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Uganda-March 2007


March 1, 2007: Days in the IDP camps

Accompanying the USAID representatives to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps was a difficult, amazing experience over the last few days.  We moved from Lira to Kitgum, stopping along the way first at Padjule camp.  Padjule is a large camp but one that was planned; this means the huts are large, semi-professional in their appearance, and most importantly, spaced evenly.  In other camps, such as Labuje, the huts are too close. A fire in one hut means many burn: a recent fire in a similar camp nearby left over three thousand homeless.

We went to Padjule camp to determine the effectiveness of a USAID-sponsored program that provided psychological counseling for former rebels returning from the bush as well as “sensitizations” to the communities to prepare them to welcome these returnees back into the community.  Such a difficult task: you are asking a whole community to forgive, en masse, children who have committed enormous atrocities, often times within that community.  A boy forced to slaughter his neighbors.  A girl made to beat her mother to death.  Children required to set huts on fire and kill their parents.  All this in sight of the community.

And what about those rebels who do not return quickly?  Many are kept for months and years, unable to escape because of physical threats from high-level LRA members or because of the deep psychological burden of committing atrocities against their own community, family, people.  They are afraid to return, unable to believe that they will be welcomed home.  And yet the communities are afraid to welcome them, unable to believe they could commit such horrors without having the evil will to do so.  Mutual distrust, mutual fears crystallized into mutual stereotypes: the situation displays all the signs of deeply-divided ethnic conflict.  Except here, the core divide is inside a single ethnic group, a communally-based intractable conflict, divided from within.

The interviews themselves seemed only partially successful.  Working through a translator is never easy and the hot sun leaking through the unpatched roof only served to aggravate the situation.  It was clear that certain aspects of the program, such as the community sensitizations, were extremely helpful and needed to be increased if anything.  On the other hand, sequestering all returnees into special classes only served to further stigmatize these children.  Integration, it seems, is a vital component of re-integration.

As we talked, one young girl quietly doled out glucose biscuits labeled clearly from the UN World Food Program.  A stark reminder that this area, with or without war, would be a difficult one in which to live, that, in the midst of these enormous psychological burdens, the flesh still needs its nourishment.

Today is the end of the cease-fire between the LRA and the Government of Uganda. I’m less than 20 miles from the Sudanese border, across which the bulk of the LRA are living right now.  I am not nervous, just curious. Will this hold? I certainly hope so. In any case, it’s an exciting time to be here, in Uganda, in the northern region, in the Labudje IDP camp.

Labudje camp is home to over 30,000 people. Imagine that: a huge town, even a city, living in densely-packed huts. Thirty thousand.  The huts are generally small enough that I could wrap my wingspan halfway around them.  They are too short to stand in, the straw roofs end at shoulder-level, nearly touching the neighbors’ huts.  The dirt ground divided not by roads but only by runoff of water waste.

The ubiquitous children. Malnourished arms, big bellies and bright eyes; little ones cautious in approaching the mzungu and the older ones who reach for my hand. No shoes, of course, and few clothes actually cover the bodies on which they hang.  Children playing in between huts nearby; more children helping their mothers cook posho over there.  Peeking behind adults’ legs, nursing under the hot sun, playing with any sticks and stones they can find.  But they are everywhere, simply everywhere.

It is in this situation that I arrive alongside another American and two Ugandans for the USAID program evaluation.  The focus of the evaluation was a Concerned Mothers’ Group, an association of mothers who had been affected directly by the war.  Their stories were told with indifference and utter factuality. Taken at 12, gave birth to an LRA captain’s daughter at 13, escaped in the night with her child at 14.  Or watched as her three children were forced to maim and kill her husband and were then taken to the bush, only one of whom has returned.  Or kidnapped, raped and escaped; kidnapped again, beaten and gang-raped for escaping, and escaped again; and finally learned she had gotten pregnant during the second round of rapes.

And it falls on the USAID representative to determine the “success” of this program, the training in community sensitization that these Concerned Mothers received.  The language from Washington speaks of outputs and impacts and cost-effect analyses.  The language in Gulu speaks of rape and murder and hope.

This is where walking the line becomes unbearable.  An imperfect program, whose measurable outputs and impacts are less than hoped, will be removed by USAID.  Simple in investment terms and thinking: the returns were diminished because of the program’s inadequacy.  And in human terms, this is a death blow to a program that gave hope, that gave human decency, gave power to women, validated their concerns for their families and their communities.

Of course there is a disconnect between the mindset of an investor in social profit (the U.S. Government) and women who need to recover from the most horrific problems one can imagine.  Something must be done, there must be some way to communicate the interests and find a viable, even successful option.  But instead, I can tell there won’t be a chance to investigate options. There will be no brainstorming session and there will be no new options generated. Instead, simply another cut on the USAID budget, another type of program to steer away from.  After all, with half of USAID’s budget being directed to Iraq and Afghanistan, priorities force certain cuts to be made.

If I sound bitter, it is because I am. Certainly not at USAID representatives here in Uganda, and similarly not at anyone who seeks feasible, financially-viable options.  I am not a bleeding-heart who thinks that all the money in the world must be spent to save lives; I understand reality.  But how can one not be frustrated when one sees how such a small program affects the lives of these women and their community so strongly?  How the most important outputs are the most difficult to measure?  A former employer of mine used to say it best: just because it is hard to measure does not mean it is worth nothing.

March 2, 2007: Entanglement with Life

I’ve now completed my month of personal separation, renouncing communication with the world outside Uganda to more wholly pursue my work, externally for communal reconciliation and internally for the personal growth.

The experiment was imperfect. I had to make a few correspondences with Insight and a significant amount of others to problem-solve graduate school applications.  In other words, life still exists outside my restricted view.  But I would still term the period a success as it enabled me to restrict my focus to my work in Gulu, in Kitgum, in Apac and Lira, without regard to potential negative impacts of blinders on my relationships.

It was difficult though. We are so connected, consistently and constantly. Twelve thousand miles away from my family, I can call them or email them or Skype them, never mind actually using the postal service.  It requires effort to break away from a social cycle, to call a halt to the default of connection.  Complete separation needs to be manufactured; it seems not to exist in its fundamental, natural form.  Does that make solitude all the more beautiful because of the effort required to create it, or does it show the sadness of our society that it is attainable only through arduous measures?

Paradoxically in spite of my rejection of consistent communication – or perhaps due to my dependence on it – I found myself missing it.  Missing a phone call, a joke passed along on email. My weekly “health check-in” notes to my family grew long, more elaborate than anything I wrote typically.  I came to realize that I need these connections, I need these relationships.  And now, at the back end of the experiment, I know that this need is largely independent of my dependence; rather, I actually want this connection.  Not a restrictive burden; rather a fulfilling delight.

Part of the exercise was to experiment with selfless dedication to the work in front of me.  By allowing myself to be distracted, I believed I was diminishing my dedication to those here for whom I work.  By minimizing my own needs I could maximize my concentration on the needs of others.  And yet, this could be viewed as selfishness, cutting off connections to others in order to pursue my goals, my needs.  A fascinating paradox with the potential to leave me paralyzed: how can one be selfless and selfish simultaneously?

And that was a risk I had to take, that my friends and family would view this as complete selfishness instead of selfless abnegation.  In the spirit of Insight’s communication, I worked to get their buy-in, to ensure they understood – though not necessarily agreed with – my decision. I believe the decision was about approaching abnegation, the practice of theoretical agape: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  This was my experiment in monkish immersion, selfish in process but selfless in substance.

A difficult way to end a period of attempted abnegation is to recognize that I can’t be so selfless, that I need those connections.  Or even stronger and perhaps even more difficult: I don’t want to be so selfless.  At some level, I feel disappointment in recognizing that I cannot – or don’t want to – be as purely selfless as part of me wishes, the part that admires Gandhi and sees Reinhold Niebuhr as a sell-out.  The same part that is jealous of Insight Fellow Dan Green’s experiences in a Tibetan monastery last year and mystics’ complete rejection of the physical.

I recently read a book by Philip Roth that speaks to this type of frustration through its narrator, a writer whose attempt at full seclusion is interrupted after only five years. He realized that the interruption is not unfavorable, “And I realized all this with some disappointment. Abnegation of society, abstention from distraction, a self-imposed separation from every last professional yearning and social delusion and cultural poison and alluring intimacy, a rigorous reclusion such as that practiced by religious devouts who immure themselves in caves or cells or isolated forest huts, is maintained on stuff more obdurate than I am made of.” (Philip Roth, The Human Stain

But I have multiple sides, and another is my understanding of reality and the need to sustain the flesh and blood that houses the soul. It is not necessarily that I am not “obdurate” enough but that I choose to live a more balanced life, seeking selflessness not by ignoring my flesh but by working for others’ good.  I can choose to work for selfless goals without fully renouncing society and intimacies.  In this regard, I am reassured deeply in knowing that the relationships I created in my life are meaningful to me: the life I hold is happily not so far from the one I seek.

Then what is it that I seek? For the past month, I sought to break off, to pursue simultaneously external labors for the direct benefit of others and internal “communications of a solitary mind with itself” (Nathaniel Hawthorne via Roth).  And I worked furiously for these past weeks both within and without. Fortunately, such separation is not the only way to pursue truth and good.

This month-long exercise is no match for a monk’s life or even a writer’s five-year retreat.  But it is analogous to my Fellowship year of separation, not pursuing the directions and connections of my life ten months ago. What is that it I miss about that life? The connections, the relationships.  Shared joy and pain, communal celebrations and mournings.  The concern with alternative views and goals and minds.  Beautiful and complicated life:

“So why, then, having turned the experiment of radical seclusion into a rich, full solitary existence – why, with no warning, should I be lonely? What’s gone is gone. There’s no relaxing the rigor, no undoing the renunciations.  Lonely for precisely what? Simple: for what I had developed an aversion to. For what I turned my back on. For life. The entanglement with life.” (Roth)

March 3, 2007: Quick! To the Facilitation Mobile!

A Saturday morning, flush with work at home and a small Nescafe buzz (I still refuse to call that junk “coffee”), I was interrupted with a phone call from an Acholi woman who runs a local women’s empowerment organization called Gulu Women’s Economic and Development Group (GWED+G). “Jared, we had talked earlier about setting up a meeting for you to help out some. We are in my office, can you come by?”

“Um… now?” I asked, not quite sure I fully understood.

“Yes, right now.”  The pep in her voice suggested a difference in our notion of what it means to “set up a meeting.”

You can tell my initial internal reaction: are you kidding me?! We have not spoken for three weeks and now you call me at 11:00 on a Saturday morning to tell me you need my help now? Now? What happened to African time, where “soon” means “in a week,” and “later” means “never”? So she wants my help now?  Not a chance – that’s just not how it works!

Then a pause: I had no plans for the day, only working by myself.  What did it matter if I moved around my schedule?  (Do I ever keep my own schedule so sharply anyway?) I strongly believe my primary role in Gulu is not for me but for the organizations here, the people here.  So I recognized and overcame my initial thoughts – born out of feeling my role and status were not being valued – and made my way to the office.

While GWED+G run a handful of programs, they were mostly concerned with their peace-building program, where they train 20-25 “Grassroots Women” in each IDP camp and community in Gulu district with peace-building knowledge and conflict management skills.  They then expect these grassroots women to fulfill a two part role: first, to address or even mediate issues of conflict that arise in their local communities, and to pass the information on to others, thus expanding the reach of the original training.  In internet language, the generational training would be called “going viral.”

I facilitated the director and program managers through a few hours of developing an effective evaluation program that would be helpful not only to GWED+G but also to its funder, the Netherlands Feminist Foundation (NFF). Especially with the recent NUPI-USAID work, I became aware that NFF would be requiring their own data in their own way; we agreed it would be valuable to approach NFF and ask what form or type of information they would like.

At the end of the meeting, they said they appreciated it and asked if I could assist the development of their mediation training.  Thrilled to be invited, I said yes; it was not until I left the office that I recognized the amount of work this would add on to my ever-expanding list.  And yet, as I recognized this morning when they called, what else am I here to do?  What else would I rather be doing?  Last week, while in Lira for the Lango Peace Forum, I realized that my current work is basically what I want to do with the rest of my life; I have never been so happy to have so little time off.

So this weekend I embark on another laundry list of wonderful work: writing reports for NUPI, preparing for the Northern Uganda Peace Forum (NUPF) Executive Committee meeting, preparing notes and advice for a USAID representative, finalizing documents on the LRA and International Criminal Court, and editing a colleague’s dissertation on reconciliation in northern Uganda.  And, of course, working with whomever calls me tomorrow morning.

March 5, 2007: On Empathy

I speak a lot about empathy, and the concept is certainly on my mind frequently here. It is a huge motivating factor behind my goals and work here, as well as in the rest of my life. But it is an unclear concept.

What is empathy? Is it the ability to understand another person, to say “I understand,” or “That must have been difficult.”  It may be recognizing someone else’s situation, seeing the look on their face and understanding what it feels like to have that look yourself.  It can even take the form of speech, using the same speech patterns that others use. I find myself speaking in Pidgin English around Ugandans, using certain phrases – “What are you having for food tonight?” or “That is very okay” – that we don’t use in America. I was told by a small group of Kampalans that I was the first mzungu they could fully understand, not having to ask “what?” at any point.  And I think it’s true: I’ve picked up on certain speech patterns, the sounds that are emphasized and the words that are not. I use guttural utterances as affirmation in my normal speech now.

One of my favorite (feminist) philosophers, Nell Noddings, wrote that caring means you perceive another’s reality as a possible reality for yourself.  This is directly related to empathy, I think.  But is there any way to really understand the life of a child in an IDP camp, the life of a woman mothering Kony’s children, as a real possibility for myself?  And if not, does that mean I do not care?

I cannot describe caring, or empathy, in a better way.  But I feel it differently. Certainly, I can spend time pondering another’s life as a possibility for me. But that sort of empathy, the contemplative, analytical sort, is only a stepping stone.  Just as my discomfort, my internal turmoil when faced with poverty is not enough, empathy as Noddings describes it, is insufficient.

I say it is insufficient because I truly believe that good thoughts – empathetic thoughts – must directly inform good actions.  In the realm of morals, what is knowledge, what is learning without application? And what are acts that are not informed by such learning?  The goal, I believe, is a moral extension of the academic concept of “Participatory Action Research” (see January 12 entry).  It is this coupling, this mutual inspiration of mind and body, of soul and works.

March 6, 2007

I saw another man missing a leg today.  Back home, this wouldn’t mean much: a physical deformity; maybe an individual who faced an isolated – albeit misfortunate – incident.  Here there is only one reason why people miss limbs.  Hacked off with a machete, dark of night, illuminated only by the flames of his neighbor’s hut and the moon, shining too bright for horrors like this. A leg. An arm. A nose and ear. Burned scars of matted, twisted skin. Horror in its most terrific sense.  I cannot know this horror; based on Noddings, how can I care? Where is the theoretical empathy here?

Homemade wooden crutches don’t support much weight. They don’t have to when their beneficiary’s ribs are so clear.

March 8, 2007

In Northern Uganda, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a dirty word.  When it is brought up, locals and aid workers alike react with disgust, either actively angry or resignedly depressed.  I think most of it is due to a lack of information about the ICC, as I often educate people on what I see as basic aspects of the Court, namely that it  is not a political institution; that it cannot simply withdraw indictments; that its mandate regards the “interests of justice,” not the “interests of peace”.

Why the anger? First off, it is clear how personal the issue is, even for workers who are relatively new to the area.  The ICC is a barrier to peace, they say, and therefore further damages the situation for the populations on the ground.  Because that is personal, anger comes easily.

Is it anger at a perceived damage to the peace process? Yes, of course, but not simply.  Looking at that anger through a conflict management/effective communication lens can be more effective at diagnosing the ailments.  In Beyond Reason, authors Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro of the Harvard Negotiation Project describe five underlying concerns leading to strong emotions that affect our negotiations.  These include: appreciation; affiliation; autonomy; status; and role.

In the aforementioned situation, I believe autonomy is a major player.  Upon issuing indictments, the ICC forces itself on the situation like a juggernaut, unable to cooperate with political institutions, work with local NGOs, or give space for peace negotiations.  In essence, it impinged on the autonomy of the population, governments, and foreign workers while leaving no room for mutual communication.

The cause – or the culprit – is the ICC mandate, which limits its role and prohibits deals or negotiations. It keeps the Court as a court, ideally not beholden to political interests, as all courts ought to be.  The mandate certainly limits how close the ICC can be to other stakeholders; however, it also offers strict, complete rules to deal with the Court.  Because there is a mandate, there are limits to what the ICC can or cannot do.  Thus, those looking for the ICC to withdraw the indictments (illegal) can find the other (legal) ways to address the situation, because these legal mechanisms are outlined in the ICC mandate, the Rome Statute.

And so it comes down to information and communication to address these issues of autonomy.  If those working and living here are concerned about autonomy – having others act upon them without giving them a choice – then, with the right information, they can regain their ability to choose, to make decisions about what and how their lives are affected; they can regain their autonomy.

March 11, 2007

I took a vacation this weekend, heading down to Jinja, the town on Lake Victoria and the mouth of the Nile for two nights.  I spent yesterday rafting, a full day, down rapids of class three, four and even five (class six are waterfalls). Before lunch, in a somewhat more quiet stretch, I jumped overboard. Floating and swimming through the Nile, bouncing through small rapids while monkeys played in the trees around us.  It was a perfect, hot day; the Nile just cool enough to provide a response to the sun’s roasting intensity.

I stayed in a small, one-room bungalow on the banks of the Nile, overlooking Bujagali falls and the sun’s rise and fall along the stretch of river.

It was fantastic to rest up, especially after working intensely for six weeks.  But the experience exposed my loneliness: it is hard to be in so beautiful a place, so perfect a setup, and be all alone without anyone to share the experience with, from the rafting to freshly grilled tilapia and a cold beer.  There are times when this stretch of independence, of complete individuality, grows wearisome. Even in one of the most beautiful spots in the world.

March 14, 2007

Uganda is a young country.  The average age of its 28 million people is fifteen years old, a number lowered by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  It explains why every yard, every street, every house is filled with children, barefoot and wide-eyed.  A recent study claimed that, within twenty years, Uganda will have 100 million people – more than Russia at that point.  In a country about half the size of the state of Oregon, 100 million people seems absurd.  Already there are issues with food, with shelter, throughout the country.  And headlines describing the effects of global warming on Uganda – desertification – come nearly weekly.  The picture is dire.

I now have a strong connection to Uganda, as though I feel at home here. While I plan to return, I don’t know when.  But I simply cannot imagine what this place will look like in five, ten, twenty years. And this is happening all over Africa. It’s scary.

March 19, 2007: Interview

I didn’t get a chance to write over the last few days because I’ve been preparing for an interview for a Reynolds Foundation Fellowship at Harvard University.  The fellowship is in social entrepreneurship, something I know about but did not directly ascribe to my work.  It was a fascinating time preparing: discovering more about the concepts behind social entrepreneurship and learning that, in fact, my work through the Insight Fellowship could be described through these concepts and in this language. After talking it through with Insight President, David, I had some good ideas, phrases, and concepts to utilize during the interview today.

The interview was nerve-wracking: a phone call from some seven or eight Harvard professors, who asked me questions about going to school on the East Coast and my personal motivations as well as what can be done in northern Uganda.  Them sitting formally around a table, in between personal face-to-face interviews; me speaking on my mobile in a shack of an office, under a mango tree in Gulu. Quite a shock.

I’m not happy with some of my comments, not satisfied with my responses, and displeased that I could not be there in person.  At least I’m recognizing a strong pattern: that I’m rarely satisfied with what I do, from interviews to facilitations to pitching in baseball games.  First step: recognize it, name it.  Next step: address it.

March 22, 2007

Things seem to be wrapping up here, both for me and for NUPI.  NUPI’s contract expires on April 15 and so the two main tasks now are to prepare information for the evaluation teams – all four of them – and prepare NUPI’s beneficiaries for the departure.  It is certainly not the most stimulating work; I recently excused myself from another field trip to Kitgum that would have involved meeting the same people and discussing the same issues, just along with a different evaluation team.  Things just move slowly here, as if everyone is ready to write the final report, complete the final asset count, and make the final trip to sub-regions in the north.

Personally, too, I feel ready to wrap up.  After a furious amount of activity over February, my productivity tailed off greatly.  I think it is due in part to having tasks that are less immediate – reports for USAID workers as opposed to facilitations – and in part to my readiness to move on to the next thing.

That being said, I am tired. Over the past ten days, I had significantly less energy focused on what is in front of me. It seems that, with waiting to hear from graduate programs and scholarships, and generally having been away for many months, I am looking back home more often.  I would not say I’m lonely, just that I miss parts of my “normal” life, from family and friends to anonymity and good coffee.

My concern stemming from this is not that I feel this way but rather that I feel considerably less excited about going to Jordan than I did about going to The Hague or Uganda.  One friend here suggested it happens with traveling: the more you travel, the less interesting it becomes to go to new places.  Personally, I believe it is because I am tired and so I have less energy to give to excitement. Or that I am excited about other future situations, namely, graduate school.

At the very least, I think it helps to name how I feel, not to combat it necessarily, but to recognize it. And to start finding the little things about a new culture that I can look forward to.  I think falafel and other middle-eastern foods may start off the list.

March 24, 2007: Development in the North

Since I arrived in Gulu two months ago, the region has been abuzz with discussions about economic development with Juba and southern Sudan.  Because of the vast wealth created by the negotiations in Juba, alongside the development of the town by the Government of South Sudan, there are few resources but much money.  So it becomes natural to see the money flow to northern Uganda and the resources move north across the border.  There are trucks filled with Sudanese coming into town to purchase cheap goods; there are trucks filled with Ugandan goods departing to make good money up north.  People are starting to be reluctant to sell their goods in Uganda because they can make much more money up north; they will keep just enough to feed their families and then export the rest.

While that has the effect of limiting the supply of basic goods in the north, it also starts to bring greater wealth into the region.  Even since I arrived, the social scene in Gulu has changed.  Suddenly, new bars open up and are populated. Multiple clubs stay open until – and past – four in the morning on weekends. After dark, swarms of people still roam the streets.  It seems people in Gulu town now have disposable income.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the cross-border trade between Uganda and Southern Sudan, on the mutual development of Gulu and Juba. Come back in fifteen years – this will all be different.

March 27, 2007

I’m troubled: I’m almost done. I’ve almost left Uganda completely, unsure when I will ever return. And yet there is so much to do here, so much I could do here.  A few weeks ago I thought of lobbying Insight to let me stay for six months and not go to Jordan; could you imagine what I could get done?

Of course I did not seek to stay; accomplishments in one placement are not the only goal of the Fellowship. Still, it is frustrating to feel like I spent a full month in January just preparing, setting everything up, and now I will have to do it again. And even more frustrating when this has been the most rewarding period of my professional life, feeling both effective and appreciated.

March 28, 2007: Some good personal news

I’m ridiculously excited because I just found out that, in addition to being accepted to Harvard to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy, I was awarded a Reynolds Fellowships in Social Entrepreneurship.  What a huge burden relieved to finally know where I will go this fall and what I will study. And it’s wonderful to know that I will be able to work through the Harvard Program on Negotiation and, of course, keep up my work with Insight.

Already I’m looking forward to that life, to what it will hold for me. Imagining my classes, my academic focus, even my apartment.  And yet I still have time here and three months in Jordan. On one hand, it means I can focus wholly on the placements instead of worrying about applying for more scholarships and loans.  On the other, it means a distraction, one I will have to put out of mind.  Whatever it means, right now I’m thrilled. Off to celebrate.