calls were done on the backend on our behalf to get us this opportunity. Nonetheless, it was not an event that anyone of us has taken lightly. I’m sure we would all like to thank those who have made it possible.

When the Permanent Secretary walked in and sat at the head of the table, he made his position known. He spoke to us with knowledge of the current issues of Uganda, the governmental policies to address them and the past events that have contributed to making both the issues and the policies what they are today. He spoke with great tact and great control of his words as he briefed us on the state of Uganda and the position the government has taken as northern Uganda fights towards peace and reconstruction.

Then, we were able to have a discourse with him. We were able to ask a few questions on how the government will facilitate greater transparency in the future as this is important to the Ugandan people as well as a condition for the United States’ continued support of the PRDP. It is a known fact in this country that North and South Uganda has not always seen eye to eye. The question of how this Southern focused government will address the needs of the recovering war torn north as well as provide the transparency needed to legally prove and ensure the carrying out these actions was a question that many of us had on our minds. Some of the things that we were told in response to this question were that

1. Local governmental actions covered by a budget will be documented so that there will be written support to what has been done and what has been not.
2. Locals will be given a meeting place in which they can voice their concerns and complaints.
3. The Permanent Secretary, himself, will investigate any complaints suggesting that local governments have not done their job.

The Permanent Secretary further went about telling us what a success the PRDP has been so far and what it has already done to move Uganda toward reconstruction. We were even given a hardcopy listing everything that the PRDP has done for Uganda so far. However, coincidentally, we were also warned of the "negative attitudes" that we would find in the North, and how black is not always seen as black or white as white.
As we travel north, we ourselves will be on the lookout for evidence of the PRDP at work.
We look forward to discussing further the issues concerning the PRDP and Northern Uganda with the Permanent Secretary once we return and our journey comes to the close. We will have more of a "meal" of knowledge to work with once we return. Perhaps, in the end, we will also see how black is black. Perhaps, though, black will appear white on the first look or perhaps to those who it affects black could be white afterall.