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.