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Uganda January 22-February 6, 2007


January 22, 2007: Meetings in Gulu

I was fortunate to attend meetings throughout the day with a graduate student connected to USAID who is exploring peace-building approaches in northern Uganda as a case study for a larger peace-building toolkit.  For her, it was an interesting opportunity to extract theory from practice; for me, it was excellent to hear personal accounts and opinions that were significantly more nuanced than most accounts I can receive abroad.

We had a number of meetings on behalf of USAID, mainly to explore the toolkit idea.  We traveled around Gulu town, meeting separately with former LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) commanders, religious leaders (including the Archbishop of Gulu and the head Sheikh of northern Uganda), local political and government representatives, and a cadre of traditional Acholi chiefs and elders.

Rather than delve into the main content of the meetings, I want to write about two patterns I recognized.

First is the overwhelming hope.  Hope that the stalled Juba talks will succeed, hope that the internally displaced peoples can return home, hope that the children can go back to school and sleep in their homes every night.  This war has devastated the area for twenty years; a whole generation has grown up without a home, without land, without a foreseeable future.  And yet, without question, everybody still has hope and plans.  I cannot imagine what it is like to suffer for years and still have grand notions about what could be.  An appropriate quote I recall: “Great men see not what is but what could be.” 

The second pattern – dependency – seems to accompany this optimism: there is great hope that the donor community will support their endeavors.  One of the upshots of foreign aid – or maybe the branding of foreign aid – is that aid becomes the major source of funding for any initiative.  Foundations and organizations need not look to local businesses for financial support; they only need to show promise to the right mzungu to receive money.  Dependency, it seems, is a by-product of years of foreign aid.  And so every meeting ended with a plea: “It is our great hope that NUPI and USAID recognize the vital importance of this program to reconciliation in (or: economic development of; peace within; security of) Gulu, northern Uganda, and indeed, the whole country.”

January 25, 2007: My Role in Peace, Reconciliation, and Facilitation

In Gulu, upon returning, I negotiated what could be a wonderful role for myself.  The Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI) has worked to set up the structures for Peace Forums in northern Uganda.  These Forums now exist on four levels: sub-county (local), district (like states), sub-regional (the five ethnic groups in the north), and finally within a single, overarching structure, the Northern Uganda Peace Forum.  They include representatives from local government, civil society, NGOs, and grassroots groups with a mission of coordinating the many peace and reconciliation efforts.  The idea behind NUPI is that many issues are decidedly localized but others require interregional cooperation and this loose affiliation provides channels for communication and collaboration while respecting local and regional autonomy.  While the overarching mission is derived from the LRA war, there are numerous other issues such as inter-tribe conflicts, land ownership quarrels, and arms proliferation.

The five ethnic sub-regions are West Nile, Acholi, Lango, Teso, and Karamoja.  The Acholi have been most affected by the LRA war with upwards of 90% of the population living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps as recently as 2005.  The others have been affected as well by the LRA war There are also significant historical conflicts between the sub-regions. 

My personal role will be to help finalize these Peace Forum structures by facilitating their strategic development.  In two weeks, I’ll be facilitating a meeting with the Executive Committee of the Northern Uganda Peace Forum, the overarching regional body.  Our goals are to finalize foundation documents and the Constitution and then begin to create a comprehensive development plan by exploring issues, activities, goals, benchmarks, and funding.  The final issue is that NUPI is soon ending its three-year contract with USAID, so we will be preparing for the departure of NUPI and looking for alternative sources of funding.  Then, hopefully, I will travel to work with the five sub-regional-, and maybe even some district-level, Peace Forums to assist their local development. 

I appreciate that I will be a neutral facilitator, not financed by USAID, the Government of Uganda, the UN, or any other interested party.  I am solidly familiar with the region and its huge number of challenges, which will be helpful in gaining their trust as an effective facilitator. Finally, I won’t have to create the actual structures; I should be able to get straight to the real work to be done, helping the members of the Forums think through their ideas and direct themselves.

I am very excited. I get to use my academic knowledge of the region.  I have a wonderful opportunity to employ the new communication, facilitation, and conflict management skills in a very hands-on manner.  And, importantly for my own satisfaction, I may actually assist people in a region that desperately needs help..

Now I have much to prepare before going to Gulu on February 6th. This is a fantastic opportunity; I have to make the most of it!

January 27, 2007:“Stones cannot meet. People can.”

I went to Owino market today, the vast covered market where one can buy almost anything, including most of the donated clothes from Western countries.  It was a daunting experience, even after the medinahs in Marrakesh and Fes.  Here, there were no streets to wind through, nor spaces to catch your breath; under the blue tarps, we squeezed between stalls, my Ugandan friend leading the way and I evading calls for the mzungu (white person) to spend money.  Watching my wallet and shaking off the hands that grabbed me, I followed my friend in pursuit of my goal: buying a pair of pants. All this for pants! While I appreciated the informality of it all, the beauty of the chaos, I couldn’t help imagining the shining, well-lit stores in the West, where the wares are clean and new and the prices are set.

My friend Maseko is the guard at my apartment, a veteran of the 1986 war when current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ousted the previous regime and moved the country toward democracy.  Maseko generously offered to take me through the market, a good thing because else I never would have found my way otherwise.

Afterward, we found ourselves discussing the smallness of the world.  He mentioned that, as we can always meet again, we must treat each other well and act with honesty; in his words, “Stones, which cannot move, cannot meet. People can.”

Why do I find that so profound?  Maybe because, as he explained it to me, a truck abruptly pulled up in front of us as we maneuvered through crowded downtown Kampala.  It was his fellow soldier from the 1986 wars that he had not seen since; as Maseko noted, they treated each other well, even as child soldiers during war twenty years ago. 

January 28, 2007: Church

I was invited to church services by Maria, who works in the restaurant below our apartment.  I was surprised by the invitation; she is normally very quiet and withdrawn, and she did not invite anyone else in the house.  Of course I accepted, and this morning we went off to church.

Two matatu mini-buses, 45 minutes, and many kilometers of rutted dirt roads later, we came upon her church, the Miracle Center.  The Center was a vast, bright building that appeared from the inside as a converted airport hangar.  Nearly a thousand people were inside the church, which looked like it could hold almost ten times that amount. There were closed-circuit televisions to film the pastor and choirs, projecting their delayed images on two massive screens above the altar.  It was an evangelical congregation providing a number of faith-based services to the wider community, including children’s services and teen programs.

The services themselves were lively: Pastor Roberts was an excellent orator, turning phrases and making analogies on the fly with a passion that I had not seen for quite some time.  Sweat flying, arms flailing, voice cracking; it was clear the Pastor knew how to inspire through emotions, even if some Biblical references were not fully accurate.  Those attending the services had no shortage of energy themselves, clapping hands, throwing Hallelujahs into the air, waving their praise palms up.

I was surprised by the focus on money.  There were four funds to which one could publicly contribute throughout the service; those who did were duly praised, those who did not were exhorted to do the right thing.  In addition, much of the Pastor’s discussion focused on money: he described the gold on earth as the trash from heaven’s paved roads; he equated salvation with earning money; he spurred excitement with claims that 2007 would do away with poverty.  At one point, the Pastor spent fifteen minutes describing a cordon bleu dinner, from the ingredients to how the cheese melts in your mouth.  Speaking to an intensely poor crowd who work incredible hours, worry about how to eat, and suffer intensely, these images were especially vivid.

It was, however, troubling to me to see the importance laid on financial wealth; what happened to heaven being reserved for the poor, the destitute?  What about a camel passing through the eye of a needle?  Most importantly, why finances at all: where was the spirit in all this?

It seems that, given the physical trials of most in the congregation, themes of financial retribution were valuable, lucid visions of the world to come.  Hope, it seems, has streets paved with gold.

January 30, 2007

It is my last week in the Kampala NUPI offices, working under fluorescent lights with easy access to materials, fast internet, and coffee. Going through all the background papers can be dull, I must admit, though I know the preparation will pay off significantly later.  It is interesting to be taking the role of a consultant, where my expertise and role regards the process, not the topic.  Insight’s CEO Patrick McWhinney helped me understand long ago that negotiation and communication skills can be applied to anything, anywhere, from hedge funds to family conflicts to the Iraqi Government.  And I love that idea, although it also makes me feel like I have to “catch up” to understand each subject well enough.  On the other hand, maybe that’s the point: by not being fully immersed in the topic, one can be a more effective third-party advisor, questioning traditional assumptions and showing the way to unfettered brainstorming space more easily. 

February 1, 2007: “Self-imposed Exile”

Today is the beginning of my month-long independence, or as a friend described it, my “self-imposed exile.”  For the month of February – which coincides nicely with my time upcountry in Gulu – I plan to communicate only with those inside Uganda.  No connection to my parents, my friends, Insight; just what is in front of me.

This idea was born out of a handful of observations I have made recently.  First, I have never been out of contact.  While technology is a beautiful thing, it also comes with a loss of privacy, an inability to explore complete separation.  If I had journeyed on this Fellowship thirty years ago – never mind many generations ago – I would not have any contact save an occasional letter or mind-bogglingly expensive two-minute phone call.  And there is something valuable in that, I think.  Having never experienced that, I cannot know; this is why an “exile” makes sense.  After all, when else in my life would I be able to do this?  Certainly not when I have a “real” job or a family; only now, as a young man, on this fantastic opportunity.  I have faced serious external pressures not to do this or to scale it back; at some level, it is that pressure that makes it clear I must pursue this separation.

Second, I am personally intrigued by the idea of truly being alone, or at least alone in this sense.  I love people, I love connections.  Yet I do not want those connections to define who I am.  Going to a distant summer camp at thirteen afforded me an opportunity to define myself in more genuine ways. Relating only to people here, who have known me for only one month (if that long), will give me a similar space.

Most importantly, ignoring external influences, news, and tasks will allow me to focus on my assignment here.  There is so much to do, so much I want to do; I believe that I can only truly accomplish all I want through a period of intense, focused work.

I am very excited, slightly nervous, and cannot wait to set off to Gulu.  One month is simultaneously long and short; I cannot wait to make the most of this.

February 3, 2007: Baseball… in Uganda?

I love baseball. I played on my first tee-ball team when I was 5 and started pitching at eight.  I played throughout high school and college and on a huge number of teams in at least eight states around the U.S.  I love the sport, I love the teams, I love the challenges.

Baseball is played in few countires outside the States.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard about a baseball club in Uganda, at Kyambogo (pronounced, “Cham-bogo”) University, just outside Kampala.

I made the journey to the fields this morning with my Ugandan friend Gerald.  The trip took us from a matatu to a boda boda that wound its way through a jungle-like valley, through two kilometers of unpaved, gutted roads, and eventually to the pastoral setting of the University fields.  The fields were simply open pastures with patches of grass; there were few permanent structures.  We made our way to two small huts in the corners of the field, and behold: a family that takes care of the fields had a small number of gloves, bats, and three old baseballs, two of which were rubber:

I was flabbergasted.  Each of the children in the family played baseball or softball, and each was wonderfully excited and happy at the prospect of playing at all (especially with a real-life mzungu!).  It was such a gift to them to play even with decrepit equipment.  It was uplifting to see baseball played for the sport without regard to the best bats, whitest balls, or cleanest field.  A breath of fresh air, really.

I was surprised again when we started throwing the ball around between the four players – me, Gerald, a student Michael, and an eight-year-old boy, Ivan – and  saw that Ivan could throw incredibly well.  He threw a curveball that would have been legitimate in most high-school leagues, and his arm strength was significantly greater than it should have been.  Standing up, he reached my chest.

There I was: playing baseball in Uganda, monkeys hopping in the trees that lined the field, and listening to chatter from an eight-year-old boy: “I’ll throw him the breaking ball! He can’t touch it!”  What a fantastic way to spend a Saturday morning.

February 4, 2007: Bike race

I swallowed my first dose of Ugandan humility today after participating in a 40km mountain bike race outside Kampala.  Showing up late, without bikes, and without training was not the best idea; being one of a very small number of amateurs was unfortunate as well.  Nonetheless, I jumped right in, one of two mzungus in the race, on a bike without gears, working breaks, or a stable seat.

Though there were a handful of other amateurs, I later found out that there were semiprofessional Ugandan riders, including one woman who will represent Uganda in the Beijing Olympics in 2010.  Needless to say, she left me in her dust pretty quickly, going on to win the women’s race easily.

It was a long, sweaty day; what did I expect?  Being out of shape, on a poor bike, and generally not a great mountain-biker, I was dead last for the bulk of the race.  Given my propensity to compete, this was not so easy for me.  But I enjoyed it greatly as we weaved through rural country roads, trees towering over us, passing young boys pushing bicycles loaded with firewood and girls hoisting jerry cans.  And, of course, I was followed by a shrieking cadre of young children for most of the race: “Mzungu! Mzungu! You are last!”

Coming in last, of course, was not fun, but the race was.  We were greeted warmly all over, receiving business cards from adults and stares from children.  There was a medal ceremony which they held up for us, with everyone waiting in the hot sun as we rolled up, drenched with sweat.  Unfortunately, I soon discovered that each rider had to make a short speech to the crowd.  I tried to quickly thank them all for their help and leave but was pulled back for one final public, amplified dose of humility:

“So, you worked hard today but did not do well. Can you promise these people that next time you will come in first?”

I answered, “I cannot lie to these people!”  So it goes.

As we were leaving later, a pint-sized girl approached me, too young to be afraid of a mzungu, too small to speak. She simply looked at me with dinner-platter eyes and examined my hands, seemingly amazed at the similarities: fingers can be white, too. One of the most striking children I have ever seen, she held my thumbs and fingers with a soft care I did not know was possible.  I must spend more time with children; it is something I miss greatly.  Such beauty, such wonder – can an adult ever recover that amazement?

We drove off and I thought my Ugandan cycling career was finally finished; I was proven wrong at dinner tonight.  A waiter passed by and said hello, then did a double-take.  “Are you the mountain biker?” he asked.

Apparently, the national television chanel (WBS) decided to film parts of the race, broadcasting clips for the evening sports news. And as a large, red-haired, mustachioed mzungu, I was easily recognizable.

“I’m sorry, sir. You really recognized me from the national news?!” I asked, incredulous.

His reply, with a soft grin and a shrug: “This is Uganda.”

February 5, 2007: Goals for Gulu

As I embark on my three- to six-week stay in Gulu and the rest of the north, I recognized the importance of setting a few clear goals for myself.  I have realized a tendency to discount my efforts unless there are specific successes, activities, or other indicators that I can point to.  So, in the interest of proper preparation and actually utilizing the frameworks preached by Insight (myself included), I’d like to map out my goals.

First, I want to take a strong role in facilitating meetings, at least once.  I have long been interested to see my abilities in this area and so it is incumbent that I actually create space for myself to take the lead in a meeting, flip charts and all.  This also includes utilizing the Insight frameworks such as the four P’s of meeting planning, to the four quadrants of issue investigation, to the seven elements of negotiation, as appropriate.

Second, I would like to see an impact on the Peace Forum structures with whom I will be working.  What type of impact would I be satisfied with? I cannot say for sure at this point, only that my presence must be positive and elicit positive change.

Third, I want to travel, as much as I can, and as broadly as I can, to connect with as many Peace Forums as possible.  Some of these places require a full two days’ travel to reach, I understand, so this could be quite a goal.

Finally, as trite as it feels to actually put it down in words, I have a strong desire to spend time with children.  This war has disproportionately affected children, both those abducted and forced to fight or become sex slaves as well as those who are “night commuters”, leaving their villages for the towns every night to avoid abduction.  Again, it feels hackneyed to say it and yet I will nonetheless: I’m in it for the kids.

So tomorrow I head up north and will spend a significant amount of time there.  I do not know my role fully, I do not know the area, and I do not know if I can live in such a provincial situation, far from the comforts of Kampala.  Yet it is precisely because I don’t know my capabilities, I am not familiar with my frontiers that I am going, just as my desire to be incommunicado is purely because I have never been.  I am aware that there can be a fine line between courage and stupidity, although I cannot say I’ve ever ventured to explore it.  As I inch toward that line, I just hope I’m on the right side.

February 6, 2007: Talking with Former LRA

So, I have arrived in Gulu. I am excited about what experiences could happen and I am thrilled to leave behind the chaos of Kampala. Gulu is a small town, though and I have never lived in such a remote area. This could be interesting.

Today, a NUPI representative and I had a discussion with a former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group that has terrorized northern Uganda for over twenty years.  The former member – whom I will simply call “NN” – supposedly served both as a Captain and later as the personal Catechist for Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA.  He told us his horrific story, about how he received 300 lashes for refusing to kill. He laughs about it now: “Ah, they beat me to the edge of death. Ha ha ha.” His life saved, he was transferred to the religious and strategic wing of the forces.

His face lined with deep creases, his eyes glowing, he described to us the spiritual and religious background for Kony.  Kony’s aunt, Alice Auma (Alice Lakwena), led a rebellion, the “Holy Spirit Movement,” in 1986. She was driven by a Spirit who encouraged mystical warfare techniques, such as smearing the fighters’ bodies in shea butter to make them invincible.  It did not work.  Upon her defeat and banishment to Kenya, the Spirit took up Kony, directing him in what would become the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This Spirit directs Kony in guerilla warfare and religious devotion, including prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, and even sex for a period. The end of the sexual prohibition came soon after the news that a young woman in Kony’s household was pregnant.  NN recalls the affair, laughing: “Who impregnated her? The Holy Spirit?” The next day, the Spirit lifted the ban on sex. The Spirit left Kony in 2000; since then, Kony has been guided either by other spirits or his own drive.  Or not; nobody quite knows for sure.

NN claimed that he lost faith in Kony’s spiritual connections with the circumstances of the reinstitution of sex.  And yet, in describing Kony’s spiritual abilities, NN still showed remarkable devotion: “Everything Kony said would happen has happened.  Everything he says will happen, will happen.”  This attitude is mirrored in other former rebels I have spoken with, both at the leadership and rank-and-file levels. If they escaped, non-believers take this attitude; how strong must be the belief of those who stay in the bush?

On a side note, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern when people talk about Kony.  He is never simply referred to as “Kony.”  It is always “Kony Himself,” a title that seems to be bestowed upon him universally.  NN, government officials, children in the street, shopkeepers: all use “Kony Himself.”  I have heard the title used only once to describe another; it was “Museveni Himself,” referring to the Ugandan President.  It seems to be a term of honor and respect, or at least recognition of his importance.  Kony Himself is mysterious, alone; he keeps everyone guessing about his intentions or motivations: is it him, the capital-S Spirit, or any of the numerous spirits guiding him? Nobody knows.  But Kony Himself proves a figure of vast intrigue.  He has never given clear signs about his interest in the war; everything is inferred.

This, I think, is the most maddening thing about Kony and the LRA: they are not fighting for a reason.  Sometimes, a spokesperson will say they seek the rule of the 10 Commandments in Uganda; sometimes we hear the demand for Kony to be President; sometimes, he appears to be fighting to “cleanse” his people, the Acholi.  These claims are always discounted, though, by Kony Himself or one of the other leaders.  So for all of us, the question becomes: Why?  Why the carnage, why the fighting, why the bloodshed of his own ethnic people, the Acholi?  Everyone has their guesses, but no one can say for sure.  Nobody knows.