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Uganda-January 7-21, 2007


January 7, 2007: Kampala

After landing at the Entebbe airport, we disembarked from the plane onto the tarmac and I was struck immediately by the smell.  It smelled like camp, the deep musky flavor of trees, humidity, and warmth, even at four in the morning.  The silhouetted lines of vast trees were visible against the slowly lightening sky.  It is already warmer here in the pre-dawn blackness than any place I have been for months. The air is humid, thick, and scented with nature; my first impression was that it tasted like summer camp in the Yosemite wilderness. Planes in the airport are departing to Nairobi, Bunia, Bujumbura and Dar es-Salaam, places I’ve only heard of, places that seemed almost magical. And I recognize, truly, that I’ve finally arrived to live and work in sub-Saharan Africa for three months.

Maybe it was the aromas reminiscent of camp experiences; maybe it was my excited expectations of whatever lies ahead. Whatever it was, I felt immediately comfortable: I am in a place totally foreign; I am in the right place.

January 8, 2007: Northern Uganda Peace Initiative

Today was my first day at work with the Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI), the USAID-sponsored program for northern Uganda.  In essence, the organization’s mission is to promote reconciliation efforts in the region, between ethnic groups and for the return of former rebels, most of who were kidnapped. I will write a brief background on the conflict soon. It has two offices, one in Kampala and one in Gulu town upcountry; I’m hoping to do the bulk of my work up in Gulu.

In any case, those at NUPI are very happy to see me, even though it seems few understand why I am here or how I already have funding.  Even more exciting is that what I will do depends on what they need, so I don’t actually know that yet either.  In general, though, my interests for this placement can be structured in three ways: utilize the conflict management and communication skills that I have developed; work closely with those affected by the conflict but on a structural level so that I affect more than simply by doling out food rations; and spend a significant amount of time in the northern region.  This third aspect is personally important because, after studying the conflict for such a long time, I am thrilled to finally have physical access.  In addition, I want to work in areas affected by intercommunal conflict internationally; this will be a wonderful opportunity to examine that lifestyle and see how I respond to working in those conditions.

You can learn more about NUPI here:


On the way home from work today I chose to use a boda boda, or motorcycle taxi.  Legend has it that during the various military regimes in Uganda, the motorcycles were used to smuggle goods from border to border, or in the dialect, boda boda.  Whether or not this is true, I must say that they are the wildest form of public transportation I have ever used.

Nearly half an hour after I got off the taxi, my heart is still pounding.  These old motorcycles have seats on the back; after you bargain a price, off you go, weaving in and out of traffic and swerving around potholes. As I have never even driven a motorcycle – I highly dislike not being in control – this was an incredible experience.  I clutched the seat of the boda boda like my life depended on it – I truly believed it did! – and my knuckles were completely drained of blood by the end of the ride.  We made it safely but I’m not sure that I’ll ever do that again – what trauma!

As I reflect on my feelings, though I realize how amazing that is: a simple ride on a motorcycle is an everyday occurrence for people here; for me, it was the most terrifying experience of my life.  What does that say about our cultures, about our lives?  I recognize now how sheltered, how fortunate I am that I have not faced truly terrifying situations like violence or poverty. I have not seen a person killed, or for that matter, even an animal; I have never been forced to deal with too little food; I have never had to worry about physical harm.  I cannot express how fortunate I am that the boda boda was terrifying (seems like a strange sentiment).

In the next six months of this Fellowship, I want to experience what life is like for other people.  Not necessarily even face extreme hardships – I don’t think it wise to force myself to be hungry or go near battle lines – but to speak with those living in dreadful conditions or experiencing true horror, true terror.  The boda boda ride has made me aware, again, of the disparities; it seems wise that I actively seek other stories, other experiences, other lives.

January 9, 2007: “This is Uganda”

Before arriving in Kampala two days ago, I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, I have heard much about what life is like in the peaceful regions: stereotypical notions of being too relaxed with appointments, contracts, and public funds.  Today I realized that, in fact, this characterization is spot-on, thanks to exploration of the city.

As I am quickly finding out, potholes are the norm in Uganda; I am thoroughly convinced that they outnumber the population.  Even in downtown Kampala, the seat of the Government and most businesses, cars swerve between lanes without warning as they approach veritable minefields of holes.  The most skilled drivers will still hit one hard every so often; I can hardly believe the cars remain intact following direct impacts.  When I asked my friends about it, they laugh and explain that “This is Uganda.”

The other interesting aspect of transportation in Uganda is the nonchalance of the taxi culture.  Every driver seems to keep only a bare minimum of gas in their tank; stopping to refill on a half-mile trip is the norm.  The first time this happened for me, I was sharing a taxi with two other Ugandans. I looked quizzically at one when we pulled into the petrol station; he just shrugged: “This is Uganda.”

There are four types of taxis in Kampala. There is the boda boda, the motorcycle; the “special hire”, what we typically think of a taxi in the U.S.; the “shared taxi” which has a set route and crams four-five people in a small sedan; and the matatu.  The matatu is a minibus licensed to carry up to 14 passengers along with the driver and cashier, who leans out the window shouting to recruit new passengers.  The matatus are always cramped, white decrepit buses with blue stripes; their front and back windows are usually decorated with slogans: “Jesus loves you;” “Bismallah” (In the Name of God); “Just Chill;” “Fly Emirates.”  Now, normally I don’t like boarding vehicles that have “God Willing” emblazoned across the windshield, but that’s just how it goes in Uganda.

The two taxi parks in the city for matatus are sprawling, incredible places where you can buy anything from bread and mangoes to school supplies and handkerchiefs just by leaning out the window of your matatu. During rush hours, the traffic jams can be so bad that it takes 45 minutes just to get onto the streets.  Occasionally there are signs in the park that signify the destination of the buses in that area; generally, though, you just have to know where your bus is. Chaotic only begins to describe the experience:

My second taxi adventure came soon afterward when I hired a private taxi to bring my luggage to my new lodging in a different area of the city. The car took some time to start; we had to roll down the hill for the motor to turn over. No problem.  But later, when the taxi sputtered out again, we found ourselves in the middle of traffic with no hill to roll down. So I, the driver, and a boy we hired for 300 shillings (fifteen cents) pushed the car until it reached threshold velocity and the driver was able to kick in the clutch. Of course, when we mercifully reached the destination, the driver had no problem charging me the full muzungu (white person) price. When I jokingly asked if the car needed pushing often, he smiled: “This is Uganda.”  Indeed.

January 10, 2007: A Brief Summary of the Conflict in the North.

At work today, I’ve immersed myself in the vast number of reports produced by NUPI, so I’m swimming in information.  I’m finding it interesting to get a perspective from those working on the ground; it paints an overall more optimistic picture but goes more clearly into the varying interests, alliances, and histories.  Knowing I will leave out important events for the sake of brevity, here is a quick background on the conflict in the North:

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is led by Joseph Kony, a self-anointed prophet.  Supposedly directed by a “Spirit”, he has directed a 20-year war in the northern regions of Uganda. The war and recruiting tactics of the LRA are brutal: they attack civilian populations, maim and kill members of villages, pillage their goods, set huts on fire, and kidnap children to fill the ranks.  Often, young boys are forced to kill their families to incorporate them into the army and create a significant psychological barrier to escape.  Young women are almost always forced to become wives to the higher echelons of the army; STI rates among returnees near 80%.  In order to escape potential abduction, many thousands of children trek each night from their villages to a larger town where they could be protected; these “night commuters” numbered in the tens of thousands at the most dangerous times, walking up to 12 miles every night, only to return in the morning.

In all, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed directly; some 25,000 were abducted; up to 1.7 million people were forced to leave their homes and move into crowded internally displaced persons (IDP) camps (95% of the population in some districts).  The conflict is horrific in its toll, no doubt.

What I find fascinating are the underlying complicating factors that contributed to the longevity, if not the brutality, of the conflict. The current Government of Uganda, led by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and President Yoweri Museveni, took power in 1986 in a military coup.  Though their rule normalized life in much of the country, and has even brought democracy, the Government’s actions in the north are often viewed as incompetent or even malicious.  The Government’s favored response is military action; not only has this proved unsuccessful, it is problematic and because the majority of LRA combatants are abducted children.  Thus headlines bragging “Fifty Rebels Killed in Gun Battle” are tragic: those fifty were the children of the populations in the north.

There are long-standing ethnic tensions between the groups in the north and the NRM.  When the NRM took power in 1986, its base was in the central and western parts of the country; the previous regime’s military was composed largely of northerners.  Both armies committed many atrocities, including the Luwero massacres.  Now, many in the north see the Government’s inability to end the twenty-year conflict as indicative of nefarious motivations to prolong it and inflict pain on the populations due to these long-term ethnic tensions.

In addition, the “northerners” are many different ethnic groups.  Joseph Kony and the bulk of the abductees are from the Acholi tribes, centered in Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader districts (as well as in areas in southern Sudan). Other northern groups (the Luo, Teso, and others) viewed the LRA as an Acholi-backed army for quite some time and so took up arms against Acholis living in their districts.  Though these opinions still exist, they have been lessened as other ethnic groups are faced with their own horrors.

The most recent complicating factor comes from the involvement of my previous placement, the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The ICC issued warrants for the arrest of the five most senior LRA members (now four, as one was recently killed).  The current peace negotiations in Juba, Sudan, seem to be stalled due to the ICC: Joseph Kony and the other indicted leaders do not want to commit to peace if they will just be arrested by the ICC and tried in The Hague.  In turn, the northerners – especially the Acholi – become increasingly hostile toward the ICC indictments: if peace could easily be made without the warrants, they ask, then why doesn’t the ICC withdraw the warrants?  Furthermore, if the ICC is objective, why has it not investigated the Ugandan Army, which has also committed atrocities during the war?

The issues regarding the ICC are threefold. First, the LRA has waged an intelligent public-relations campaign, turning public mood against the ICC rather than the rebels. In the eyes of many in the north, the ICC is to blame for prolonging the war and for being one-sided.  Second, because the ICC is a judicial, not political, body, it has no legal way to withdraw the warrants; it can only step back permanently if Uganda holds genuine national proceedings.  Finally, the northern population seems to trust the LRA’s declarations that the removal of warrants will lead to peace.  Others will point to other failed attempts at peace agreements over the twenty years and note that the LRA has been untrustworthy throughout; why trust them now?

You can see how complex this conflict is and how many players are involved.  Other issues that I won’t delve into now include: the relationship between traditional power structures (tribal chiefs and elders) to the Government; the view that the Government forced the northerners into IDP camps more to control than protect them; dependence on NGOs for everything from food and sanitation to health and education; the interaction between traditional justice mechanisms and the formal, “Western”; repatriation of LRA members and abductees, especially when they have committed horrible atrocities in their home villages; and a whole litany of other issues.

This is why I am fascinated by this and similar conflicts.  There are seemingly innumerable issues to deal with, from very individual repatriation of and reconciliation with escaped LRA members, to issues of national ethnic tensions and identity in Uganda.  To be effective in seeking reconciliation, one must address all these issues at once.  It is daunting but also exciting; I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to offer assistance and work in the north, right in the middle of all this.

For a more complete, nuanced, and historical picture, look into:

– “Lord’s Resistance Army.” A reasonably accurate, concise exploration of the LRA and the conflict (Wikipedia).

– “Life in northern Uganda.” Background and personal stories of those affected by the conflict; endorsed by Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

– “To End Uganda’s Nightmare.” Former U.S. Senator John Edwards writes an op-ed about the conflict and America (Washington Post).

January 11, 2007: Poverty and Guilt

Even in Kampala, the wealthiest location in Uganda, many struggle for food, clothes, and school fees.  There are certainly wealthy residents; however, it seems the vast majority of working people have money on the mind, worrying about how to live day-to-day and dreaming of a time when they will not have to worry about such things.

I’m aware of a keen sense of guilt that I am experiencing in the midst of this new situation.  The guilt is most palpable when I connect the price of some meals (up to 10,000 shillings, or $6, in a nice restaurant) and how much even a few hundred shillings could make a difference in many peoples’ lives.  If I exchanged one meal of beef or Indian food for beans and posho (a very basic dish of cooked corn meal and water), I could spend saved money on helping someone here.  Or if I walked one afternoon instead of riding the boda boda, I could donate 1500 shillings.

I find that making equations like that are helpful in keeping perspective sometimes.  However, the effects of doing so can be detrimental: I become guiltier, for at what point do these equations end? Why not live on a bare minimum.  If I do give change, I end up encouraging begging rather than education or work.  I even feel selfish now for dwelling on my own feelings, my own guilt, when those near me struggle to feed themselves.  I am still trying to make sense of all this; perhaps I never will.

January 12, 2007: “Participatory Action Research”

In addition to forging the details for my future work upcountry, I have been assisting the Chief of Party at NUPI in his research.  As he is submitting papers, I have a chance to offer my input as well as gain knowledge from him.  It is fascinating because the topics – human security, shared authority structures, traditional justice mechanisms – are wide-ranging yet completely intertwined.  While I knew this before, I am finding it to be much more powerful being in the region, assisting those who work to implement such research in the conflict.

Off this, I learned about a new style of research called Participatory Action Research.  It is a response to those who complain that academia is unconnected with reality and real actions are often uninformed.  In essence, PAR allows researchers and practitioners to work alongside each other, exchanging knowledge.  By providing a dynamic connection between theory and practice, PAR seeks to enhance both, making both more effective.

From a Fellowship standpoint, this is a wonderful advance: it provides open communication between two sides of the same coin and offers both a chance to be creative and expand the options and ideas to enhance each areas’ effectiveness.  Creating value through open communication: I can see the eyes of David and Patrick, Insight’s President and CEO respectively, light up with that thought!

January 17, 2007: On Poverty

It has finally struck me that most individuals don’t really know poverty in the United States.  There are poor people, who have trouble “making ends meet”, who live in decrepit buildings or on the streets, who have holes in most of their clothes, who depend on food stamps and welfare.  Then there are huge numbers of those who cannot afford to live “comfortably”, which we generally define as up to American standards of living.  And this is tragic, especially in a country that is so wealthy.

But this is not the same type of poverty as I see here.  Poverty is here in Africa, in South Asia, on the streets of thousands of urban and rural areas in “underdeveloped” countries (by “underdeveloped”, of course, I mean poor).  In these places, we see children, younger than you can imagine, on the streets, bellies distended and arms thinner than sticks, hand outstretched and palms raised, repeating the single phrase they know: “Sir. Sir. Sir.”  Most of the children here do not have shirts.  As I consider whether or not to get my shoes shined – the Ugandan clay transformed them from black to red – I am followed by a troupe of children who don’t have the luxury of shoes.

The visceral impact of being confronted with true poverty on a daily basis is quite powerful.  I have always considered myself to be empathetic, caring of others, and concerned with issues like poverty.  But I do not think I have ever understood what poverty means, what it looks like.

Poverty does not drive twenty-year-old cars.  Poverty does not dream of owning a house.  Poverty does not play soccer in dirt fields.  These are unfortunate yet realistic effects of capitalism, which inevitably lifts some higher than others.  This is inequality, this is poor, but this is not poverty.

Poverty is a child too malnourished, too tired, too indifferent to bat flies from his eyes.  Poverty begs for 100 shillings, about five cents.  Poverty sees the $1-a-day threshold as an opportunity and aspires to reach that level. And I walk by, ignore their calls and save my shillings for another taxi, a snack of crackers, maybe a beer tonight.

This is not the identity I’ve had, or at least the way I liked to view myself.  If such a small amount would help them greatly and hurt me nominally, if at all, can I rationally not give this money?  At Insight we discuss the Pareto-inferior negotiations which are deals that could be improved for one or both parties without causing harm to either.  Is this not exactly that? Five hundred or 1,000 shillings provide me with only a small amount of utility (if any) but these poverty-stricken children with a vast amount; is it not Pareto-inferior to not give them some change? I cannot even imagine the impact 10,000 shillings would have for this child, even if it is short-lived, a single meal, dinner for a few nights.

Now, of course I can counter with the classical arguments: if I were to give money to this child, it could teach her to always seek money from muzungus, not go to school, and never break the cycle of poverty.  Or, it would not be a structural change, providing schooling for her and her siblings.  Or that – if I were rational – then I would have to give vast amounts until the loss of five hundred shillings had significant, negative impacts on my own life. There are hundreds of reasons why giving to a begging child is not helpful.

And so I find myself flush with learning, theories, and cash, faced with young children’s pleas.  My only action is inaction, indifference, maybe even a quickened step.

Some might compliment me on my awareness, suggesting it is a wonderful start.  Unfortunately, my being aware doesn’t feed this child.  Even this visceral acknowledgement of their situation will not find them shoes; my ability to argue and counter-reason will not give them an opportunity to change.

And I am frustrated at how I come across as well: a muzungu completely ignoring a starving street child.  I get angry at myself for questioning my commitment to social justice: isn’t it enough that I’m dedicating my life to eradicating war, corruption, and poverty?  Isn’t it enough that my personal trajectory is toward that point, that my studies are geared to those subjects?  Isn’t it enough that I am aware and dedicating my life to that?

It might be. Still, though, I have money in my pocket to spare. And this family has probably never eaten such a lavish meal as I had last night, or will have tonight, or tomorrow.

January 19, 2007: More on Poverty: Reason and Contradictions

My last journal entry was clearly based on my emotional, visceral reaction to poverty here. And that reaction, I think, is important. In addition, I’ve questioned my personal rationality.

Economists like to assume that people are rational beings, that we can make decisions based on reason.  Although I think that there are certainly exceptions – unless we include decisions based on emotions as rationally based on irrational feelings – it seems important to me to make rational decisions when possible.  In other words, I want to purchase an item based on rational thinking (quality, price, accessibility of the product, etc.) rather than simply getting something.  If I’m too tired to rationally weigh pros and cons, then at least I can rationally choose to be irrational (or to simply be a satisfier, not a maximizer, in that situation).  I like rationality: it affords me autonomy.

Out of this, I want to be consistent.  It does not make sense – it is irrational – to make a different decision given the same situation.  Now, I may choose different crackers when in a grocery store even though everything else is the same; I think this is rational because my choice would be based on my desire for variety. Fine.

But what happens when I try to be logical about my actions (or inaction) in the face of poverty?  I say that I am concerned with poverty; even stronger, that I value every life equally.  And yet, it is fully human to value some lives, of our friends and family, more than others.  This may be natural but that does not mean it is rational

I recently read two pieces on poverty, Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus – the recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate – and an excellent philosophical argument for charity by Peter Singer in the New York Times Magazine (December 17, 2006).  Yunus describes in detail the development and successes of micro-loans in eradicating poverty.  I was struck by how his journey began with two bases: dissatisfaction with teaching economic theory in the face of extreme poverty in Bangladesh (then India); and an extremely potent, immediate experience of a woman’s frustrations with the cycle of poverty.  With early conceptions of sustainable microdevelopment, he developed a long-term program that, by most calculations, helped millions break out of poverty.

In his article, Singer argued that individual charity of a vastly increased amount, for the top 10% of American earners, would be almost three times as much money as needed to reduce by half the number of people in poverty, end sex disparity in education, reduce by two-thirds the child mortality rate, and halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, among other causes.  In essence, he contends that those earning high amounts of money – from $92,000 per year in the top 10% to $12,775,000 in the top .01% – could donate between 10 % and up to 30% of their annual income without affecting their lives (tiered based on earnings).

His philosophical criticism touches specifically on my own troubles: can we ethically rectify our claims of equality and yet clearly not give as much as we could (or should) to create equality?

I think that I must live with contradictions.  I will always value those closer to me – kin, friends, or those immediately in my view – than others; to me, this is life.  It still irks me to know that I will never live up to my claims to value every person equally. In addition, though, it is comforting to know that I simply cannot, that it is impossible to act that way.

I am concerned, though, that recognizing its impossibility absolves me of trying to reach it.  I must compromise, to be sure.  But I am still highly uncomfortable with compromising a life, whether or not I know them personally.

January 21, 2007: My first evening in Gulu

There is something folkloric about finally arriving in Gulu. I have studied the conflict in northern Uganda for years now, analyzing it from libraries, online news sources, and personal accounts.  After being connected only secondarily, the names and places have taken on a mythic quality. Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Juba: they seem to belong in legend, alongside Camelot or Mount Olympus. But they are all too real, and I’m really here.

Gulu is warm; it is loud with wildlife but otherwise quiet.  The red dust gets everywhere, even tinting the browning trees as if to signify the movement from the lush heart of Uganda to the deserts of Sudan, some sixty miles north.  There are three types of vehicles here: bicycle taxis, boda boda taxis, and semi-armored 4×4 trucks used by NGOs, UN agencies, and any other mzungu-led efforts.

To get from Kampala to Gulu, one must pass through a number of small towns. When buses stop to unload or pick up passengers, open windows are immediately clogged with cold water, fruit, and grilled meat of vague origins: these coaches provide significant economic activity for the towns.  Describing the road itself as bumpy would do it significant disservice: it is often not wide enough to accommodate passing cars; it forces bicyclists and boda bodas into ditches; and it sports potholes that would swallow vehicles smaller than a 4×4.  Sharp swerves and the all-too-frequent foray into the potholes made for a nauseating ride. And, of course, I was riding in a private, well-kept USAID vehicle with professional driver. It will be fun to try via shared minibus, matatu.

We passed over the Nile, marking our movement into the northern region.  Even in January – the warm season – it is overflowing and beautiful. Not hard to imagine that this river starts in Lake Victoria and winds its way all the way through Cairo to the Mediterranean.

There are, of course, numerous trucks on the road, spitting black exhaust under the weight of their passengers, normally an inordinate number of Ugandans standing for the four-plus-hour journey. Occasionally they carry other goods; this small truck moved about 20 huge longhorns.

It was quite a sight to see their vastly muscular backs and three-foot curling horns crammed onto a simple flat-bed truck. Pity the men who sat with them for the duration of the ride – gives a whole new meaning to “stomach-churning.”

Before approaching Gulu town, we passed two IDP camps.  They are – sadly – just like we see in pictures: small, clay huts with thatched roofs crammed together tightly.  The pictures don’t convey the heat though; they don’t show the reality of babies running naked with distended bellies and skeletal arms.  We don’t get a sense of old women marching for miles – barefoot, of course – with logs balanced on their heads, babies swaddled on their backs.  We never quite sense the weight of the jerry-cans, filled with tainted water, lugged back to the camps by young boys with blood-shot eyes.  The saddest part is that these are not people without a home; rather, they simply cannot return home.  Many children under twenty years old have never known peace; many under thirteen know only the camps as normal life.

Mainly people in Gulu town are happy to see mzungus because we represent organizational assistance; we also spend more money than they do.  A gentle “no” is usually enough to ward off those asking for help with their school fees, although the very poor, very young children are more tenacious when asking for change; it’s somehow more emotionally wrenching to say “no” to them here than in Kampala.  In order to work in this region, I’m constantly reminding myself that I can do more for them at a structural level than if I were to give some money or even help build a school.

Internally, I am searching for a balance: I must, must, see and acknowledge these conditions; if I do not, I will lose sight of my purpose.  And yet, emotionally empathizing with the terrible conditions and horrible stories of violence is draining; it will prevent me from being effective at a structural level.  How does one construct an emotional barrier without shutting down?

I also find it difficult to make that transition, from thinking about the IDP camps to pondering my own journey, my own life.  It seems selfish to consider myself the protagonist of this story; it means ignoring their silent stares.  I think it was easier to construct an independent ego in the developed world, when normal life appears to contain troubles.  And yet, I cannot fathom what real troubles are, what real trials and tribulations are to those here.  I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person; how can I possibly fathom what reality is like for these people?  Part of the reason I am excited about living in Gulu is to answer that question.  Is it possible that a white American boy from an upper-middle-class family could understand, even at a small level, the life of someone here?

And yet I’m sleeping in a hotel – very nice by Ugandan standards – four stories above life, looking down on the darkening streets like some omnipotent, separate being.  I came to Uganda to live here, in Gulu not Kampala, in a normal situation not three flights of stairs away.  I came to talk with the IDPs, to listen, to help them organize, God willing.

I can have my whole life to live four stories, three meals, and two oceans away, if I choose.  But this could be my one opportunity to reduce that distance, to open my eyes, ears, and heart, and to explore life outside the gates.  Here’s to tomorrow.