Email 13: April 10, 2006
A very, very long email.... from Uganda... Grab a cup of coffee
As I was interviewing the Female IDP Camp Leader, I was distracted. I could hardly finish my question or maintain eye contact with Ms. Ocan? My eyes were focused on a young boy, not older than 4 years old, who was dissecting, mutilating, and eating parts of a live cockroach? - (Bobi IDP Camp of Gulu, Uganda)
"Your hair is like a snake." - Joshua, Kindergarten student
GLOBAL NIGHT COMMUTE: April 29, 2006 in 150 U.S. Cities
Every night in Uganda, Thousands of children leave their homes out of fear of abduction and walk miles into town to sleep to protect themselves from the LRA rebels. For one night, Invisible Children asks the same of you! (Visit www.invisiblechildren.com)
I have so much to say and share with everyone, but I truly do not know where to start. I am scared of leaving out any details, but I realize that no one has time to read a 10 page email. I will try to be concise and clear. Please try to read/skim everything. I hope to sum up my visit to Northern Uganda, Gulu and Soroti, the weekend before last, and also bring you up to date with my other projects here in Kampala. I have been trying to send this same email for over a week, but there has been so much going on. PS.. I am off to Kenya on Saturday!!!!
Life is still great here in Kampala, I could not be happier. It is safe to say that of the past 7 months, my time spent here in the Uganda has been the highlight of my trip. I never thought there would be place in the world that I would love as much as Latin America. However, I was mind, heart, and emotions were fooled?And now Africa holds a place in my heart.
The fears and stereotypes I once had for Africa have been broken. I have embraced the Ugandan culture, people, and way of life as a part of my own. I am no longer shocked by being referred to as "madam", bargaining my Boda Boda/taxi fare, moving out of the way for bulls by school, or attempting to stay clean of clay colored dust. I have learned to live with the growing family of geckos in my apartment.
I only hope that my experiences in the next 4 months in unexplored countries and cultures will be similar to here in Uganda. Even my mom said the other evening, "It does not surprise me to hear that you are looking for away back to Uganda in January 2007!" Before my trip, these I never imagined hearing these words. (I have even extended my stay here an extra week. I am not ready to leave and time has passed once again too quickly.)
Although I have become sensitized to many of the issues that developing countries around the world face, I am no longer "shocked" by some realities, such as the lack of electricity, access/importance of water, types of shelter, etc. I am no longer shocked to hear that a teacher in my school has malaria. "Malaria" is no longer a scary word.
As a traveler, you equate Malaria as the scary, deadly, and miserable disease, whereas here in Uganda, malaria is as typical the common flu. This is not to say that Malaria is not a big deal?it is the leading cause of death here in Uganda, but I no longer gasp when I hear that someone has Malaria or had it numerous times in the last year. It only makes me thankful that I have access to medicine, but I also recognize that medicine is a privilege. I take medicine every night to protect me, whereas Ugandans do not have access to this medicine.
Mercy Home for Children
A part of me knows that my life is forever changed by these experiences, but worries me I no longer blink or turn my head at dilapidated homes or children walking the streets on a school day. Even this past week, I went to visit Mercy Home for Children, an orphanage. (I learned of the orphanage and its director, Angela, from Kristin Fleschner, last year's Traveling Fellow). Angela, a remarkable woman at 27 years old, told me her personal stories of living on the street at the age of 12 after both of her parents died of HIV/AIDS and later how she found herself at the age of 22 on Christmas Day accepting other street children in her home. Four years later, she has 100 children (ages 3-17) living in a newly constructed fully-functioning orphanage! Her story is not only inspiring, but it also demonstrates the capabilities of young people from diverse backgrounds. It does not take an Ivy education to bring about social change, but only a big heart, compassion, perseverance, and dedication. As I met all of her children, it was evident how she has impacted these children's lives and will continue to help others in the future. Her goal is empower the children of Mercy Home to go out in the future to help others and to embrace altruistic values.
My day with Angela alerted me to some of the challenges that many underprivileged children face and many of the same challenges that I no longer think about on a day-to-day basis. For example, she mentioned how young children no longer "fear the street and cars." At all hours of the day, you will find young children walking along side the road without their parents in sight. It made me think about how in the US, it is hard to find a parent who will let even his/her 12 year old child ride his/her to ride without a helmet or far distances. Angela proceeded to tell me how they lost a 7 year old girl last week who was hit by a car as she walking alongside the road in the middle of the day. My heart sunk. I was speechless. I quickly realized how I had become overly comfortable in my surroundings. Seven months ago, I would have thought of children and the cars. My goal is re-alert myself to some of the smaller, but significant challenges that people face living in a less privileged country.
My visit to Mercy Home was uplifting to see how a home and a family environment can transform a child. These children were smiling, laughing, singing, and dancing! The choir performed a show for me. They are extremely talented and have even produced a CD and DVD to sell. They were amazing, but I felt bad that they performed for nearly an hour in the beating heat. They looked exhausted and I was not expecting such an elaborate show with song and traditional dancing.
The show continued after the song and dance. Some of children performed their "street" tricks. At first, I found this strange because the children no longer need these street tricks as a means of survival and because of my personal opinion of applauding or giving to such acts. It was even explained to me how one bottle balancing act was used to distract people while other street children would rob the audience. However, I realized that they are proud of their acts and although they are no longer needed for stealing and money, the children worked for years fine-tuning the performance. In a sense, it was their leisure activity and only tool they have. It is a part of their identity and source of entertainment.
I was impressed how younger and older children worked together while singing or playing games. There is little barrier between ages because they have all faced similar life experiences on the streets. The older young adults serve as mentors to the younger children. I was filled with joy to hear them sing, but I was saddened to think how such young children were abandoned or forced to live on the streets of Kampala?susceptible to drugs, prostitution, stealing, and begging. They have experienced more in "life" than me at such a young age. My childhood was protected, sheltered, and safe. Even at 23, I do not know of the harsh realities of the world and the street.
Golden Bell Primary School
Outside of my visit to Mercy Home, I have continued to teach at Golden Bell Primary School. This is my last week of teaching. I am sad to leave the students. Every day they bring a smile to my face. I enjoy listening to them sing the Ugandan national anthem every morning at assembly or gathering around my "little t.v." to see their digital photos. I am greeted every morning and in every class with a warm and formal introduction. I still enjoy answering questions about America. They love to ask: What types of food do you eat? What does your house look like? Do you live a hut? Do you use clay bricks? Do you have goats? What crops do you grow on your land? Do you have buildings like Kampala? How is America different? There is still one 3 year old girl, the youngest at school, who laughs hysterically when she sees me. I am her first mzungu (white person) she has ever seen. She does not speak English yet. She giggles uncontrollably and runs away. Then runs back, laughs, and runs away again. Three weeks later and I still amaze her. I am different and strange.
During my time at Golden Bell, I have only been shocked by a few things. Specifically, I am shocked by the use of the word "beat" as in to "beat someone." The verb "to beat" holds a very strong, negative, abusive connotation in my eyes, but at Golden Bell the verb's meaning reflects a different culture norm. A norm I am not ready to embrace. It is a norm that I despise. It is a norm that makes me feel uncomfortable. Every ten minutes, a student "reports" (or tattle tails) on another student. The most common report is, "this one is beating me or beated me." Although I do not like the overuse of reporting (supported by the teachers), I really dislike how it is always about how a student hit someone else. From my first day in class, I realized how prevalent domestic and physical violence is, but more frightening is how it has been accepted as part of the culture and slang.
However, the use of the word "beat" by the students is not what shakes me to the core. It is the use of the word by the teachers. If a student misbehaves, the teacher immediately threatens "to beat" the student. It is not uncommon to hear,"Do want me to beat you," or "the next time you do that, I will beat." Or, the teacher will say, "If you don't do 'xyz', I will?" and in unison the class says "beat!" Now, you all have a horror picture of Golden Bell Primary School since if any of our teachers made these remarks, there would be an uproar by parents, students, and staff.
But, I have not even expressed the worst part about this teaching style. I quiver and close my eyes when two of the teachers actually raise their arm, ruler, or stick to hit and reprimand a student. I watch the children quiver, close their eyes, or cry after being hit. There are only two teachers who actually hit their students. I find it very difficult to watch, but I also do not feel comfortable saying anything. I can challenge the culture or a way of life.
I did have a conversation with two other teachers about the use of the word/threat "to beat." They were stunned that I found this so surprising. They wanted to know how teachers in the U.S. reprimand students or gain control or what our word equivalent is. I explained how that type of behavior is not acceptable in the States and if you overheard that a parent or teacher "beat" a child?the police would be called and there would be consequences. They laughed in shock. They explained to me how it is a part of life and culture to use the phrase to "beat." We did not actually discuss how two other teachers use force as a teaching tool.
Sad to say that my time with GoldenBell has ended, but I will never forget all of those children. I have 300 some photos to show! They gave a lovely goodbye with gifts, t-shirts, and all of the teachers really bonded. I taught them 3 new songs: The Hokey Pokey, a Little Tea Pot, and Make New Friends. They loved it...and really loved making fun of my accent. They decided to put on a show for me. All of the teachers sang traditional Buganda songs and traditional dancing. It was hysterical and something I will never forget. That evening I also went with the director of the school to his Rotary meeting. I gave a little presentation. It was fun and a little random. The post-conversation questions ranged to African stereotypes and American Dating and whether or not I would marry a Ugandan Man?? I said my fiance would not be too pleased about that... my made up fiance, of course!
Other activities in Kampala
In brief, I have finished up my work with the other growing organization, Intercultural Development Agency. Fortunately, we ended on good terms. There was an incident a few weeks back that made it hard for me to finish the project. There was a miscommunication about my expectations with the organization. However, Stella and I met last week and as a result of my Strategy Plan, Suggestions, and Criticisms, she drafted a 35 page project revision/new proposal. I was pleased with the outcome! We left giving each other a big hug and wishing one another the best of success.
I have also been working with an NGO from DC, FAIR Fund. They hope to launch an awareness campaign here in Kampala, Kenya, and Tanzania about human trafficking and other related issues. I have enjoyed working on the project because it has given me the chance to meet with many local university age students. I will be doing some work as well in Kenya for this project.
I been enjoying moving around and exploring Kampala alone or with friends and learning more about the culture first hand outside of the newspapers. It has been great to have a roommate here as well. Grace and I relate stories about Kampala as well as the rest of the year as Traveling Fellows. We both can't believe how quickly the year is passing! Additionally, I have spent quite a bit of time with other local friends and getting a new perspective on Kampala! Dennis, (who was introduced to me through Kristin), has been a delight! I enjoy talking to him about politics, Uganda, and life outside of Uganda. Shortly before my trip North, he took me to his politically based radio talk show. It was a great experience hearing the Minister of Internal Affairs and an outgoing Member of Parliament and New Head of Gulu discuss the North and the US State Department's recent report on Human Rights Violations!
Finally, another little Kampala experience, including when Lexe and I walked to the Bahai Temple! There is only one temple on each continent! We were in gym clothing and a lovely family all dressed up asked to take a photo with us. We had all of their children on our laps and smiled. It was an honor. We then spoke to the overseer of the Temple and we was amazed when I told him that I live only 2 blocks away from the Bahai Temple in America. He shouted, "You live in Wilmette, IL!" I grinned and for a second relived a bit of my Chicago and American pride. (I still deny the reality that my family lives in Florida and I am in bigger denial that I will soon return to the States.) He also complimented my American English, a rare occurrence.
Where do I begin? My parents did not want me to go to Gulu. Since my arrival to Uganda, my father began to read the New Vision, the conservative/government slanted newspaper. Actually, he started to read the paper while I was still in Argentina. Emails and parental commentary followed in regards to Uganda politics and the war in the North. My dad would have been following my travels more closely prior to arrival to Uganda if he could read Spanish. His only commentary: You are not to go to the north!
My parents have not told me where to go, what to do, or other parental suggestions since I left on September 2nd, until I came to Uganda. When they called me one afternoon, I told them I was traveling later that week. Where? They asked. I quickly said the north, under my breath. I explained that I wanted to go in order to gain a better understanding of the "whole Ugandan experience." After going to Dennis's radio show, it became clear that many politicians act like there are 2 separate Ugandas with 2 separate political agendas. Moreover, the so-called "international community" does not know what is going on here in Uganda, a long and grave humanitarian crisis. Finally, how has this 17 year old crisis affected the Uganda people themselves? How have they become resilient? How have they become numb? How has the war become a way of life?
It would take another 10 pages to sum up the war because of its complexity, long duration, political implications, etc. In very short, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is attempting to overthrown the Ugandan government. Initially, the army was born from the spiritual and religious ideology of Alice Naqwena. Currently, she is in exile. She used witchcraft to lure men to join her army to overthrow Museveni, the Ugandan President. (Museveni recently won his controversial third term to the presidency). She protected her army with oil and scared away the Ugandan army with stones. When she fled, the current leader, Koni, took over. Currently, he is in Sudan. They fight in the north, specifically targeting the Acholi Tribe. As a result, bloodshed has taken over the north. The LRA rebels invade Gulu to find people to join them or they are murdered or kidnapped.
Specifically, there are few older men to join Koni's forces. As a result, children are the next best thing. They are vulnerable, scared, expendable, and plentiful. These children are kidnapped to serve as part of Koni's army. They are brainwashed to commit horrendous crimes and kill their friends and family members. Young boys become child soldiers. Young girls are kidnapped to become the sexual slaves or wives to LRA soldiers. Children lose their innocence and freedom. They are forever changed and their youth is sacrificed to war.
In order to protect themselves from the LRA, thousands of children leave their homes before night falls to seek refuge in Gulu town for the evening. They sleep in the bus park, under the veranda, in protected NGO sponsored tents, and in Lacor Hospital. They are piled on top of one another every night. They leave in the early morning to return to their homes and dress themselves for school (those who can afford it) or the day's work. They are called night commuters. Gulu town is the only safe place for them because the rebels rarely enter town. Their parents, too, seek protection from the LRA at night. They sleep in the trees near their homes, especially the women, to protect themselves. These families are safe in their villages and homes during the day and do not need to live in an IDP camp, like thousands of entire Acholi families. The families that live in the IDP camp were forced to live there by the government in the mid 1990s. The camps are overcrowed, lack food and basic sanitary needs, and for some people they have turned into permanent homes.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to visit the head of Peace and Conflict Studies of Gulu Univ and head of a UN Peace initiative, visit World Vision's Rehabilitation Center for children and women who are rescued/escaped from the bush, visit Bobi IDP camp, and also meet with the in country team of Invisible Children. In brief, I enjoyed all of my meetings. The head of Peace and Conflict Studies questioned and criticized the role of the NGO community (over 400 organizations) and the so-called "international community." He hated I would refer to the "international community." He thought that the phrase was an imaginary phenomenon and more of a bureacratic PC word. The international community has not fully reached Gulu or brought any significant change. He also criticized the government for their lack of direct involvement as well. I appreciated his honest and straightforward answers. As an academic, he gave me more well rounded answers since he did not have to give answers via a political lens.
Additionally, I enjoyed my visit to World Vision. I went to visit and see where Kristin has spent so much of her time and carried out some very powerful interviews with the women of the bush. I went with my guide's wife who works for another World Vision program. I had an informative tour and had the opportunity to see some of the children and women during some music and drumming time. It was hard for me to grasp the stories and experiences of nearly all of the children. I found it difficult to make eye contact with the young boys and even more difficult to ask questions in the presence of the boys. I felt uncomfortable, I felt guilty, I felt sorry for them. At the same time, I recognized their strength. They have a strength that I do not have. Even after all of my traveling and independence, I am still clueless to some of the many personal realities that many people face every day!
A reality in Gulu: Hiding at night from the rebels, If you are attacked/captured-- you are forced to take up arms and shoot/kill fellow friends and family members, you are forced in an army, or forced to have sex, you are tortured, you are shot, you have your lips and nose cut off, if you do make it out alive..... you are different from others, you face major psychological and physical challenges. Luckily, there is a group like World Vision to try to reintegrate and work with these young children and mothers. The goal is to bring these children and mothers back to their families. However, many families or husbands reject their war-torn family members. They may look physically tortured and scarred or mentally and emotionally cannot accept them again. The goal is to reunite and reintegrate them back into a normal routine. They fight the stigma and try to sensitze the community. During my visit, there were 46 children at the center including 12 mothers. Most stay about 3 weeks or so depending on their medical or counseling needs. The hardest part of my visit was seeing the actual photos of the wounds, scars, and damage caused by the war int he medical center. These children are too young to face such pain and abuse.
I also met with some friends via the family I am staying with here in Kampala of Invisible Children. They were not the actual film makers, but young adults who were launching an educational scholarship program for already 205 kids and working on their bracelet campaign. I enjoyed hearing about the movie and campaign's success that has occurred during my travels and their challenges as young adults who have started an international movement! I had the chance to share with them an exciting phone call from the US of the receipt of a large donation, 1 new SUV, 2 motorcycles, and a photo copier! They were very excited! Things are moving very quickly for them. They also told me how they have received very positive support from certain politicians in DC who think Invisible Children, the movement, and Washington has the power to put pressure on the Ugandan goverment to stop this war! Who ever thought 3 boys originally going to Sudan could hinder a 18 year old war. They spoke of the incredible people they have met and worked with in Gulu as mentors, etc.. .including a Quinto, a mentor, who they later found out had 13 children and HIV positive. He never told them, but always came to work with a big smile dedicated to the cause. He is truly helping his people and helping with positive change despite his own personal struggles!
Finally, I went to the Bobbi IDP camp. I had prepared a list of several questions. The questions were complex, academic, or statistical. For some reason, I was expecting to meet with some NGO person who was going to take us around. I was not expecting the camp leader to be a local woman. She is the only person in the camp that speaks strong English. There are 30,625 persons living in this camp. However, she was not sure on the exact number because of births and deaths in the camp. It was so difficult and so sad. The homes were on top of eachother, sanitation was poor, food is scarce despite the WFP's (World Food Programme) efforts. Children are everywhere- They are not in school. It was a school day on our visit. If they do go to school, many only go at lunch to receive a meal. Many people were in the local market and many were drinking. The high level of drinking and alcoholism is a problem in the camp and many people do not go to work. If men and women do go to work they can only work the fields from 9 am to 4 pm because of curfew restrictions. This is not long enough to really have a productive day in the fields. They are also only permitted to visit certain fields and grazing areas. There are only 4 actual homes for 4 people when they come back from the bush. Obviously, it is difficult to pick what 4 people get to have this little luxury. There is one battalion of Ugandan soldiers protecting the IDP camp and its perimeter from rebels. The last attack came in April of 2005.
My words cannot explain my emotions at the time of walking through the camp because the visual imagery will forever change me. Like my visit to the camp, I found it difficult to ask certain questions. A part of me did not want to know such stats like how many people die in the camp a day or month. I wanted to protect myself from such pain. I knew HIV/AIDS was a problem, but could not get into the fine details, partly because the leader did not know and once again out of protection. These families have suffered so much and to add a death sentence of a disease on top of that seemed unfair to me.
My visit to Gulu was intriguing... I struggled with being a tourist. I wanted to help and I couldn't. I only hope this email will serve as an eye opener to all of you. The war in Northern Uganda deserves International Attention by the so-called International Community!! The people of Uganda need you! People are suffering and dying every day... in the same country that I have fallen in love with!
After Gulu, we drove to Soroti to visit my guide, Raphael's, family village. It was interesting to go to a small village and a neighboring village area that once served as an IDP camp. In Soroti, I learned about the Arrow Boys. The Arrow Boys are a group of 500 men that decided to take the Arms of the Ugandan soldiers who were too fearful of the IRA in 2003. They have yet to give back the arms. You see young men walking around with guns. In Raphael's village, there are 70 Arrow Boys. I met the commander. I met with the children and women of the village and took their photos. They loved looking at my little "tv" and seeing their faces! They giggled and laughed. They offered me a large sack of ground nuts. I gladly accepted. The men were drinking their local millet beer in a circle out of a pot with long straws. I was not invited to try it or sit in the circle, but Martin was invited. I guess it was a gender norm. The men questioned who I was and what my purpose was in the village when I was not with Raphael. They were skeptical that I was a journalist or worked with an NGO. I made my promise that I was taking the photos for fun and would print them out for them in the future. We spent the afternoon playing games, etc as Martin was acting like a clown. They had never seen someone climbing trees, doing cartwheels, and most shocking-- not wearing shoes. I had a great time, but once again was bluntly asked for money to feed the village and have meat. The older gentleman did not ask Martin. I tried to steer our conversation in a new direction. Overall, it was a great weekend up north....
AIDCHILD...this past weekend! www.aidchild.org
Another quick update... This past weekend I went to visit an organization called AidChild. I had contacted the director while I was in Argentina about volunteering. He was unable to offer me a volunteer opportunity, but said I could come and visit the place for a day and visit his craft shop in Masaka, southwest of Kampala. I was told the journey would take 4 hours by bus. I went to the bus station and I was told I had to take a taxi. There were no buses today. I knew the man was lying to me. Oh well, I hopped in the taxi van, even though I knew they were very dangerous outside of Kampala because they drive wildly. Well, we got there in one piece and in 1 hour 30 minutes! Record Time! I arrived to AidChild and met the director, Nathaniel, and another American volunteer, Elizabeth. The three of us immediately hit it off.
AidChild is a medical clinic and home to orphaned children living with full blown AIDS. There are 2 centers and each has usually around 35 children. However, currently they are over capacity with 41 in Masaka. The boys outnumber the girls 4 to 1. These children received agressive ARV treatment, attend school and other activities, and have a new family. These children are full of life and full of smiles and joy. They hug you. They run with you. They laugh at your name and of course say mzungu. I immediately fell in love! I especially fell in love iwth a boy named Simon, a young boy with Aids and Cerebal Palsy. In only 5 years, Nathaniel has created an incredibly strong NGO, fully self sustaining, by his cafe right on Equator. He has revolutionized how to care for these children. They are in such a positive and family environment. He has lost 9 children. Each child has a memorial flag with his/her initial on it. They also have a chicken farm with 300 chickens that provides eggs for the children every day. They have their own microbiology lab, running water, and full staff! It was incredible. I was suppose to leave on Friday morning, but of course stayed until Saturday. I was having too much fun!!!
I loved spending the evenings under the African sky with such good company. I have never laughed so hard with 2 people I hardly know. We talked about politics, Africa, religion, and of course Entertainment news in the US all with Enrique Inglesias in the background. On Saturday afternoon, we drove back towards Kampala with a stop at the Equator for lunch, shopping, and a kodak moment. We then went to Kampala and to Nathanial's other business venture to help AidChild and his retirement/salary...a new massage parlor. An hour later and a new massage, I decided this was one of the best weekends of the year. I encourage you all to look at the AidChild website. You will see how amazing it is. Of all the organizations i visited, I was most impressed wtih AidChild. I encourage you to sign up for his journal...it inspires me everyweek! This experience gave me a hands on look at the AIDS epidemic but through a lens of hope, courage, and the joy of children.
IF you made it this far........ I am impressed! I am sure you have realized how much I am in love with Uganda. I can't believe I am off to Kenya on Saturday!!!!!
Lots of love,