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!

1 comment:

  1. I am so proud of you! This is so descriptive - I can picture you there and know you are in the right place ...