Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Peace Camp 2011 - the Greater North Uganda

'Messiahs' - my group (self-named by campers) for Peace Camp 2011

For over two decades the genocidal LRA war has brought death daily to northern and northeastern Uganda. The war in northern Uganda has been called the most neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today. For the past 23 years the LRA and the Government of Uganda have been waging a war that has left nearly two million innocent civilians caught in the middle. The Government of Uganda's attempt to protect its citizens from this rebel militia has largely failed, resulting in an entire generation of youth that has never known peace.

Since 1986 the LRA has terrorized northern Uganda to the point where in 2001 after the Patriot Act was established, the LRA and their leader Joseph Kony were officially declared a terrorist organization. This was a huge step in drawing attention to the conflict and the atrocities committed by the LRA. Finally in 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders.

As of 2006 active fighting, child night commuters and pillaging has stopped in northern Uganda. Kony and the LRA have moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo and are currently terrorizing the Central African Republic. Though the fighting has stopped and 'peace' has returned to northern Uganda the lasting emotional, physical and psychosocial damage is still present.**

It was due to this last emotional effect on the greater north that some amazing Peace Corps Volunteers in the northern region got together to figure out how they could better help the war effected youth of their area. Building a Peace Camp model off the organization Seeds of Peace which started as a summer camp in rural Maine for Israeli and Palestinian youths and has now expanded to work with youth in many conflict or post-conflict areas, was these volunteer's idea. Luckily, they were able to make their dream a reality and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.

The camp brought together 80 youths from the Acholi, Langi, Iteso and Alur tribes which greatly represent the people of northern Uganda. The youth were ages 15 to 19 and had been effected by the war in their lives to some capacity. The goal of the camp was to create a safe space for the campers to build their leadership skills, self-esteem and ability to go back to their home communities and become peace makers while learning emotional coping mechanisms and the tools to forgive so that they can have inner peace and be successful in whatever they put their minds to. The camper groups were mixed with youths from different tribes which was a great assets to the success of the camp because the youths were able to make friends outside their tribes and dispel rumors or misconceptions they had about each other.

Each day started with a morning assembly and then moved on to scheduled activities such as group reflection sessions lead by a counselor, arts and crafts project, sports time, ropes course for team building and self empowerment, a theater group preforming socially minded dramas (i.e. about marital issues, rape, bullying in schools, etc.) followed by reflection session and evening reflection ceremonies that fit with the theme of the day. It was a jam packed week for the campers and staff, but by the end of the week we all realized how special this experience was for everyone and the growth we saw in the campers as a whole was astounding.

Opening of Camp:

At the opening ceremony for the camp we gathered all the campers, counselors and staff together to listen to speakers from the surrounding Gulu area about the importance of friendship and moving forward as peacemakers in their home communities. After the speakers the campers from tribal region came in front of the camp to sing their tribal national anthem. We finished up the ceremony with Breakdancers for Peace which the campers loved!

Morning Assembly:

Every morning two camper groups lead the morning assembly. They would help raise the Ugandan flag as well as lead the camp in the national anthem. This was in hopes to help build country unity within the campers which has been missing from northern Uganda for around two decades.

Activities Throughout the Week:

There was a peace banner for camp that every camper could add their name to on the last day of camp for a week well done!

At the beginning of the week every camper picked another camper's name out of a hat. This camper was then their peace friend. During the week the campers were to check in on how their peace friend was doing emotionally and socially without letter the other person know they were their secret friend. During the week there were art session where the campers got to decorate and then write a letter to their secret friend to give to them at the end of the camp week.

Sports time was something the campers loved and were able to let loose from the long and emotional (but extremely positive and productive) days.

At the end of each day was a closing ceremony that had to do with the theme of the day. The themes of the day all built up towards the last them of forgiveness and moving forward. On this day the theme was remembrance and at the end of the day the camp got into a large circle and lit a candle to remember a person they lost during the war. After a moment of silence the campers blew out their candles and were greeted by the message that they will always have these people in their hearts and to live as peace makers to make them proud.

Cultural Exchange - Tribal Dance:

During the first two nights of camp we had cultural exchange night. This is were the campers from the different tribes got in front of the camp to show the other campers their different tribal dances and songs. A cultural leader was also present for these presentations to teach the youth about their heritage. Due to the war a lot of the culture has been lost to the youth and it is now that they are trying to regain a sense of unity within their tribe. Showing these different tribal cultures to all the campers hopefully brought light to how all the campers come from the same place of tradition and can grow to respect each other once again.

Langi Tribal Dance

Alur Tribal Dance

Iteso Tribal Dance

Acholi Tribal Dance

The Recreation Project:

For one day during camp my group got to visit The Recreation Project in Gulu Town. The Recreation Project brings together many people from northern Uganda, but mostly youth to inspire them to overcome fear and patterns of war through active healing experiences. The Project uses facilitators trained to work with people effected by the war to go through team building exercises and related the experience back to personal growth, healing and moving forward as well as giving the youth a positive self-esteem filled (and extremely fun) day!

Working as a team to balance the seesaw! We did it!

The start of the blind man walk - learning to trust.

The group circle - they all have a part to play as peacemakers and working together is key.

Team cheer part way through the day - the group really bonded and came together.

All the campers and staff got to zip-line at the only zip-line in East Africa at the end of the day. The campers loved it and needless to say so did I!

End of week Peace Camp Project:

My group the 'Messiahs' decided to do a play that encompassed many skills that they learned during the week about being peace makers in their communities. The play was written and acted out by the group without my or my Ugandan counterpart's help. The play was about a father and mother who did not love each other anymore and created a violent house hold for their children. The father did not want to send his girls to school and he boozed a lot. One night on the way home from the bar he got very sick and passed out on the road. After waking up in the hospital with his wife by his side they met with a counselor to talk about their issues as a family. After a long talk they reconciled and the father agreed to send the daughters to school.

After the play was over my camper group got together to explain what peace meant to them to the whole camp. The turned the word peace into a poem that read like this:

P- ositive people who
E - ncourage
A - citivism against
C - ommunity
E - rosion

Needless to say their play was powerful and even though they did not win the camp competition I was extremely proud of them.

Group Fun:

I was very blessed to get to know my group during the week of camp. I had some definite leaders that were very talkative from the start and some campers that came out of their shell throughout the week. It was amazing to see how much each of them grew individually throughout the week.

Most of my campers had been effected by the war in a major way. They had lost their parents and some had walked into their house to find them dead. I had night commuters - children who would leave their homes before nightfall to go to a 'safe house' to hide so that the LRA would not come and kidnap them to be child soldiers. [The LRA kidnapped children because to gain rank in the LRA you had to build what they referred to as a 'big family' or train many soldiers. This is why so many children were taken - to build forces and the kidnappers power within the LRA.] Within my group I had abandoned children and former child soldiers - one who spent 5 years in the bush. I also had two campers who did not feel comfortable telling their stories, but from what I know they were horrific on any humanitarian standard.

One of my campers challenged me the whole week in the sense that he would not talk with me. I would ask him questions and all I would get was a nod or a head shake. When it came time to share within the group he would remain quiet. I let him remain quiet because this week was about his personal growth and I could tell he was following along with the sessions and group work. At the end of the week after the closing ceremony the campers were asked to do a mad-lib poem. They answered random questions that the answers filled into a poem about camp and becoming peacemakers at home. My group picked up on this fairly fast and did a very good job. Before leaving the room at the end of the activity to move to the dance party the camper I could not get to speak came up to me in perfect English and said: "Rebecca I would love it if you read my poem" and handed me his paper. As I read through his poem I realized how much he had internalized and learned throughout the week and how much he had to forgive and wanted to forgive in his life. He expressed the desire to become a peacemaker and stated that he was going to do so. I do not know if it was because I was super hungry or tired, but that moment touched me deeply and brought me to tears. After camp I learned that he went back to his community and lead a session for other youth on trust and forgiveness. I could not be any prouder or honored to know this young man.

I loved my group and this experience. I feel I got so much out of it - almost more than the campers. I believe the people and tribes of northern Uganda are ready for change and peace. Hopefully the youth can be cultivated to create this change. I cannot wait for next year - Peace Camp 2012.

** If you would like to learn more about the LRA conflict in northern Uganda here are some great resources - though most lay heavily on the Acholi Tribe please understand that this war effected the Langi, Alur and the Iteso as well:
  1. Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children by Faith McDonnell and Grace Akallo [Very focused on Christian Faith - by two authors. I found the personal story by Grace Akallo very moving and worth reading this book.]
  2. Trail Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army by Tim Allen
  3. War Dance (documentary film by Shine Global) I HIGHLY RECOMMEND

Monday, August 29, 2011

It's Time to Play Some Basketball

The basketball court is officially finished!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Public Opinion of Behavior Change

I try really hard to keep up with current events while I am here in Uganda. Sometimes I feel so displaced from what is going on in the rest of the world because when I am out in my community it is not the easiest to access current world news unless spending an arm and leg for internet time. Frankly, what it boils down to is I need to invest in a radio so I can listen to BBC, but until that day I will continue to get my news from the internet. One place I like to read periodically is the World Policy Journal's blog. A couple of weeks back there was an interesting editorial post by an RPCV writer entitled "The U.S.'s Failed HIV Policy". She was a volunteer that served in Botswana which is a country that has had a comparably large HIV infection rate since epidemiological data has been recorded. This is vastly different from Uganda's story mostly due to the Ugandan people being more open to helping themselves and changing risky behaviors to safer solutions when it comes to their sexual behavior. Though in no way am I saying Uganda is perfect and/or not still facing challenges.

This particular article was frustrating for me to read because as a current PCV who is a PEPFAR funded PCV (PEPFAR gives so much money to fund certain community health volunteer spots per Peace Corps Program) as well as a PCV who is working for an organization that is funded by PEPFAR and U.S. Military HIV Research Program I disagree with her stance on U.S. involvement in international communities regarding HIV/AIDS interventions. The author stated that Botswana has failed to decrease their infection rate due to lack of behavior change within the local community. She attributes this to the fact that PEPFAR, which is the program that supplies most of the HIV/AIDS program money to African countries (Uganda receives $300 million annually), has behavior change messages focusing around abstinence, being faithful and use of a condom (ABC's) that were never tested in the U.S. community or international community before being put into practice. She attributes these beliefs to be American and that trying to change the morals and values of a traditional African society is the wrong way to insure development. However, the ABC's model I would argue is not placing American morals and values on this society more so giving people a model of safe sexual behavior to follow for a better chance at a healthy sexual lifestyle. It is said that the ABC's model stems from Christian ideals about safe sex and perhaps I have less frustration with this model here in Uganda than the writer did in Botswana because Uganda is a predominately Christian society at 85.2% of it's population following the religion.

During her Peace Corps service the writer spoke of seeing the issues with U.S. funded HIV/AIDS work in her host country and so to try and help her community more she started to focus on women's empowerment. This is because it is a male dominated society in Botswana and when it comes to sexual practices and behaviors the men hold all the cards. Her project and many more of it's kind aims to be sustainable long term though the end result of the empowerment takes a very long time to reach. This is because the main goal is behavior change and that takes time. However, what the author did not mention is that PEPFAR allots part of it's annual Abstinence and Being Faithful (A/B) budget as well as Other Prevention Activities (O/P) budget to incorporating gender and development activities related to HIV/AIDS as well as creating empowerment projects in local communities. If a current PCV were to write a grant being funded by PEPFAR they now have to included both gender and development life skills and women empowerment into their project or they will not receive funding. Personally, the Youth Center where I work is funded out of the A/B and O/P budget and part of my job is to insure that those programs are being implemented in my community as it relates to HIV/AIDS and gender. Quite frankly I think in a male dominated society you can empower the women as much as possible, but if the men do not accept their new lease on life than the work will not improve the lives of the women involved. More effort needs to be placed on educating men on how to be a better member of the community, friend, lover and husband while also working with women in the same community to greet the goal of behavior change and a lower infection rate.

I think if you look at any development model long enough you can say that their mission and implementation is not the best for the community at large because it disagrees with local cultural beliefs and practices, but I think something important to remember is that prevention strategies are set by the funders and not implemented by them. Workers on the ground level are having the impact on the community: they know what the community responds best to, what they need and what they want as far as education, VCT and condom distribution. I believe that if you have an effective way of teaching health education while implementing the goals of the funding organization then the sustainable behavior change impact can happen.

Though I guess it all boils down to the authors first point: that you can not help people who do not want to help themselves. This is a challenge in any development work and present on anyone's mind who is working abroad. Overall the intentions of development organizations are good even if their models are not up to par with everyone's public opinion.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Funday

I had a girls night with my friends here in Nakaliro this evening and I can now successfully say bowling (plastic bottles and a Disney Princesses beach ball) and the 'Chubby' joke have been brought to Nakaliro in style.

Making the bowling cards

Showing me how to model

My kitchen is their catwalk - hotsteppers


Interview Questions

So whenever I have been in an interview I have always mentally prepared myself for the difficult questions - whatever they might be. An interview is a time to sell yourself, speak honestly and humbly of your strengths and highlight your weaknesses with a positive spin. That's why when myself and my counterparts interviewed 22 new youth for the position of Youth Center Volunteers I decided to give them the hard questions. Through the somehow language barrier I was able to ask questions like, "if you could be any type of food what would you be and why?" and "if you were abandoned on a desert island for the rest of your life and all your basic needs where met what three items would you want with you?". Now, during this day I asked a question and I believe I got the best response I will ever receive. The conversation went a little something like this:

Me: If you could have witnessed any period in history what would it have been and why?

Interviewee: It would have been the year 1723. (Long pause) No, I mean the year 1836 in Uganda.

Me: Okay...(confused face)...why?

Interviewee: Well in that year a man from America - no wait from Britain came to Uganda. He traveled all around Uganda and brought with him something special. He brought people with him that I would say were small - very small. They were so small that in Britain they were in something called a circus.

Me: That is very interesting. Have you ever seen these 'small people' before?

Interviewee: They are extinct. So no I haven't, but would have loved to.

So not only did this interviewee say that the time in history he would have liked to live in was when midgets were brought to Uganda from England, but also that midgets are extinct. Priceless.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

One Year

As of today my Peace Corps group has spent one year in Uganda! It has been a journey full of ups and downs, a change in Country Director and many fun memories we have made together. We came in with 45 of us and we are still 45 strong today. I can't wait to share another year and three months together! You all rock my socks.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ryan & Rebecca Build a Basketball Court Part 3

Ryan Luckie and I have had an exciting three or so weeks - construction of the basketball court started! The process has been long with much effort on our parts, but the construction has been basically snafu free. We based our standards for the surface on international playground specs for basketball courts with it being an international sized court with NBA measurements regarding the line painting. It should be finished completely next week including the site cleaning and warranty agreement. This has been the biggest financial and comprehensive project I have had in country so far and I'm proud of how Ryan and I have handled the hurdles that have come along away. We still need to get pads for the poles which will have positive HIV prevention messages branded on them as well as having the Artivists/3 in 1 Art Project create a center court drawing with a positive message. Upon completion we will be having an official launch of the court where the Ugandan professional teams will be coming to play while having Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) as well as the mobile MMC van present for circumcision services. The court will be used to promote teaching OVC's about HIV prevention and general health through sports as well as having basketball clinics, girls and boys tournaments, pick-up games and general shenanigans.

Excavation for the court begins

Once the court was excavated the leveling needed to occur

The base layer of dirt needed to be compacted. Once that was done the thick aggregate base could be layed which also needed to be compacted to the best possible tightness (for lack of a better smart sounding engineering word).

Thick aggregate being laid and compacted

This man worked through an unusually hot day in Kayunga for the rainy season starting - mixing the tarmac surface.

Tarmac surface being laid with a 2% slope for water drainage

Compacting tarmac surface

Tarmac done and the pole base supports ready for the poles

Separate cement base supports for the poles

Two pole spring reinforced rim basketball goal - chain link nets to come once they are in stock

Laying the finishing touches on the separate cement base support for the goal posts

Washing the cement stains off the court in preparation for painting the lines

Measuring the three point line from the center line

Lining the court

A very awkward group photo with the engineers and Josh. Now I say awkward because before this photo we had an hour meeting to fix issues Ryan and I had about their construction not following our Requirement of Requirements (scope of building) and then after a stern talk from me the head engineer joyfully asked for a picture. Guess I'm not that scary....

Josh helping mark out the lines :)