Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Cleansing Ceremony

In post-conflict Uganda, dealing with the past is a highly politicized process. As a result, this is going to be a picture-less post, and I will keep the name and details of the community anonymous. To give some background, in the 20 year war between government forces (NRA) and the Lord's Resistance Army, the communities suffered greatly. People lost their land and their livelihoods, they were killed, tortured, and raped. As the Acholi saying goes, "When two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that suffers." And they continue to suffer from untreated war injuries, economic hardship, and the memories of what happened to them. In one community we interviewed in the very beginning of my time here, they had expressed the desire for a traditional cleansing ceremony to clear their village of the spirits they were being haunted by, related to the conflict. They organized the event, with the support of RLP (transportation etc.) and invited us to attend.

I have spent the last year studying these ceremonies, how they are performed, and the impact they have on the communities to perform them. The conclusion I had come to is that whether you believe in spirits or not, whether you could understand these rituals or could not, these ceremonies have a massive impact on community healing, the ability to welcome back former child soldiers, and the opportunity for reconciliation. I could not pass up the opportunity to go, but I did have to prepare myself; I was going to see an animal get sacrificed. Not just one, but two. Now, I have been a vegetarian for nine years for many reasons, one of which is certainly my love for animals. And while I have never looked down on anyone else for eating meat, this was taking it to an entirely different level. My goals for the day were: don't freak out, don't try to set the animals free, and don't try to save them when the time comes for the sacrifice. While these are my impulses, they are in direct conflict with my belief that these ceremonies are important and can help people overcome the things they have gone through. 

We woke up early and left at 6:30am to head to the village. The start of the day was being guided through the events that had taken place during the war, and how these related to the community's current situation; seeing spirits at night, hearing things on the roof, etc. The areas where events had occurred were areas where many community members would not set foot. We went to the sites, we heard the stories from two survivors, and we were able to ask questions and document different information about the site. The elders then arrived and were formally introduced. The purposes and processes of the ceremony were described, as well as the history and effects of the war on the community, and then we all went down to the site; elders, community members, and observers. 

The sacrifice is symbolic of innocence and suffering, and for this particular ceremony, the cleansing of an area, it required a goat and a sheep. It is done quickly and skillfully, and is performed by the elders in the clan. While  I tried to keep my distance, I saw more than I had hoped to. I did, however, handle it well. After the sacrifice, the elders went to the different sites and performed the rituals, and then the animals were prepared for a feast. This, I was able to avoid. I sat on the grass behind a tree out of view of the preparation. We were then called to the organizers house, where we talked and ate with the elders. After we were done (I managed to politely decline the meat portion of the meal), myself and a coworker went outside to interview the community and document their stories. This was my favorite part. He is part of the media team, and creates these fantastic short films to give voice to the community's perspective on a variety of issues related to the conflict. It was wonderful to see him work and see how he interacts with people. During the interviews there was no way to translate, but he shared their stories with me after each interview. While the stories are full of pain and suffering, there is this resiliency there and a desire to share their story to help others. And there was a lot of resiliency on his part too; he hears these stories every day, and handles them with compassion and a great deal of hope.

As we waited for our ride to return, we laid on a mat on the grass, and reflected on the day. We discussed when we would return and see whether the ceremony had been effective, what went well and what could've been done better, and the differences between this ceremony and the one that had been done previously. Another NGO had attempted a ceremony before, but the community explained that they did it without everyone present (many were still in Internally Displaced Person camps), and it was not done properly. The result was anger in the community and the spirits haunting them remained. This was another example of how important it is to know the cultural context, and with RLP's approach, I'm confident that this one went better than the last. I hope I get the chance to find out while I'm still here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On to Fort Portal

500 year old tree, Semliki National Forest

This kind of work can take a toll on you. After listening to and documenting the many tragic stories about the war, the failure of previous NGOs, the current economic distress, untreated war injuries, and mental health issues, I was beginning to feel a bit helpless with a touch of disenchantment. The RLP offices all close for one week every year, so I decided to travel, as much as I could. So on a much needed break, I went with some friends to Fort Portal, perhaps one of the more touristy areas of Uganda. I was told  that this area was always favored, and not just because of the tourism. This was evident in the  paved roads and two story buildings--an entirely different experience from Gulu. After a 9 hour long bus ride through Kampala, we landed in Fort Portal. First stop, pizza. Oh, how I could write this entire blog about food; the things I miss, the things I ate in Fort Portal, the food I dream about at night. But I digress. I will say the pizza was phenomenal, and I went to the same place every day I was there, fully aware that it might be my only opportunity until I am home to have my favorite food.

Our first hike: Fort Portal,
1 mile straight up

Kibale National Forest

While in Fort Portal, we ventured to Kibale national park, the Rwenzori mountains, and Semliki national park. The Kibale rainforest was absolutely beautiful, dense and full of forest elephants prints and monkeys in the canopy. We stayed at a place right on the outskirts of the rainforest, and went on a night walk where we saw a genet and bush babies. At Semliki we saw hot springs where rituals are still performed by the Bamaga clan. But perhaps my favorite part was hiking through villages on the outskirts of Bundibugyo trying to find the Bwamba Pass through the mountains. The people were kind and curious, and made sure we found our way. 

The Female Hot Spring, Semliki

As the week came to a close, we made our way back to Kampala for a night. It was interesting to see how I had changed since I had last been there. I was no longer fearful of the capital city, and being there felt completely normal. I had wanted to see the friends I made in my first days in Uganda, but in such a short time it wasn't possible. I did, however, find my favorite boda drive again. I stocked up on books and granola and loofas, and then we made our way back to Gulu. Despite how nice it was to have pizza, to hike, explore, and relax, I found myself missing the people, dirt roads, and feel of Gulu town. As I was warmly greeted by the people at my guesthouse, I realized I was happy to be back. I felt recharged, refreshed, and ready to do more work. 

Bwamba Pass, Rwenzori Mountains

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Apwoyo: A Day in the Life

The National Memory & Peace documentation Centre, RLP, Kitgum, Uganda

My second post comes during one of those rare occasions when I simultaneously have stable power and internet. It is incredible how quickly you get used to having neither, but as soon as you get word of wi-fi, or the lights turn on, you pounce on your pile of electronics that lie in wait in the corner of the guesthouse. So what could I possibly be doing in lieu of the internet, you ask?

A chicken roams our guesthouse in Kitgum.
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Dunlap
I wake up at 7am and drink my morning nescafe to the sound of roosters crowing. Despite what I initially thought, this is not just a morning occurrence. As I finish up this post in mid-afternoon, I am listening to no less than three roosters. On weekdays I walk to the Refugee Law Project  (RLP) office among goats and chickens, and either spend my day at the compound or get into the RLP  truck and head to surrounding villages.  I have spent the majority of my time in the field meeting people who were greatly affected by the war, conducting interviews and focus group discussions around psychosocial healing, and meeting with local officials.  One thing became clear within the first week at RLP: I love this work more than anything I have ever done.

After work and on weekends I spend much of my time in town and in the marketplace (my negotiating skills are flawless, thanks to Kevin Welber and Craig Zelizer), as well as learning Luo, the local language of the Acholi. The title of this blog post, apwoyo, means thank you, and I say it about 30 times a day: to my coworkers, to boda boda drivers, to the women in the market, to people in the villages. This, I’ve found, is the most vital word in my vocabulary. And there is a lot to be thankful for. I’ve met many incredible human beings, all of whom have helped me, made me feel welcome, and shown me hidden places where I can find yoga mats, grapes, mustard and hot sauce. They have made sure I was safe, called me to see how I am doing, and stopped by just to say hello. They have made this place a home.

Help did arrive, and this baboon joined us
for part of the ride

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far came on the way to Gulu, when our car broke down on the side of the road. Our four hour journey became a ten hour one, and at some point while we were waiting for help, unsure if it ever would arrive, my colleague, good friend, and companion on this journey, Chelsea Dunlap, turned to me and said “don’t think about it too much.” This has become my motto. Every day there are times when I have no clue how things are going to turn out or any sense of what is going to happen next.  After the trip to Gulu I have learned to simply go with it. It has made life far more enjoyable, and certainly isn’t context specific. There are many times in the US where adopting this attitude would make a world of difference.

What is context specific is peacebuilding. Theoretically, I knew this. This is one of the principles the Conflict Resolution program is built on: a community driven approach is the best way to achieve sustainable peace. But in practice, this has proven even more profoundly important than I could have known. The staff at RLP in Gulu are Acholi, and as a result the work they do is deeply rooted in the culture, the context, and the history of the Acholi people. This has made all the difference. When we meet with communities in the surrounding areas, they all have stories about the failure of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to actually help, and in many instances the NGOs have done more harm than good. They have frequently approached things without this cultural context, and the result was failed projects and a breach of trust between the community and the organizations. This brought me to my second lesson: always listen. 

A village we visited during
the Institute for African Transitional Justice

During my second week here, while I was participating in the Institute for African Transitional Justice, we listened to survivors of the war who had constructed their own memorial sites to remember the dead and the missing, created their own support groups, and had started their own advocacy networks. It became abundantly clear that the last thing they needed was for someone to come in and tell them what to do. They know what they need, and the best thing the international community can possibly do is to listen.

One month in, and the roosters have become part of the background hum of life. The red dirt roads and mango trees have become my scenery, and people in local stores and caf├ęs  know my name. I have danced a traditional Acholi dance, and eaten more local food in huts and houses than I can recall. I wake up every day with apwoyo at the ready, grateful for the nine weeks I have left here.  

View from Guru-guru mountain

Until the next time power and internet unite!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Journey to Kampala

The weeks leading up to my departure wavered between utter excitement and sheer terror. I obsessively went over my checklist: bug spray, sunscreen, clothes, money, passport, first aid kit, emergency numbers, medication, shoes—check, check, and check. I researched everything I could find about Uganda, and went through every scenario I could think of. Still, I felt wholly unprepared.  But before I knew it, I was boarding a plane at Logan airport, as ready as I would ever be.  My first journey abroad had begun, first stop, Canada. And the first thing I do? Go through a do not enter door because I can’t read French, and get screamed at by security. I totally got this.

Air Canada international flights are a whole different breed than their domestic flights: colorful ambiance lighting, comfy seats, pillows and blankets. I usually do not fly well, to say the least. But this was an entirely different experience. Eighteen hours of travel time in, I had my face pressed against the plane window, and could not stop smiling. I was taking everything in—the full moon, the clouds, any glimpse of the continent I could see. It was then it finally sunk in: I am going to Uganda, my home for the next three months. My dream is finally coming true. Sleep deprived and full of gratitude, I felt ready.

My good friend and fellow classmate, Alex, accompanied me on the last leg of the journey, and we made our way to a guesthouse in Entebbe for the night. I slept beneath the mosquito netting with life chirping all around me in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Like the wonderful friend that he is, Alex had planned the first night as a way to ease me into the Ugandan experience. This became abundantly clear as we made our way to Kampala the next morning: the scenery gradually transformed from peaceful paradise to utter chaos. Cars, boda boda’s (motorcycle taxis), people, and animals everywhere. I loved every second of it. At first the city appeared to have no rhyme or reason, but there is a rhythm to it, and everyone is in tune. Two days in the city and I am already madly in love. 

I spent today at Owino market, a giant crowded space with everything you could imagine—clothes, food, bikes, herbs, drums, unidentified objects. Then we were off to Gaddafi Mosque (the second largest mosque in Africa), which offered the most incredible 360 view of the city. By the end of the day I found myself comfortable on the back of a boda boda, and gradually loosened my white-knuckle death grip on the bar behind my seat. I was even able to navigate my way around the city. I began to feel like I do, in fact, totally got this. 

The view from Gaddafi Mosque (Owina Market is to the left)

Now I sit on the porch of my guesthouse, the night creeping into the corners of the sky, contemplating what Gulu will bring. I leave on Monday morning to officially start my internship, and I no longer feel that sheer terror. I am ready for my Gulu adventure. While I will miss this city, I simply cannot wait to see what happens next.