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Uganda-February 7-27, 2007

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February 7, 2007: NUPF Executive Committee Meeting

Today was the meeting of the Northern Uganda Peace Forum (NUPF) Executive Committee, the group of representatives from the five ethnic sub-regional Peace Forums: West Nile (red), Acholi (green), Lango (blue), Teso (pink), and Karamoja (yellow).

The purpose of the meeting was to review formal documents and to remind the NUPF that the NUPI contract was expiring and soon they would be on their own.  My goals for the meeting today were fourfold: 1) introduce myself and my role; 2) demonstrate my facilitative abilities and my knowledge of the issues; 3) make relationship connections to expand my role in the region; and 4) add value to the meeting. 

Meeting on African time – of course – means we started an hour late, and we started without the Chairman who decided last night that he would not show up at all (no further explanation provided).  I was surprised at the formality of the meeting itself: amendments to the agenda were made, a prayer offered, and each person started speaking by thanking the Chair for the time and thanking all of us gathered. 

Looking back on the formalities, I can only assume a direct connection to the prim styles of past colonialists.  Clearly, the parliamentary procedures and formalities – even the powdered wigs for judges – have lasting effects.  In terms of assisting the free flow of ideas, though, this style seems quite inefficient.  The only real interest it satisfies is that of respecting other members; even here, though, there were times when it failed to ensure that interest was met.

It was very difficult for me to find a space in which I could add to the meeting, using the conversational, open-style facilitation that Insight finds effective and efficient.  Under this formal meeting structure, there were few opportunities for “active listening” – rephrasing comments to confirm substantive understanding and to affirm the.  In order to rephrase, I would have to interrupt, ask the Chair for the floor, and thank him and the members gathered for giving it to me.  Difficult when I just want to say, “So what I’m hearing is X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?”

What I did manage to do was step up to flip-chart ideas for the Concept Paper, which is somewhere between a wide-ranging Constitution and a specific project proposal.  I condensed the many purposes of the Paper that we had discussed into three solid points: informing and coordinating local activities (downward to the grassroots); informing and coordinating regional activities (upward to the NUPF regional body and the Ministry of Internal Affairs); and attracting financial and other support.  If I really wanted to go further, it would be a single purpose with three targets: information for constituents, government structures, and potential funders. In any case, naming the purposes allowed us to determine the best language for the Concept Paper and what specific issues and activities we sought to undertake.  In this process, I was able to open up the conversation, soliciting ideas and reducing the length of the inevitable repetitions.

At the close of the meeting, I led us through the somewhat painful exercise of specifying “Next Steps,” the concrete actions that each member and participant agreed to undertake.  For a group that was tired and certainly uninterested in new process steps, it was a challenge even introducing it.  Why would we want to do this? We all know what we are doing.

But as I made us go through the process, it was surprising how many steps there were that we had agreed to undertake but had not quite remembered to task.  Discussing the specific steps to take after the meeting – and making sure we all knew who was expected to do what – was, I think, valuable in aligning everyone’s ideas and mindsets.  In essence: painful for those not used to the exercise but very helpful.  Not unlike my first exposure to explicit process moves over the summer at Insight: uncomfortable but ultimately invaluable.

I felt satisfied when, following the meeting, I was approached by one of the members, who set a specific date (Feb. 13th and 14th) when I could travel to Apac for the sub-regional Lango Peace Forum Steering Committee Meeting.  He thought I could be of some help with their meeting.  While I immediately agreed with a stoic façade, I was internally ecstatic and relieved: my hopes of working with the Peace Forums around the region may actually come to fruition!

I also appreciated a comment from one of the NUPI directors, who had driven up from Kampala.  He complimented my efforts; I half-heartedly thanked him, for the compliment seemed like a required comment of appreciation.  But he went on: “You know, when you were up there with the chart, did you see what the Executive Committee Members were all doing?”

“No, not really,” I replied, unsure of what he was suggesting.

“They were all furiously taking notes, not only on what you wrote, but also on what you said.  That is a very good sign.”

After he mentioned that, I remembered noticing that they were writing it all down.   I think that is good for two reasons: first, it showed I was actually helpful, which is nice for me personally.  But second – and more importantly – it demonstrated that they would all be on the same page, working from the same notes, ideas, and memories from the meeting.  And this unity is a good thing, especially considering the long-term tensions and violence between the five ethnic sub-regions.

I hesitate to call the meeting a success because I truly believe there was much else I could do.  Reflecting on my goals for today, though, I think the day was largely good: I introduced myself, my role, and displayed my abilities; I facilitated important parts of a meeting under difficult conditions; the group moved forward on finalizing important documents; we had two concrete outcomes that promoted peace – the members drafted a letter urging the LRA and the Government of Uganda to return to the Juba negotiations and also recorded a radio program urging pan-regional unity for peace – and I was invited to help plan a number of future meetings, including one specific date.  In sum, there is definitely room for improvement; but I think I should be relatively satisfied with my first Peace Forum facilitation.

Plus: facilitating a meeting with goats bleating outside the window?  Priceless.

February 8, 2007: Day 247.  Further Reflections on the NUPF Meeting

After ruminating on yesterday’s meeting further, I have come across a few additional thoughts regarding the format of these meetings and how I might be more effective.

I previously discussed the overt – and, I believe, unnecessary – formalities in most meetings I have attended.  NUPF was no exception.  So I have to ask: why do these structures exist? What is the purpose?

First, as I alluded to yesterday, such formalities provides clear-cut procedures to respect status.  The Chairman is called “Mr. Chairman;” the secretary is “Mr. Secretary.”  There are no interruptions and each person gets to hold the floor for as long as he or she wishes.

Second, formality upholds a procedural tradition of what meetings “should” look like, I believe.  Outside of the meeting – even during informal conversations over tea and lunch – the members had no problem chatting, talking over each other, even making jokes.  I have observed this elsewhere in Uganda. So people believe meetings are wholly different and must be treated in a fully different manner.

This may be a good thing in some ways.  And yet, there are also merits to a more free-flowing format. With some encouragement from me, we actually entered that space well yesterday, opening up the floor to brainstorming.  It was still stiff; then again, this was probably the first time they had experienced loose brainstorming in an official meeting.  I can assume, then, that though the space is foreign, it is possible.  So I need to find a way to respect status within the group and yet open up space in the pre-existing structures for efficient, open communication. For example, I could pre-arrange with the Chair that I would facilitate points three and four on the agenda.  In order to enter and exit that space, I will try two specific process moves next time.  First, asking and thanking the Chair for the floor will demonstrate my respect for his/her status and the traditional structures. Second, I would make it clear that we are entering a different type of space.  Some phrasing like: “Okay, if it is acceptable to you, I’d like to try something a little new that may feel very different for you. Is that okay? Good. Now, do you know what I mean when I say “brainstorm”?…” and so on.  As I do so, standing and moving to the flipchart will help physically denote a movement to a new space.  Though it still feels slightly awkward to be so explicit about process, I think it would be helpful in this situation.  I will have to try this out in Apac next week, if the meeting with the Lango Peace Forum actually happens.

***

On a side note, this morning at work I received a call from NN, the former LRA Catechist. He wanted to stop by and say hello.  I will admit that it felt strange receiving a call from NN, mainly because of his history. Of course, I was delighted and invited him over.

It is a little unnerving to share instant Nescafe and local pastries with someone who went through so much pain and violence, and, likely, caused much pain and violence as well.  How can I actually be congenial with someone who, in most parts of the world, would be simply known as a war criminal? It is very difficult, even though he now is a very sensible man running a farm where former LRA soldiers can come to work and earn a paycheck to get on their feet.  It is certainly a test of my self-identification as a mediator, which tells me I must treat this man with the same respect which I treat all others.  And still I find that difficult, something of which I must be conscious.

In any case, it was good to see him and hear his further thoughts on the inner workings of the LRA and “Kony Himself.”  From a religio-psychological perspective, the picture he paints is fascinating: a self-styled prophet, utilizing a smattering of Christian and animist beliefs, consistently contradictory yet clearly, somehow, someway, sane.  I enjoy these meetings, although it is hard to discern how sincere NN is and how much he simply talks.  Of course, I want to trust him completely and take his word at face value.  But sometimes it is just not that simple to sort fact from fiction, certainty from conjecture.

February 9, 2007

I find that every day in Gulu is a series of semi-related events, and today was no exception.  It started normally, finalizing the Summary and Next Steps report from Wednesday’s NUPF meeting, compiling notes from my various meetings with NN and other former LRA soldiers, and proofing a number of other NUPI and Peace Forum documents.  Then, I was invited to attend a groundbreaking for a rehabilitation and skill-building center for war returnees outside a nearby Internally Displaced People’s Camp (IDP Camp).  There were two NUPI officials, NN, and me.

We stopped at NN’s farm to see the grounds and his current crop, cassava.  Cassava is a dry root with a vaguely sweet flavor. It can be grilled, boiled, or even eaten raw (not recommended).  We stopped to walk through the cassava fields at one point, the dry stalks and green leafy canopy at my eye-level. 

Using a hoe, NN quickly dug up a large tuber for each of us: lunch.

I had a flash of recognition: I was standing in cassava field in rural northern Uganda, being given freshly-unearthed cassava by a former LRA captain, I, the only mzungu for miles.  The sun beating down on us, the dust in our eyes, the cassava extending as far as we could see.  Just brilliant.

Eventually we moved along to the IDP camp for the first half of the opening ceremonies.  It was a long-winded affair with formal speeches being offered by everyone present.  We were given handkerchiefs designed by the children who are learning crafts.  They were imprinted with pictures of what the kids liked most or hated most about the camps; the vast majority depicted the latter.  The hated aspects included fires burning the huts, having to work all day with no breaks, and having only one meager meal of posho or cassava every day. 

As we prepared to move to the new site, we discovered our tire had blown.  So there I was, changing a tire with a thirty-something Acholi man and a former LRA captain in the middle of an IDP camp.  You just cannot buy that experience.

We were fortunately in a secluded area; if we had been in the middle of the camp, I’m sure we would have been overcome by seas of young children eager to see a mzungu do anything, never mind change a tire.

The ceremony itself was incredibly dull except for the groups of children dancing to traditional Acholi drums.  Their movements, their stomping, their enthusiasm was just beautiful:

As the day grew hotter and the shade shifted, I was starting to take in too much sun. As the only mzungu for miles, I was the only one with this problem.  NN, sitting next to me, alerted me to this: “Jared, you are burning. Come, switch seats with me.” I demurred; he then got our whole row to shift down so I could move into the shade again.  Such respect for me, so wonderfully caring; he used to be an LRA captain. How can I make sense of that?

The day concluded with an afternoon luncheon alongside numerous local government officials who were debating whether or not to let the central Government spray their huts with DDT to kill the mosquitoes.  I was pretty sure the U.S. banned DDT because it was found to be extremely harmful to people and animals.  And now the Ugandan government seems to want to spray it inside peoples’ huts to stem malaria. I promised the local council members I would look into it for them.

This brings up issues of mistrust of the Government, which still runs deep and traces its roots to numerous previous ethnic and national conflicts.  And terrible miscommunications: the local officials suggested to me they were urged to vote on the issue without consulting their constituencies, a potentially troublesome situation.

In any case, this is what life is like here: consistently changing, dynamic, and surprising. I bounce from one issue to another, alternatively listening and advising; always working hard.  And I love it.

February 9, 2007: Malaria?

I can’t have malaria, can I? I’ve never been seriously sick, never broken anything, never had any health problems.  I take malaria pills daily, except for once, two days ago, when I forgot.  And now I’ve been hurting, achy all day, dizzy now, alternatively sweaty and chilled.  All of these are symptoms of malaria, I know.

On one hand, I know it’s not malaria. It can’t be.  It must be from having a cold and being sunburned – a pairing I did not know could go together – but certainly nothing serious.  And yet, I know what the symptoms are, I cannot stand without getting dizzy.  I made sure my friend will check on me tomorrow morning, just in case.  I recognize this overly dramatic, but in truth, I am a little scared.

I tried to nap this evening and instead delivered myself into the hands of feverish, psychedelic half-dreams of LRA kidnappings, machetes, and world peace. I am struggling to write this now; I can only hope I’m well again tomorrow to write again. If not, it’s off to the hospital. I hope two liters of water tonight will help.

February 10, 2007

I woke up this morning (victory number one), felt around and realized my body temperature had evened (victory number two), and stood up without feeling faint (victory number three).  So it’s not malaria, it’s nothing dangerous, thank God; just a mix of dehydration, sunburn, and a general chest-cough and sickness.  It is still comforting to see the sun.

After getting some work done today, I will be heading off to bring paints for a group of night commuters so they can decorate their center.  Never having been to one, I can only imagine what it will be like.  Very excited to be going, finally.

This place feels strikingly comfortable, like home: I am meant to be here.

February 11, 2007: Night Commuters

I didn’t return from the night commuter center (Charity for Peace) until late, nearly eleven last night.  It was amazing.  These children trek to the center every night, some from up to seven miles away, to sleep in relative safety.  Though the violence – and the flow of children – abated with the Juba cease-fire in August 2006, there can be no assurances of safety for these children.  They sleep on a cement floor with naught but dirty, unwashed blankets for comfort and a small staff to watch after them.

After realizing that we missed our own art, it dawned on my friend and me that these children had no opportunities for art, no way to know they were missing it.  So we organized a small project where we took handprints from each child, covering a vast plywood board with their prints: “200 Hands for Peace.”

And, the final product:

After the painting, we spent time with the children, talking and listening.  The language barrier made it difficult to speak with the small ones, who could be as young as four, but with the older children translating between English and Luo we seemed to connect well, hitting on topics from action stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee) to American weather (is it true that there are no bugs or butterflies in America because it snows all the time?).

The most difficult topic I was asked was about American children: “Can children in America walk the streets freely or are they afraid?”  I was completely taken aback at this question.  How can I explain to these children that American children must also be fearful and cannot walk alone?  Is it possible that these children could empathize with their American counterparts, could somehow relate their experiences, fears, scares?

I ended up stressing that American children sometimes are also fearful.  But they have far less to fear than these children; “You face very difficult problems,” I said, “but you are very, very strong.”

Responded one: “Did you know that he,” (pointing to his friend) “he can walk five miles with a jerry-can of water? He is very strong too!”  His friends’ arms were no thicker than the handle on a golf club, his ribs showing, his eyes glowing in the pitch night.

While I tried to convey the idea that you can be strong in your arms and also strong in your heart, I felt suddenly sick.  Five miles with a jerry-can?  I could not imagine walking five miles for water, pumping a 20-liter can of water, and walking it back.  An extraordinary, yet daily task.  These kids are vastly tough and impressive. How can they be so strong, so experienced, and yet so young?

They pleaded with me to spend the night.  I declined, not being prepared to do so.  But as I said no, I wondered: what do I have to prepare?  These kids have ripped shirts, shorts, and only occasionally rubber sandals. They have nothing to prepare because they have nothing.  What did I need to prepare?

Do clean clothes make me soft, does a computer make me pathetic? Do possessions make us weak?

I will return to the children, though, as I think of more activities, more ideas, more ways to connect with them.  They are so beautiful, so strong, so young.  And they deserve so much more.

February 13, 2007: To Apac

I went to Apac town to meet with the sub-regional Lango Peace Forum today. It was a fascinating first day that simply needs to be described in parts: the long journey, my preparatory work, and the rural night.

    Part 1: Getting to Apac

I embarked on the journey to Apac early this morning, jumping onto a rickety charter bus just soon enough to get a seat. Everyone after me stood for the ride, which was slow, bumpy beyond belief, and very hot.  I was prodded with elbows of an old woman near me, her knapsack shoved in my face.  My knees were stabilizers for the toddlers who stood for free on the trip, their small hands gripping my pants to avoid being thrown about the coach.  I remember wondering if I, if any of the adults, should be concerned about the exposed, rusty screws.  Apparently not.  A girl of about seven years, standing near my shoulder in the aisle, vomited into an old rag for the latter half of the trip. Nobody seemed to mind so I did not either.

This bus got me halfway to Lira. Lira is a town slightly larger than Gulu but twice as disorganized with a lot more people crowding the streets and much more omnipresent junk for your purchase.  Buying two muffins and a water to settle my stomach, I found, was not necessarily the best course of action: the logic, it seems, is that if I wanted anything, then I wanted everything. I was soon offered the gamut, from pictures glorifying Ugandan President Museveni to women’s underwear.  Here they saw a mzungu who buys, which roughly translates as a moneyed sucker.

I did not have time to make my way through the offerings and wander from the taxi park, for I was immediately ushered into a matatu that apparently was headed toward Apac. I remained highly skeptical: English communications in a taxi park can be questionable.  In any case, I boarded in the front seat offered to me, not having much of a choice. Being given a front seat is both a blessing and a curse: the greater legroom and comfort, away from the other twenty passengers, is easily offset by the risks during a head-on accident.  The windshield had spider-leg cracks emanating from the far corner, cobwebbed where a driver’s head would have hit.  I could not help it: in the midst of the chaos, pantyhose, and potential dangers, I smiled.

We dropped passengers along the way, children going to boarding school with their spray-painted metal trunks and bright pressed shirts, women with babies slung across their backs at paths leading to some unknown settlement deep in the bush.  The Ugandan bush sliced by the rutted road is a cross between tall waving Savannah grasses, low thick green bushes, and tropical palms huddled tightly around unseen water sources.  And the dust, always the dust, in your eyes and mouth, on your shoes and your bags, in every minuscule pore on your body.

As we maneuvered through roadside encampments, I brought clear joy to the children there who successfully spied the mzungu through the splintered windshield. I recognized the standard four-step program of recognizing a mzungu:

1. The same blank, unquestioning gaze that is awarded to anything different, regardless if it is a person, animal, or machine.

2. The head drops, the mouth opens slightly, the eyes widen, as the young child recognizes something different about my skin.

3.  If I were near, I would hear it breathed, barely audible, a sign of shock and amazement: “Muuu-zuuun-guuuu.”

4. Finally, if there be a critical mass of three or more children, the shock turns to mile-wide smiles, shrieks to wake the dead, jumping, waving, and all sorts of flailing limbs.  The sorts of movements and sounds that adults have learned not to do and make.

This happened every time we passed a house – every house had children outside – and I certainly caused a commotion that would be known for miles, for days.

When I had asked an Acholi friend in Gulu what Apac was like, he stuck his arms out in front of him, crossed his forearms and said: “Psht. Like this.”  He was not far off.  Apac indeed seemed to have four streets, one gas station, and a plethora of bicycle boda bodas.  As I stretched my legs from the matatu, grateful to arrive in one piece, I was quickly surrounded by children.  Each one that joined the group completed the full four steps, ultimately ending with eyes somehow larger than their smiles.  They trailed me to lunch, excited as I washed my hands, delighted when I ate posho and beans with a fork instead of a hand, ecstatic when I spoke English into a payphone. 

    Part II: Consulting

My main role in Apac is to facilitate the Steering Committee Meeting of the Lango Peace Forum (LPF), a group representing the Langi ethnic sub-region.  Specifically, the representative to the top-level Northern Uganda Peace Forum, Martin, asked me assist in the finalization of their foundation documents and concept papers.  Of course, to do so, I have to meet with the LPF to investigate the issues they seek to address and the actions they are prepared to take.

We spent the afternoon together, Martin and I, going over his views of the issues they faced.  We sat in a small office for the Women and Children Action Network (WACANE), the NGO that he heads. I did not ask why a woman was not director.

Essentially, as with the other community groups I have worked with, there was a lot of hope, many plans, and a significant lack of funding.  Always the funding question.  I was able to suggest a number of steps he might take to search for appropriate funders as well as using the “Four P’s” of planning to clearly describe and plan his ideas (Purpose, Product, People, and Process).  In all, I think it went well.

    Part III: A Rural Evening

After making a number of “courtesy calls” to local and national officials in Apac – the central government appointee sported red socks, red shirt, and a red-yellow-black striped tie – we proceeded to Martin’s home for the evening.  Taking a bicycle boda boda for nearly half an hour, we arrived at his house.

He and his wife have taken in five children orphaned by the war.  He showed me around their farm: where they originally started building, where they eventually added, the huts they built, his cattle, roosters, and goats.  As he was showing me his eggplant patch, he asked me: “Did you use any strong soap recently?”

I was startled:  “Um… sorry?”

He repeated: “Did you use any strong soaps recently? Our neighbors might mind.”

Still not sure if I had heard right – and my mind flashing images of what types of neighbors might care about the smell of a mzungu – I said no and followed him, ducking through trees and bushes. What was I getting myself into? What was going on?

We made our way into a small clearing, and I soon understood: he has a bee farm. The neighbors – the bees – would not take strong smells easily, apparently; fortunately I had not bathed properly for two days, so there was no problem. No problem except, of course, that I was now standing in the middle of about twenty beehives in the rural part of a rural town in rural northern Uganda.

He explained to me the reasons for the markings on the hives (so the bees could find their way home) and why exactly he was doing this (one liter of honey can fetch up to $4 USD locally).  I again was astounded by my surroundings, entering a “Seriously?!” moment.  Making our way past his cattle, roosters, and goats, we toured the rest of the farm.

He led me back to the house where I met the orphans.  The two girls were, sadly, raised according to traditional Lango culture: when I moved to shake their hand, they sheepishly averted their eyes, offered their hands, and quietly knelt, laying down their bodies in the dust in front of me.  I tried to stammer a protest but was unsure: can I tell them not to do this for me, even if it is their culture?  I felt terrible, terribly powerful, and powerfully aware of these inequalities.  Remember, these girls were taken in by the leader of the Women and Children Action Network; his office plastered with signs proclaiming girls and women as equals to be valued.  And yet, I see the two girls kneeling – no, laying – in the dust for me.

The rest of the night was spent uncomfortably on my part, trying to accept my position as a male guest, reclining on seats moved into the yard for us by the children.  The children and Martin’s wife prepared dinner long into the night: her silhouette from the lamplight, tearing apart pieces of freshly slaughtered goat with a dull machete; the girls heating water to boil it and the cassava; the boys ushering the livestock into pens for the night.  The food served by the girls, kneeling in the dust, saying a prayer for each dish I would consume.  Fresh pineapple, fresh goat, fresh cassava, eaten under the winking stars.  The spattered constellations bright, leaping across the night sky at speeds I never knew.  The sound of pots prepared and cleaned, the bleats of far-off livestock, the ripping of goat flesh from our incisors: this was a traditional meal, prepared traditionally, eaten traditionally, with the right hand.

In keeping with tradition, Martin’s wife and the children ate only after cleaning our dishes and our hands.

I was given the nicest bedroom, complete with mosquito net and pre-boiled water to use for bathing.  African showers, as they are called, are not the most cleansing.  But as I splashed water on me next to the open latrine, I was somehow comfortable.  Not comfortable with this physical setup or the vast inequalities throughout the evening; rather, that I was comfortable with the whole.  It was as it had been for years; that was clear.  Can I be comfortable with traditions as a whole but despise many of their parts? Are the gender dynamics so integral to the tradition that it is a “baby-with-the-bathwater” situation?

The juxtaposition of the beautiful and terrible seems to describe much of my experiences in the north. I know there is not ever such clear duality, of course; how else, though, can you describe a small girl kneeling in the dust, illuminated in blue by the distant constellations?

This all takes so much energy sometimes.  And yet, tomorrow I’m supposed to facilitate a major Peace Forum meeting.  Here goes.

February 14, 2007: Day 253. Lango Peace Forum

Again, today requires two parts: the meeting, and the trip home to Gulu.

    Part I: Facilitating… Eventually

One of the most difficult aspects of working in Africa, I have discovered, is time. There seems to be a differentiation between “African time” and “mzungu time”, with the former taking universal precedence.  And this is how the 10:00 meeting of the Lango Peace Forum started – without its Chairman – at 1:30.

As the meeting finally started, I found myself impatient: I had to be leaving Apac by 3:00 to make sure I arrived back in Gulu before dark (matatus at night are not a good idea).  And given my knowledge of African loquacity, I knew that finishing a meeting in that time was an unlikely prospect.

I got irritated.  There I was, traveling for how many hours at my own expense, putting myself out for these people, who don’t even have the decency to start anywhere near the right time?  They clearly don’t respect me, they clearly don’t care about how much effort I’m putting in, they clearly don’t appreciate me. I slept in a freaking hut last night.  And this is how I’m treated?

Then I got angry. This is just terrible. It’s 35 degrees out (95F), there is no air here, and these people did not even buy water. I need to get home, this is ridiculous. I have so much work to do and here I am wasting all day, sweating through my last decent shirt for people who don’t care. I’ll never make it home tonight, I’ll be stranded on the road. Take, take, take, that’s all they care about.

Woah. Was I really thinking this?

I suddenly became self-aware, pausing to notice my impatience, my caustic thoughts, my fascinating ability to make assumptions about what they do or do not care about.  And I realized: that’s not helpful, Jared. Look at your mindset. Look at your assumptions, your blame.  Take a different mindset: look where you are. What are the possibilities, what could be done here?

Two deep breaths later, I embarked on the facilitation.  I created space to clarify the long-winded thoughts and to formally enter a brainstorming mode as I had planned.  We made our way through a surprising amount of material: we finalized changes to the LPF Foundation Document and Concept Paper, we discussed funding issues and potential opportunities, and we created a list of concrete activities to undertake, assigning a member to champion each activity.  All in two hours.  I am almost afraid to say it: I led an efficient meeting. In Africa!

During the meeting, I stumbled upon a single point that completely mystified me.  We decided it would be helpful to list and categorize the issues the LPF wished to address. “Great!” I said, writing “ISSUES” large across the top of the flip chart.  “So, there are lots of issues we can think of.  Where do we start?”

“Cattle rustling,” one member offered.

“Excuse me?” I asked. Seriously, I thought to myself, did she really just say that?

“Cattle rustling,” she repeated forcefully.

I glanced around at the nodding heads and was dumbstruck. Visions of cowboys on horses and bandits with handkerchiefs and six-shooters flashed. What the heck were these people talking about? Is this really a serious issue?

As I wrote it down and asked for more input on what she meant, the importance became clear to me.  Cattle rustling did not simply mean the loss of property.  It meant loss of economic opportunity for those who could barely afford cattle.  It was indicative of historical and ongoing ethnic struggles between the Langi and the Karamojong.  It told of unspeakable murder and pillaging, a life of fear for those living near the borders.  Cattle are used for bride prices here, so they represent masculinity to the men and a lifeline for families. The devastating raids symbolize the inability – or unwillingness – of the Government to protect them from ethnic conflicts and the complete ignorance of their neighbors.

For me, cattle rustling meant the Westerns my father used to watch. I almost laughed out loud in the meeting, recognizing the miles of significance between what I heard and what they said.  More importantly, I recognized my own assumptions and mindset; the single comment jolted me mid-meeting from complacency to enthusiasm: cattle rustling. Seriously. This is Uganda.

As I wrapped up and quickly distributed business cards, gathered up my flip chart papers, I almost missed the words of appreciation from individual members. It was not until later, bouncing along the road to Lira, mentally recounting and sorting through the meeting, that I remembered these remarks.  And when I did, I felt good.

    Part II: Gulu Is Home

After rushing out of the meeting to the Apac taxi park – a small dirt lot behind one of the few permanent, cement-block buildings – I finagled my way into a car going to Lira.  It was a small wagon-style car in poor condition; it looked like the Oldsmobile station-wagon that my family owned when I was a child.  In America, we had four people with bags on our drives through California, from San Francisco to San Diego.  This being Uganda, we had three men in the front seat, four of us crammed in the back, and all the trunks and bags in the rear.  I thought that was enough, but we soon stopped and put two more people on top of the luggage. As though I needed to be reminded again that this is Uganda.

We bounced along the dirt roads, riding inches behind the bicycle boda bodas before honking, sending them off to ride in the grasses lining the road.  The same children who shrieked at me on the way to Apac were still there, eyes wide and screeching “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you!”

Arriving in the Lira taxi park as dusk was settling, I thought with displeasure that I would have to spend a night in Lira. It would not be too much of a problem, just an extra night on the road. And yet, I have already gotten used to Gulu as my home – it would be greatly meaningful to be home tonight.  After a few inquiries, backpack on and flip-chart clutched in my sweaty palms, I was ushered into a matatu headed for Gulu. Finally, I thought!

Of course, the matatu ride was unpleasant; this I expected.  The matatu broke down in Kamdini, or rather, the driver decided not to finish the journey, so we were thrown off, only to be pushed onto a smaller, dirtier, more broken-down matatu.  Passing up offers for the green oranges, warm waters, and anonymous meat on sticks I was offered, I found myself joined by 50% more passengers in 30% less space.  The ride included such highlights as vomit, breastfeeding, two AK-47s and a live rooster that pecked steadily at my heels for the duration of the trip.  It happens.

We hit nearly every pothole in the dark, passing recklessly down the road. There are no streetlights, no signs, no lines on the semi-paved road. Just miles of bush broken only by the occasional IDP camp, demarkated by numerous fires. It was not clear if they were set intentionally or if they might burn down the whole camp; these are not mutually exclusive. The sparks shot upward, orange lights next to the blue stars that dotted the sky. 

When we arrived magically unharmed in Gulu, I thanked the driver for getting us there. “Ah, mzungu, I drive very slowly. I am sorry.”

“It is okay, friend. We got here in one piece. Better to be safe than fast,” I replied. He looked at me as though this was the first time he had heard such sage advice.  Safety does not top the list of concerns for matatu drivers.

The longest two-day trip I’ve ever taken.  By and large, I think it was successful.  Right now, I am just happy to be home, in a familiar bed in a familiar town.

February 15, 2007: Day 254.  The Karamojong

I learned a while back about another major source of conflict in northern Uganda.  UN Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland called the LRA-war the “most forgotten and tragic humanitarian and violent situation” on earth.  The conflicts around the Karamojong, then, are the most forgotten part of this forgotten conflict. [Why the green highlight?]

The Karamoja ethnic sub-region is in the extreme north-east area of the country.  The people, the Karamojong, are fascinating.  Many who have little contact with cities, education, and other “Western” influences still lead a traditional life.  The men are traveling warriors, the women and children settle for brief periods of time.  There is no running water, electricity, education in most of the region. There is rarely food: even the more citified Karamojong will eat only once a day at lunch, drinking milk for regular sustenance.

The warriors themselves do not eat.  They only take a liquid mixture of fresh, warm cow milk and… well, fresh, warm cow blood, straight from a neck vein.  After drawing the blood, they dab the cut and it heals for the next meal.  That’s it: no meat, no vegetables, no food, just a mixture of fresh milk and blood.

Without water to wash their cups after drinking, the warriors use what is accessible: cow urine.  They rarely wear clothes except, perhaps, for loincloths.  They do not have huts, beds, or shelter; they simply lay where they are at night, waking to move along in the morning.  And though there seems to be trust among small groups of warriors, there is little, if any, value of outsiders’ lives.

The Karamojong are traditionally raiders seeking more cattle.  Not only does their sustenance depend wholly on cattle, the culture values the cattle as a sign of wealth and for paying bride prices.  Furthermore, the tradition holds that all cattle on earth originally belonged to the Karamojong, so raiding other peoples’ cattle is perceived simply as the returning of the animals to their rightful owners.

Cattle raids had always been the norm. The warriors used to spend their days planning either how to protect their cattle or how to procure more. A simple life.  Under the rules of Idi Amin and Milton Obote II, weapons from the government and the Soviet Union began to appear in the area.  No longer were the Karamojong simply raiders with spears; now they were equipped with AK-47s.

This horrible problem is still around.  The raids often cross borders into other ethnic regions and other countries (Kenya and southern Sudan) and the warriors, who only value the cattle, are adequately equipped to do away with others’ lives as they wish.  There are horrendous stories of raiders killing for no reason: “Target practice,” a 12-year-old warrior explained after shooting a man cycling by.  [This makes it sound as if you witnessed a 12-year-old kill a man cycling by. Did you? I hope not.] Private automobiles, even large four-by-four vehicles, are strongly advised against going to the region, because they are easily ambushed.  And yet, not having any value for money or even the car itself, the warriors take what they actually value: the tires, which can be fashioned into comfortable sandals.  During bad times, one will apparently see cars stranded on the side of the road, pierced with innumerable bullets, unable to be moved because they have no tires.

The ones who receive some education are, interestingly, more dangerous.  These boys learn the value of cars, of money, of all the things that are valued in the city.  And so they drop out, get armed with semi-automatics, and go after more than just cattle.  These are the ones, I am told, you should be wary of.

The Government has been unable to contain the problem.  Even when it raids a large weapons cache or disarms warriors, more guns flow in across the international border.  It is a terrible situation of insecurity affecting even those who venture out of the IDP Camps when the LRA is calm.  We hear reports of ambushes, fake army blockades, and mass rape and killing of women who gather straw for huts in the camps.

For me, the most discomforting aspect is the vastly different mindset of almost every other culture I’ve encountered.  Life is not valued; only that which provides sustenance.

How can we, then, understand a culture so different from ours? How can we value one so harmful to outsiders? We talk a great deal about different cultures around the world and in “multicultural” communities.  I’ve realized, though, how similar many can be, how aligned the mindsets really are for the communities and cultures I have known. Here, you simply cannot take that for granted.  Here it can be so different, so terrible, so complex.


February 16, 2007: Day 255.  Settling into Gulu

After arriving from Apac two days ago with a great longing to “be home in Gulu,” I realized that life in Gulu has become normal to me.  It is fascinating to notice how quickly I adapt to strange situations, carving out a life of normalcy in highly abnormal conditions.  Is that a defense mechanism, a way to guard myself against constant uncertainty?  Or is that simply what I have been conditioned to do?

In my temporary settlement here in Gulu, this new normalcy has yielded a partial blindness to what has become ordinary.  I seem not to recognize the omnipresent northern dust, changing everything to its soft sienna hue, dying my feet in a permanent tan.  It no longer fascinates me to see boda boda motorcycles speeding over the potholed roads, skimming the elbows of the women who walk tall despite twenty-gallon jerry-cans balanced on their heads.  The rickety temporary-cum-permanent shops selling America’s second-hand clothes, the heavy black exhaust clouds spewed with each shift of the gears, the trash fires stringing the gutters that serve as unintended streetlights at night.

I no longer am terrified on the boda boda rides; nor, however, do I find them exciting anymore. They are simply transportation, daily life.  The matatus also: the way they pile in people like millet sacks, filling every available nook and kneeling space; the way they stop wherever and whenever, pick up whomever with whatever they have, be it children, metal trunks or live animals.  Sitting and sweating communally, my fellow passengers’ faces void of reaction to the radio’s drone of uninterrupted opinion squawked from the single speaker mounted on the ceiling.  I am accustomed to the thick, sour smells emanating from the man behind me, the woman next to me, the child staring at me.  To the dirty leopard-print seats, the heavy metal bars over the windows, to the rusted holes in the floor through which we watch the rutted dirt bounce by.

Outside, radio stations blare reggae in Swahili and Luo. The occasional American rap song proves an abrupt interruption, slicing haphazardly into the heartbeat of Gulu’s streets.  I’ve learned to ignore the chaotic flights of the giant black market flies, circling hungrily over fresh avocado, pineapple, and cabbage, seeking a triumphant landing to rub their legs and enjoy their bounty.  I no longer see six-year-old boys wielding machetes to slice pineapple and think about the Rwandan genocide. The children stare at me blankly with equal parts of wonder and skepticism; I no longer stare back.  I am used to the rotten smell of the market, the trash on the streets, the purportedly fresh meat turning rancid in the hot African sun.

The white four-by-four trucks rushing by, emblazoned with organizations we only hear about at home: UNOCHA, World Food Program, World Vision, Action Against Hunger, USAID, Holland War Child, Norwegian Refugee Council, International Red Cross.  The list of trucks goes on; the dust kicked up; the people indifferently step aside. Pedestrians do not cough or even blink when the smog and dust cloud envelopes them.

My clothes are consistently worn, wrinkled, and reddened with Gulu’s earth.  My shoes unshined, my socks get multiple wears, my weekend t-shirts have tears.  My phone failing, my computer falling apart, my camera fully scratched.  My feet are dirty, my hands are dirty, my face is dirty, my soap is dirty.

And I do not mind: this is life.  My expectations are different here; my satisfaction comes on different levels, in different forms.

It gets brilliantly dark at night, especially outside the town center.  The stars are blue pinholes puncturing the vast, black sky; the moon never quite strong enough to illumine the treacherous ruts and guts of the unpaved road.

Children still stare at me, unsure what, or who, or why I am.  Often, a small smile and wave is enough to elicit a large, shy smile from a child; they look away but continue to sneak glances: is that mzungu really smiling and talking to me?  The girls wear the fanciest of dresses, ones that were worn but once or twice in the West but were donated; here, their elegance is perfectly misplaced.  The boys do not dress so nicely, in ill-fitting, ripped pants.  This is the life I am used to, this is normal.

I have become accustomed to women who fetch water, who cook, who clean, who sell in the markets and who raise the children.  To the way they serve me food in restaurants, bending fully at the waist until their shoulders level with their thighs. To the men who sit by idly, believing they are the ones who deserve a break.

To the way the Acholi eat with their right hands, twisting pieces of sticky brown millet bread to dip in goat stew.  To eating goat meat stew, cow meat stew, chicken stew, for every lunch and dinner. To the meat itself, always served three pieces in broth, their size enhanced by the bones strategically left for the diner to discover.  I am no longer concerned with the carefully dissecting chicken that is more bone than meat, nor with boning the tilapia that stares vacantly up at me, scales and fins and all.  Most dishes I eat daily would never find my plate in America: posho is corn flour and water, cooked to a thick white semisolid; malakwan is some mix of simnut butter and spinach with a terribly unappetizing appearance. I more commonly call these lunch.

I am used to the poverty, the only thing as ubiquitous as the dust.  It no longer shocks me to see children playing barefoot in trash heaps, putting their fingers in their mouths, bloated bellies exposed through their ripped shirts.  Nor to see the soccer fields where they play, littered with stones, debris, and rusted metal.  Women purse their dry lips, the grooves on their face suggesting they are much older than they are. And so it goes.

But maybe I am not quite used to it all: as I record this, I realize how strange it all seems.  It is different, after all.  I do recognize all I describe. And I am not quite used to it all.

The poverty, the devastation, the seemingly misplaced optimism: I still cannot quite believe that hope found such a strong home here.

The children’s bright smiles, somehow larger than their distended bellies; the ingenuity of the toy wire cars the lucky few children maneuver; others simply push a rusty bicycle rim with a chewed stick of sugar cane. The importance of a simple handshake with young, shirtless refugee; the significance of asking “How are you?” in Luo to a recently escaped abductee.  This is something great; this still brings a smile to their faces, and of course to mine.  Even as I dress in my muzungu clothes and shoes and laptop bag, I like to think it still means something to them..

And there is the boy who stops me.  He is somewhere between twelve and fifteen, wearing the same tan rag of a shirt and the same torn pants every day.  He grins widely, too widely, his remaining teeth bucked, and grips my hand. Hard.  He refuses to let go; I must physically force myself away.  He scares me, and I don’t think it is the mucus plastered on his face or the blood dried on his shoulder.  There is something about the look in his eyes as he flashes his gummy grin.  The boy is clearly mentally challenged; he must be.  Yet his wild eyes say he is driven to this state, forced by the lifelong poverty, by the lifelong war, by the lifelong impotence to confront the horrors he knows.  The intense eyes belie his goofy grin, admonish me with silent anger: I know you fully, I know you deeply. You know nothing of me; you cannot know.

It scares me to think that he may be perfectly sane.

And so I scurry to wash my hands quickly, hoping my fears will drain with the murky water, desperately seeking to exorcise the boy’s stare from my inner eyelids.

This is Gulu.  The poverty, the dirt, the trash, the misogyny; the dancing, the smiles, the hope. As the sun sets and I prepare to go out to dinner, again, I know that the night commuters, my favorite children, are embarking on their daily journey to the center. One hour until darkness, three hours until the gates close, ten hours to be safe before dawn when they return home.  How can I enjoy a meal and a beer?

How can I not?

February 17, 2007: Day 256.

I did something uncharacteristic today and went swimming at the Acholi Inn, the most posh hotel in the area ( “posh” is relative).  The uncharacteristic part is not the swimming but that I spent time and money on purposefully relaxing, armed only with my sunglasses and a new book.

I was immediately confronted by a group of mzungus, aid workers from Europe and North America.  It is always strange to meet other mzungus here because I am almost always the lone mzungu; it is even more strange to meet those who arrive in a group. How different their understanding of this place is! I have only a few mzungu friends; I simply don’t spend much time with them.  And here I was, just one of many, swimming at a posh hotel.

It felt strange to speak as I normally do, without the Ugandan pidgin lilt I have incorporated.  More, though, it was strange to recognize that I am not special, that I am simply – always – one of many. There will be no trailblazing here.

I was jealous of my loneliness, jealous of being “special”, jealous even of their apparent ability to escape the troubles I cannot and simply enjoy beer at a pool party.  I never sought, or seek, to be unaware, and yet here I was, jealous of their ability to be so.  Of course, they were not unaware, being humanitarian workers themselves.  Do they share my inner concerns?

In the end, I decided not to talk with them more than the bare minimum required to be a socially acceptable person. I don’t ask why I need to be a socially acceptable person. Instead, I ask myself why, if I am satisfied with who I am and what I do, why am I am jealous?  Maybe that is more appropriate, more telling.

February 20, 2007: Day 259.  Kitgum PF and IDP tire change

A NUPI representative and I embarked on a four-day field trip to Kitgum, Pader, and Lira, three towns in the most affected part of northern Uganda, to work with the Peace Forums. We also intended to visit other NUPI projects in the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps.

The short story of February 20: It was 38° (100° Farenheit), I changed two tires, facilitated a Peace Forum meeting, made many children smile, dove into the heart of an IDP camp to speak with a woman whose three children had been kidnapped – only one to return – and ate mystery meat inside a tin shack.

The long story feels too lengthy, too intense, too layered to approach in full, though I will attempt to touch on a few interesting parts from the day.

I woke up early, rushed to the office to be there on time, then sat and waited while my colleagues came on African, not mzungu, time. Eventually, we departed, barreling down the dust and the ruts and the rocks and the mud at 120 km/hour (75 miles/hour), I hanging on for dear life, my colleague’s Afro-gospel version of “Country Roads” blaring.  We hit a rut, denting the wheel and puncturing the tire.  There I was, changing a tire on the side of the dusty road, with no one around for miles!

The Kitgum District Joint Forum for Peace meeting took place in an office open to the heat and clamor from the street.  During my facilitation, a truck piled thick with Sudanese workers pulled up outside; the din of their shouts died only when they stared at the mzungu writing on flip charts across the street.

The meeting itself went well. As I reviewed it this evening, I found we were successful in thinking through the issues they are facing and describing the three types of activities they wanted to undertake (awareness-creation, advocacy, and capacity-building).  I also worked through some wording issues as I conducted the meeting, finding the right terms to summarize on the fly — a personal success in my own development as a facilitator.  Finally, I came away with ideas to be more effective in the future, such as defining my role as a facilitator, not a teacher; emphasizing concrete activities; and predicting the types of charts I would prepare, such as Issues, Awareness Substance, Awareness Forms (radio, community meetings, etc.), and Advocacy Activities, among others.

The KJFP members invited me back to facilitate their next meeting as well as brief them on how the International Criminal Court works.  It seems there is a great thirst to understand the ICC but few ICC attempts at communication have been successful.  Since I have both gained the KJFP members’ trust on other issues and have a strong knowledge of ICC mechanisms, we recognized that I could be helpful in explaining how the court works and address KJFP concerns.  This will, of course, be another completely separate presentation to prepare; at the same time, I am thrilled to help in such a way.  I left it to them to get in touch with me about scheduling the meeting, so there is also a strong chance they will never call. That is not for me to decide.

Moving directly from the meeting to fixing another tire in the IDP camp, though, was a little emotionally draining.  Kneeling amongst the semi-naked, snot-stained children to jack up the 4×4 was similarly difficult, emotionally and physically.  It was, however, very comforting to greet the children in their own Luo tongue; my NUPI colleague translated one boy’s shrieks after I spoke to him: “Ah, he is telling his friend proudly, ‘Today, I have spoken with a mzungu!’”

By the time I returned to the hotel, I was completely exhausted.  The meeting in the camp had gone well although the conditions of the camp are worse than I could have imagined.  There is hardly room to pass between huts because they are so crowded.  Trash and other runoff meanders between the huts, the hordes of mostly naked children playing with anything they can find. The men are drunk because there are no opportunities for them to work.  The women look far older than they are; they have, of course, seen more than we can imagine.  How can I feel successful in this setting? How can I not feel responsible?

My colleague and I were advised to find a specific restaurant in town.  It was not a restaurant. It was a “pork roasting joint” which is to say an uncovered fire next to a corrugated-tin shack behind the slightly more permanent concrete buildings.  We were served five fatty, charred pieces of pork – purportedly – and four semi-fried slices of cassava.  We ordered a drink. .  We ate with our hands.  Copious amounts of salt helped our tongues. The two forearm-sized rats at my feet did not seem to mind that I joined them for dinner; they were thrilled when I shared a piece of blackened fat. Always a good idea to treat the locals well!

In my hotel room I had three roommates, thumb-sized cockroaches that did not even bother to scatter when I turned on the light.  It was clear who was the guest here.  Turning the fan on so I wouldn’t hear my roommates’ late night chatter, I fell asleep to the images of desperate children living in the huts, no opportunities ahead of them.  Somehow, it was simultaneously depressing and inspiring. This is why I am here.

February 22, 2007: Day 261. Lira/Lango PF

We wasted the 21st trekking to Pader.  Pader town is the capital of the newly-created Pader district.  Two other towns – real towns – bickered over who deserved to hold the new district’s governmental offices, so officers in Kampala simply found a point halfway between them and started a capital.  There is one unpaved road; there is no electricity save that from generators. Local resources include high temperatures and heavy winds that conduce the dust to permeate our pores more deeply.  And the Pader Peace Forum never showed up.

Today, though, we met in Lira with a combined Lira (district) and Lango (sub-regional) Peace Forum.  I knew some of the participants from my previous journey to Apac and they were familiar with “that thing you do.” Alas, I seem to be known as the mzungu who neurotically carries flipcharts and masking tape. It could be worse, I guess.

There were no surprises during the facilitation; I became comfortable in the position quickly.  The biggest challenge was that the front half of the meeting – which I was not allowed to facilitate – took very long, so by the time my colleague asked me to “do your thing,” the members were tired. Even giving them an out – “Do you feel this will be helpful?” – did not work to arouse certain members who had tuned out during the previous speeches.  I tried a few other moves, such as directing specific questions at individuals and asking for reactions to others’ comments, but to no avail.  Of course my first internal reaction was to feel responsible; I soon recognized it was outside my control. So it goes.

We return to Gulu tomorrow morning. I am excited to go “home.”

February 24, 2007: Day 263.  “There will always be some grains left.”

I realized a few days ago that no matter where I go or whom I meet, conversations inevitably move to the LRA war and northern reconciliation.  Always: what do you think about the Juba process? How terrible is the situation in the IDP camps?  What is the best way to assure reintegration of former abductees?  Who is most to blame for all this?

Today was no exception.  I returned to the Acholi Inn for an afternoon swim.  While taking a rest on the side at one point, I entered a conversation with a man who turned out to be a local Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF – Ugandan army) Captain.  We talked about the situation in depth; of course, his view was different from those espoused in the camps.  In the camps, we hear about the inabilities of the UPDF to end the war, that the Government simply does not care, that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is to blame for the failure of the Juba talks.

The lieutenant, though, took a different view.  He claimed that the situation in the north is secure: Do you see any LRA around? Have they attacked recently?  The goal – in fact, the jurisdiction – of the UPDF is security only.  If the region is secure, the UPDF is successful.  He lamented the conditions of the camps but also noted there may be serious disincentives to camp residents to resettle in their original lands: to paraphrase, There are no stores or bakeries any more. There are no houses any more.  The fields are not ready for planting.  And those in the camps get food and water and shelter for free.  Why would they want to return – to toil for their food?

I expected his opinion, although it was the first time I had spoken to anyone who actually held it..  In essence, he suggested IDPs need to take responsibility for their own return.  The Government should help, but it would need to be more “heavy-handed” to wean them off NGO assistance.

We also touched on the LRA during our poolside discussion.  I noted that the cease-fire between the LRA and UPDF will end in four days, on February 28.  Does that mean the security situation in northern Uganda will worsen? Should we expect violence?

The UPDF Captain said that most of the LRA are now in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are not a threat.  And those remaining in southern Sudan, outside Owiny ki-Bul (one of the assembly points for the LRA during the Juba process) may try to enter, but they will not succeed.  They will give themselves up, and the UPDF will accept their surrender and bring them back into society as they had done with other fighters.  Essentially his point was: you may hear about some isolated events in southern Sudan, but don’t worry, the LRA have retreated into unfamiliar countries far away.

[Only use quotation marks if you are sure of his exact wording.]

He illustrated what he thinks will happens next. He explained that it is like when you drop millet (grain) to the ground.  You may pick up most of it, but there will always be some millet left.  It is certainly not the clean end to the conflict that I, or any of those affected by the conflict, would like.  It means there will be long-term fears: who will ever know where Kony, Otti, and the others are? Who will know when the LRA forces might strike? You cannot.  And so, seeing LRA as a terrorist organization, they have succeeded: there will be terror in the hearts of the civilians, the fear of unanticipated violence, for years to come.

We made a plan to meet again next week when I return from my second trip to Lira and Kitgum.  I made him promise me that I would be safe while there, even with the cease-fire ending. He promised.

February 25, 2007: Day 264.  Humanitarian Work and the Pareto Curve

Once again I am in Lira, this time to accompany a representative from USAID’s Washington offices.  She is coming to evaluate a number of USAID’s programs, including NUPI and the Peace Forums.  I thought I would have to find ways to join these meetings; instead, it was simply assumed by the NUPI staff that I would be there. 

I have been thinking a lot about something I discussed with a close friend of mine who worked in Gulu as well.  She is volunteering her time with a number of different groups, from American/Ugandan student exchange programs (Global Youth Parntership: Africa) to a girls’ leadership program and soccer league (Girls Kick It), to women’s micro-economic development and business empowerment groups. Quite a list!

We discussed the issue of being torn between complete self-abnegation for the sake of those we seek to help, and doing nice things for ourselves.  For example, a few of my earlier entries discussed eating posho and beans (cheap) instead of a nice meal (less cheap) and donating the difference.  That would be a “selfless” act, reducing what I get simply for the sake of others.

It occurred to me that Insight uses a tool that would be strangely appropriate in this situation.  Insight borrows an idea from economics called the “Pareto Curve” to analyze negotiation maximization. On the axes we have “good for me” and “good for you”; the curve itself delimits the point where a deal simply cannot be better for me without getting worse for you or vice-versa.  In other words, we want to move a deal from point A outward, as close to the curve as possible to maximize the value in the negotiation.  If we can find ways to make the deal better for one party without it harming the other, then we can move toward a Pareto-optimal deal.

I started to think about how this can speak to humanitarian workers in various situations.  The current drive in the non-profit world is toward “sustainability,” usually in regard to finances.  My friend raised the concern about sustainability of the worker: if we sacrifice ourselves completely for others, haven’t we produced an unsustainable solution? The mental, physical, and emotional health of humanitarian workers is important for sustainability, she argued.

And so I thought about applying the Pareto Curve here.  On one axis, we place “Good for the world,” the general goal of a humanitarian worker.  On the other, we keep “Good for me.”  Now, the assumption here is that they are not always mutually exclusive; if they were, they would lie on opposite ends of the same axis.  But, because they are not, we can see this as some sort of a negotiation.  So the question is: how can I move toward a Pareto-optimal point?

Putting religious motivations aside – such as posthumous rewards for neglecting earthly desires – it would be Pareto-inferior (bad) for me to give up a nice meal for the sake of donating the money [Why would it be bad for you? Is the assumption here that giving up a nice meal is a hardship? If so, explain. It would seem to me that doing so all the time might be bad for you; but doing so occasionally might be good for you, for example, by making you feel good about yourself]. The deal would be generally “good for the world” and move up, but it would be bad for me and move horizontally to the left. Not a value-maximizing move.  If, on the other hand, I desired to cut off all my personal donations for the sake of outrageously nice meals all the time, the deal would move right – good for me – but down – bad for the world.

Thinking about these decisions in terms of maximizing a negotiation to the Pareto Curve, and not in terms of a mutually exclusive decision, will help me be more effective – and more comfortable – with my choices.  I can search for ways to move up and/or right.  For example, I love children.  The children at the night commuter center love attention, especially from mzungus.  Thus, when it is not harmful for me to do so, I can go to the night commuter center and add value both for me and for the kids (the world).

Framing my difficulties with humanitarian work and aid in terms of a negotiation with the world could be fruitful.  Perhaps I can even incorporate it into my Fellowship theme of coordination.

February 26, 2007: Day 265.  USAID in Lira

The USAID representative visiting here was looking at a number of USAID-sponsored programs, including NUPI.  She and the Ugandan USAID representative met this morning with members of the Lango Peace Forum (LPF), whom I know well at this point, to discuss the Peace Forums and their activities.  In essence, the Peace Forums has a single interest: continued support from the future USAID-sponsored program.  This in turn leads to three goals for the USAID representative: impress the importance of USAID’s role in regional reconciliation; demonstrate that NUPI’s help was instrumental; and explain that more support is necessary for their future success.

After the discussions with USAID and the LPF, I sat down with LPF members to discuss their thoughts.  Eventually, they asked for my advice. I started by reading them every question asked by one representative [I don’t understand the previous sentence]: “How many mediations have you done? How many of what type? How many were successful? What activities lead to reconciliation? How do you know they were successful? What specifically has NUPI done for reconciliation?” etc.  Then I asked if they noticed a pattern.  Of course, the members quickly pointed out their concern: the need for tangible, concrete, specific results.  Given this, I facilitated them through a small number of things the LPF could do before they left, including organizing the statistics of past mediations.  By recognizing the LPF’s concerns, they [who?] were able to produce a written report of specific results that will likely be more effective in reaching their goals than simply speaking about what they have done.

I enjoyed leading people through this type of exercise for something so personally important to them.  It feels very good to be prepared, effective, and appreciated.  I lamented that I could not stay longer than one more month; the Chairman of LPF said specifically: “Can you imagine how well-off we’d be if you could stay here for a full year?!”

I have gotten to know a local director of Save the Children in Uganda (SCiU).  We talked a bit after the meeting today and decided that I could help her prepare and facilitate a handful of community meetings a week from now. Her goal is to adjust SCiU’s strategic plans for the region and she is concerned about only receiving input from other NGOs and political leaders.  So we will be planning an effective way to design meetings; elicit strong responses from communities, those in IDP camps, and children; and ideally incorporate those into SCiU’s strategies.  Furthermore, I discovered that she will likely be pursuing a mid-career Master’s degree at one of the graduate programs to which I recently applied.  It will certainly be wonderful to have this connection for our future studies, whether or not we enter the same program at the same school.

February 27, 2007: Day 266.  “The Grass Suffers.”

It was another lengthy day alongside the USAID representatives at meetings in local towns and IDP camps.  I offered help both as a NUPI representative and, at some level, as a sounding board for them.

This evening I walked around Kitgum town, settling at yet another unnamed local restaurant serving the same types of dishes: beef stew, goat stew, chicken stew, with matooke, rice, posho, or potatoes.  Excitement is not on the menu.

Partway through the meal, I got to speaking with three other diners at my table. One was a worker for Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian organization; the second, a local from Kitgum just getting dinner; the final, our waiter, also from Kitgum.  We spoke about many issues, joking about American and Ugandan foods, and as always, the topic of the LRA came up.

One said that things were better now; the other responded: No, friend, things are not better. Things are very good!  He was referring, of course, to the fact that they could now walk around without fear, that there were not any attacks.  Not that all was back to normal – as if anyone could remember what normal is, after twenty years – but that he could live a normal life.  The other diners agreed and prompted the waiter to tell his story about his most recent tangle with the LRA.

It’s not like it was in 2002, of course, he began, half his face illuminated by the flickering candlelight.  There was no power in the whole district tonight.  I was taking a trip from Lira to Kitgum and to the driver  took the Eastern route. He went on to describe his prescience regarding “something bad,” suggesting to the driver that they take the longer, safer Western route.  To no avail. Ignoring the waving arms and yells of warning from those on the roadside, the car dove headlong into an LRA ambush. And there we were, he explained, laughing hard, slamming on the breaks, the gunshots ahead of us.  And coming behind, who? The UPDF [Ugandan army].  And so there we were in the middle, lying face-down in the bush, bullets flying above our heads. He laughed again. So yes, 2002 was a bad year for me. He smiled widely, shirt loose on his bones.  And you can bet when it was all over, I said to the driver, he points his finger at me, eyes bright, grin large, I told you! I knew it and you didn’t listen to me. Ah!

We talked further, eventually hitting on the issue of why the two sides in this conflict seem to be so intractable. For these three, Ugandan President Museveni deserves the same blame as LRA leader Joseph Kony.  Museveni has intentionally prolonged the war so he can get rich, take Acholi land, and kill our people while pretending to protect us.  If I could quantify the anger in their comments, it would be 75% toward Museveni, 10% to the International Criminal Court, and 10% to the international community.  Only a small number of comments actually displayed anger toward Kony. 

“So,” I asked, “it is these two men, these two individuals, who are causing all this suffering?”

Friend, said the waiter, turning to me directly, the smile gone. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.