Last month, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Northern Uganda. When I arrived here in 2007, Peace Corps volunteers were not allowed to go to the north at all, due to security concerns. Now, Peace Corps is opening up the north. I was part of a small team that helped scout out some possible sites where the first post-war PCVs will be placed in the north. This was my chance to see the one region of this country I had yet to visit. The trip was unforgettable- an intense and wonderful experience. Instead of trying to tell it all, here are just a few thoughts, photos, and stories:
Northern Uganda was the battleground of a decades-long civil war between Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and Ugandan government forces. Peace has come, bringing renewed hope to a region that has experienced incredible tragedy- the kidnapping of children as soldiers, the arbitrary mutilation of landmines, mass killing, displacement of innocent civilians into internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps, the terror of systematic abductions and rape. Visible and invisible scars will haunt this place for a very long time- in Kitgum town, while awaiting transport one morning, I saw a woman with no feet. But, I am reminded how strong and resilient people can be- somehow, that woman was walking. All over the north, I was amazed at the kindness of strangers, and a feeling of optimism, that there is promise in what lies ahead.
we have a winner.
T-shirt hunting in Uganda could be a sport. There are some truly amazing ones out there, but the real prize is the losers’ shirt.
So every year, two sets of winners’ t-shirts are made for the Super Bowl. One set is worn by the celebrating champions. The losers’ t-shirts are quickly whisked away from American soil, to places where people don’t even know what American football is. Like Kitgum, Uganda!
Good reading on how losers’ shirts get here: Far Away, Super Bowl’s Losers Will Be Champs (Interestingly, Major League Baseball has a policy of destroying its losers’ shirts so that there’s no confusion anywhere in the baseball-ignoring world who the “world champions” are.)
Also, I highly recommend reading How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back, a great article that follows an ordinary t-shirt across the world.
a shifting home.
Seeing the IDP camps at a time when they are in transition provided me with a very unique look into a complex and challenging human condition.
Through years of war, much of the populace chose or was forced to relocate into IDP (internally displaced persons’) camps. Most of the camps are not as make-shift as you might imagine. They are clusters of huts, built tightly together for security purposes. Some camps are very large and have become somewhat like towns, since they’ve been established for over 15 or 20 years. In some ways, the camps are very convenient for providing residents with services. Most were constructed near an existing school. International aid has helped a number of these schools develop the facilities to deal with a large student body. In some ways, it is easier to deliver things like clean water, vaccinations, and health education to a concentrated population. But people do not live this way. Living in an IDP camp, losing land and security and home, a person loses the dignity of work (for most people, work was agriculture). Poverty is the best friend of disease (particularly HIV), and many people living in close proximity raises huge sanitation challenges.
With peace, people now have the opportunity to “go home” from the camps. This is an extraordinary change, particularly for children who have never known any other home outside of a camp. There are some small incentives given to people to move back to their villages, and many have jumped at the opportunity to return. As the camps empty out, the community remaining is mostly made up of people who are either too old or sick to move back, or those who have nowhere to return to. In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to see what happens to what is left of the camps. It will also be worth watching what happens to the re-forming villages, as people try to pick up and rebuild.
guest spot on luo fm.
The trip took us to Pader, where my former counterpart and very good friend from Tororo, E, now works as the manager of a major radio station. We asked E. if we could go on air and hold a call-in “Ask a Muzungu” show where people could ask us what it was like to be an American, to be a white person living in Uganda, etc. Of course, she said yes!
We were on the air within a few short hours. Many callers just wanted to greet us and welcome us to northern Uganda. Some tried to teach us some words in local language. My two favorite call-in questions were:
1. What is a prom party? The guy who asked this had seen American movies and didn’t really understand what it was all about. (L. proceeded to try to describe his prom and may have further confused the poor caller by telling him it had an under-the-sea theme and ending up trying to explain what a mermaid is…)
2. Since everyone in Uganda has begun naming their children after Obama, do Americans name their children Museveni?
Visiting E. in Pader was wonderful. It was great to see my friend again, so in her element, and the radio show left me laughing.
It is traditional in Uganda (and many, dare I say all, other parts of Africa) for mothers to carry babies tied to their backs. I cannot truly get across how hard African women work, but suffice to say they are unappreciated superheroines. The hands-free baby-on-the-back system allows a mom to do all sorts of other things- ride a bicycle, load firewood on her heads, haul water, cook, etc. while keeping the smallest of her little ones very, very nearby.
Northern Uganda is notoriously hot and very dusty, so women have developed an innovation. A big gourd is positioned to cover the baby’s head, to provide shade and protection. I wonder what it would be like to experience a lot of early life bouncing along in calabash-induced darkness.