Finding Direction

The Presidents Interfaith and Community service Campus Challenge

Recently I applied to a journalism internship. For the application I wrote a personal bio on why I wanted to be a journalist. I find it fascinating that as we look back on our lives all the small turns, conversations, and moments add up to one clear direction. I wish it was as clear at the beginning as it is in retrospect, alas that would not give me the breadth of experience I need to discern. Sometimes we find out what we shouldn’t be doing before we find what we need to be doing. While each of these jobs and careers were what I needed to do at the time, it wasn’t what I needed to do for all time.

As I negotiated the changes of the last two years I have been reviewing my life searching for patterns, taking the next steps that presented. Working even if I wasn’t sure each step was the right one. This living in ambiguity has been hard and it is revealing an exciting and passionate focus I look forward to developing.

Below is the bio I submitted for my applications. 

The exhumed grave of a child killed at the Lukodi Massacre is an image that will never leave me. While in Uganda, I heard the stories, saw the scars, and visited the graves arising from the 20-year-old conflict.

Nearly 12 years earlier, just three months before the second intifada began in Israel/ Palestine, I visited the closed markets of Hebron. Learning about the history and current situation in Hebron, at 19 years old I became acutely aware of the power of American spending abroad. I also became curious about the role of religion in a conflict, traditionally characterized along religious lines. The next year, in 2001, I began university and a journey to understand the intersection of religion, politics, history, and the people caught in the crossfire.

After my BA in religious studies, still questioning the link between religion, politics, and conflict, I enrolled in graduate school in Northern Ireland. Determined to learn more about the elements of conflict and unwilling to join the vilifying of Islam, I wrote my dissertation on Islamic non-violence in Palestine. I discovered that the lack of evidence and understanding for the complexity of Islam and the Middle East was driving a dangerous rhetoric, which oversimplified and clouded the truth. Newspaper headlines and academia focused on the bleeding headlines and not on the large community of people working to bridge understanding.

I found that each question leads to another question, revealing layers of answers. Ultimately, this questioning and peeling back of answers lead me to believe that the smallest acts can change a world, and an opinion. I also discovered that it is often small acts built up over years that lead to huge changes, good or bad.

This realization is what led me to leave academia and engage in community development, first with AmeriCorps NCCC in Louisiana for hurricane recovery efforts, then in California working with teenagers at a local church. Working with people dedicated to the everyday struggle of doing more with less, I gained a deep appreciation for all that gets accomplished in this world.

I also discovered that time and again I was answering questions and translating for people the reality of working with few resources. After finishing my year of work in Louisiana, friends, family, and strangers asked me how much longer until the recovery would be complete. My response was that I could work my whole life and the recovery would still be incomplete. The problem was not the hurricane; it was a legacy of poverty and neglect.

The six years I spent working with AmeriCorps and other community organizations revealed that while I loved working in the field, I also relished the challenge of digging deeper into the questions surrounding issues. I found myself drawn back to the challenge of distilling large pieces of information to find surprising connections, all for the goal of providing a bite-size nugget to enhance understanding.

This drive brought me to the field where I stood beside the grave of a child in northern Uganda. I wanted to discover what was happening after the conflict was over, to learn how people were reclaiming their lives.

What I discovered was a community struggling to navigate development after the multilateral NGOs had withdrawn. Today, UN envoys use Gulu only as a quick overnight stay on the way to Juba. I saw Americans and others working on the ground to empower people through relatively small, daily acts. I learned how, in the midst of conflict, community workers reached across previously un-crossable divides to find safety for the region’s children.

In Uganda I learned that I needed to be part of the community who translates these events into stories; creating a glimpse of understanding that would otherwise remain clouded in misunderstanding. Bringing these small stories to the world can seem insignificant; yet revealing a new understanding is never a small act.

The Sarajevo Commitment, launched at the 2000 World Media Assembly sums up my professional aim: “We shall combine freedom with responsibility, talent with humility, privilege with service, comfort with sacrifice and concern with courage.”

Light success in Uganda with Solar Lanterns

Graduation at Restore International school

Check out this great video interviewing the class valedictorian at the last graduation from Restore Leadership Academy in Gulu, Uganda.

Obomo-Restore Leadership Academy

Help us grow this story to include many other students.  Burning the midnight oil is not an option for theses students when you can’t afford the repeated purchase of oil or candles.

Help the school purchase solar lanterns for students.

Go to Light Success on Indigogo to donate today.

This Friday is the last day to donate.

Wounded Healers

Alcoholism is bad

On Monday I attended a community meeting about the rise in suicides in the Northern Region.  The community gathered to take action after being shocked by the fact that one sub county recorded 51 suicides in 4 short months.  An article in the local Acholi Times records that 51% of the population know someone who died or disappeared during the 20 year conflict, while physical and/or sexual violence has been witnessed or experienced by nearly all respondents.  It found that 78% suffered from PTSD and 45% suffered from depression.  And while the community settles into peace the rates keep climbing.

While conducting one interview I asked, as we chatted at the end of the conversation, about the person’s family and asking how often they get to see their brothers and sisters. The importance of seeing your family is a strong force here in Uganda.  I was struck by the silence and I immediately wished I had not asked anything so stupid.  He replied that 2 of his sisters had been kidnapped, one died in the bush (with the rebels) while the other returned and immediately moved to a new community with a new family.  His younger brother was also killed and both parents had died.  This man was one of the many community members seeking to bring healing to his community, while also seeking healing and closure for himself.

While the UN, UNICEF, and many conflict and disaster oriented NGO’s begin leaving the area, the population is left to deal with a mental health disaster, as one leader termed the situation.  The rates of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse are also on the rise, but since they are neither reported or broadly seen as anything more than a private matter, the true gravity of that element remains unknown. In fact the rates of suicide are also unknown, since the reporting mechanisms are either not present or functioning and in many cases the cause of death is kept as a family secret.

Through my conversations, and by attending the full day community meeting, I have seen that the community is searching for a way to help the community heal. Caritas (the Catholic international aid group) has trained community leaders to identify and help treat community members. Through their program they have not created new social help groups, they have instead used the existing social structures and given them the psychosocial tools needed to counsel members, and refer when necessary.  This method has helped prevent further stigmatization of victims and has further strengthened the community leadership’s ability to meet the communities needs.  Caritas goal is to give wounded healers the skills they need to heal and be healed.  The social workers at Caritas are amazing. This and other local groups regionally are working to address the unmet needs of the community.

This new disaster is yet another example, for the people here, that the International NGO’s that have left, did so with out properly preparing the community. The IDP (internally displaced camps) were shut down and the people told to go home after being away from home for 15 years. The Ugandan government also has been ineffective in addressing the situation of the people.  The people have witnessed terrible violence at the hands of both the rebels and the government soldiers. They experienced terrible deprivation in the camps, disease and violence was rampant.  And now a new disease, nodding disease, is further terrifying the community.

An interesting theme that has emerged time and again is the need to not only tend to people’s physical needs but to attend to their spiritual brokenness as well.  This is stemming from several factors.  A conservative religious community that truly sees prayer as THE answer to people’s woes, and a more moderate religious community that acknowledges the brokenness people feel after witnessing such tragedy is part of a complex set of problems.  Also a deep traditional culture that points to the existence of restless spirits who’se bodies have not been tended, or have suffered. These spirits then continue to visit the people and cause trouble, until their bodies or grievances have been addressed.

How the international community can help address these issues, when we so entirely expunge the spiritual element from our understanding of health and healing, is a question I have yet to answer. There are movements to comprehensively include the spiritual realm in the medical profession and I hope that this will continue, though they still have far to go.

As I begin to wrap up my time here in Gulu I will carry with me the wounded people who are also called to heal others, while they themselves seek healing.

Language and National Unity

Avoid disappointment

So I have been in Uganda for over a month now, which means my time is nearing the halfway point.  Once I arrived I began learning to speak one of 40 languages.  I began with Lugandan, learning Oliotiya “hello, how are you?” Jendi “I’m fine.” And Wabale “thank you.”  Once I arrived in Bwindi, the southwest region, there was a whole new language to speak.  Rukiga.  Along with the translations of the above, I learned such fun phrases as, “are you strong?”

Now I am in Gulu, where they speak Acholi, as part of the Luo language family.  In the south people speak Bantu, which has a number of smaller sub-languages. It’s like I learned Italian, moved to France a week later, and am now in Germany. So I have a few more pages filling with phrases and responses.  Though because Gulu was once considered the NGO capitol of the world, and it is the regional city, a lot of people speak English.

Here is what I find interesting about the languages in Uganda.  Of the 40 indigenous languages, none are the official languages. Instead, the 2 official languages are English and Swahili.  All of school, from Primary 3 onward is conducted in English, and the tests to approve your advancement are also in English.  To be taken seriously in business you must be able to speak fluent English.

A primary way to create a national identity is through language, and education is the primary vehicle for that transmission. This is why some people in the US are worried about losing the US (read White) identity if we start conducting education in anything but English. With English skills being so pivotal to academic success and then to business success, the fact that the public schools are incredibly deficient. The government frequently takes 6 months or more to pay the teachers and staff.  Parents are spending money for private schools, which also has trouble paying the teachers, to give their children a chance at higher education.  The division that has the potential to be created is astounding.

I heard a phrase that is common in Africa.  “If you want to hide something from an African, just write it down.” The phrase, in this incidence, was used to remind teachers to give examples and explain processes to the students.  However it struck me as pointing to the deficiency of the education system and the culture of illiteracy.  Ugandan’s, even the educated rarely read for pleasure.  So let’s add to this shortfall, the demand to learn a foreign language.

When you study European history the ruling class were the only ones that could read and write, not only because of access, but also because it was all in Latin.  Then came writers like Dante Alighieri, who was one of the first authors to write in the vernacular in the Middle Ages. He wrote in Italian versus the Latin. In addition to the fact that his work The Divine Comedy lambasted religious and political leaders, it was the mode of delivery that scandalized the elite. There are still issues in Spain and Italy with some groups speaking a different language and the government trying to “control” the population. In some of these regions it was/is illegal to speak the indigenous language. See Sardinia and the Basque just to name two.

The conflict in northern Uganda began from years of under and misrepresentation of the northern districts, by the government in the south. This was heightened, if not created, by the British playing the two regions off each other.  The question I have today is, have these grievances truly been addressed.  Kony was chased out (currently in the Central African Republic), and his brutal tactics undermined any political motivations he had.  However, his predecessors in the conflict were motivated by distrust and anger towards the government in the south.  I can’t help but wonder if language divisions are playing into this conflict.


* A note about the picture. At every school I have visited there are instructional signs posted throughout the grounds.  Most refer to AIDS, Pregnancy, but some like this one are broader in their appeal. Given the above quote about hiding knowledge, the schools and health organizations try to combat this, through huge bilboards in the villages that visually show good hygiene and getting tested with your partner.