Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some thoughts on the Kony 2012 campaign

My biggest problem with the "Stop Kony 2012" video is that it paints this picture of Uganda, the region, and the situation with this one-dimensional brush that fails to tell the whole story and leaves the viewer (and the future advocate) sorely misinformed.  Yes, it's hard to explain the whole story and all the players involved in a simple You Tube video, but I think they have a responsibility (if they trying to be the voice of the problem to the rest of the world) to leave people a little more informed.  

I think it's great that people are starting to notice and become more aware of Kony and the LRA, but the situation, both politically and logistically, in Uganda, Sudan and the Congo is more complex than the video leads people to believe.

If someone is hiding out in the DRC (or South Sudan, or the Central African Republic - because nobody really knows where exactly and what country exactly he is in) and they don't want to be found, it is going to take a lot more than this to find and capture him. Despite how crazy he seems, Kony is smart and has had over two decades to hone his skills. He is hiding (or so we believe) in an area that houses the borders of 4 different countries and uses violence and intimidation to force villages and people to cooperate with him and to hide his movements. Not only that, but the terrain is unbelievably hard and unforgiving and does more to hide Kony than to find him.

 Some facts that people may not know:
(i) The situation today in Northern Uganda and in Gulu Town (which Invisible Children highlighted in their video) is drastically different than it was when they first began their campaign. Gulu Town today is more “Aid Relief Central” with much of that focusing on post-LRA issues.  And while that’s certainly needed, there are other, often more significant problems facing the community. Now, Gulu has the highest rate of child prostitutes in Uganda and also one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates.  There is also malaria, people dying of simple, preventable diarrhea and mothers dying in childbirth when, if given even the most basic of pre- and post-natal care, they should live.

(ii) The Ugandan army pushed the LRA out of Uganda and has kept them out for the past 6 years.  There have been multiple military attempts at capture in the past and all have failed.  In fact, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has had a number of soldiers deployed in the area to assist the Ugandan army for years. In 2008, AFRICOM was even involved in a military push to take out the LRA once and for all.  All efforts thus far, including AFRICOM’s 2008 effort code named Operation Lightning Thunder, have failed.

 I have a hard time believing that signing a pledge, buying an action kit (with bracelets!) for $30, and signing up to donate will do much to actually help the fighting on the ground. The film's goal of raising awareness so that President Obama and Congress doesn't pull funding and thus troops from the region is misleading as well. In a recent interview with reporters from all over Africa (the interview can be found in the newspaper The Daily Monitor), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Karl Wycoff said that the effort is "part of a comprehensive and long term strategy." At this point, there is nothing to indicate that the United States has any plans to cancel the effort.

 While I applaud and support any effort to stop Kony, I have to wonder, when Kony either drops dead or is captured and executed, what will happen to all these people calling out to help Uganda? There are more problems in Uganda than just Kony (who isn't even in Uganda anymore).  Debilitating poverty, a serious joke of a democracy, Museveni clinging to power at any cost (25 years and running strong!), rampant corruption at all levels of the government and education system, easily preventable diseases killing scores of people every day, and widespread human rights abuses are just some of the problems that Uganda will continue to face long after the goals of many aid agencies have been completed. Will they stay to help, or will they abandon the country that they so claim to want to protect?

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. But that idea, that poor people have “nothing” is inherently false and moreover often damaging to those they are trying to help.  Poor people don’t have nothing; they have ideas, skills that one may not recognize or appreciate, they have drive and knowledge of the situation that far exceeds your often myopic view.  Good development work is often rooted in how we can help individuals help themselves.  It’s training and brainstorming and a cooperative effort.  It’s not “let me give you these things” without thinking of what happens when you leave.  I’ve seen too many short-term volunteers who come and spend two weeks or four weeks building schools or wells without considering what happens after.  They fail to train people to fix the wells when they inevitably break.  They don’t take into consideration that schools have to be staffed and supplied.

It seems a little arrogant and naive to think that by buying a bracelet and updating your facebook status a bunch of people can do in nine months what the Ugandan, DRC, South Sudan and Central African Republic armies have been fighting to do for the last 25 years. Once again, the White Man swoops in to save the poor, defenseless Africans. I'd like to see IC highlight local, grassroots efforts that Ugandans have done themselves. Ugandans have done a lot of rebuilding, vocational training, and support of the Acholi people and it pains me that IC does nothing to highlight the good work of local Ugandans.  Everything I've seen from them seems to ignore the great strides that Ugandans have done to rebuild themselves. Let's also try to celebrate that.

But that's just my opinion.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

First Comes Love...

In America, marriage options for a couple in love are simple. First: get engaged, second: get married, either at a church or city hall. Party, optional (but preferred, I mean, come on, who doesn't love a party?)

In Uganda, things go a little differently. In the Buganda kingdom, where I currently live, the act of getting married is a little more complicated. First you have to find a willing participant. As a Muzungu (white), this is surprisingly easy. I've had more marriage proposals from complete strangers than I wish to count. Boda drivers, shop owners, farmers, primary school boys, homeless people, all request the honor of my hand in marriage. Or more accurately it's: "Muzungu! You marry me! We go to America! We play sex! Yes?!" Oh. I'm so honored. I can barely contain myself. I've never been wooed in such a pleasing fashion before!

Once you've found the right partner, then the fun begins. First you negotiate. The groom visits the bride's family and negotiates the traditional "bride price." In many parts of Uganda, the bride price is alive and kicking. Especially in the eastern Karamojong region, the amount the of bride price is very important. Families want to get as much cattle and other goods as they can for their daughters. It's a status thing. The more cattle you can garner, the more prestigious you are. In the Buganda region, bride price is more of a traditional aspect of marriage. The amount of cattle or other goods you bring doesn't really relate to the quality of the girl. Ideally, a groom should bring some cattle to the table, but it's not a deal breaker like it would be in other regions. Here is an essay that goes more into the cultural reasons and matrimonial implications of bride price.

Following the negotiation for the bride price comes the introduction ceremony. For more rural populations, a couple is considered officially married following the introduction ceremony. After the introduction, the couple spends a few days apart and then begins to make a life together and producing children. An introduction ceremony is part drama, part serious marriage ceremony. It's intended to be a lighthearted event, with dancing, music, and good food. While the groom's side shows off its wealth in the form of the bride price, the bride's family is also concerned with appearing as wealthy and well to do as possible. I believe this is partly to do with showing up their neighbors and partly to do with wanting the groom to think he's getting the best deal possible by marrying their daughter. During the first half of the introduction, the bride's female family members (sisters, aunties, nieces, etc) dance out and give little speeches and receive small gifts. During all of this, the groom is "hidden" in the back with his guests and the bride's family searches through the crowed to find him. Once they have found the groom, they bring him to the front, tie a sash on him and only then does the bride make her appearance.

Unlike in America, where the bride usually "glows" with happiness on the big day, in Uganda, like many other cultures around the world, the bride is required to look sad, never letting a smile appear or any hint of happiness. She is sad to leave her family, and should appear as such. She sits, quietly, looking down, sadness on her face. She does not speak until the very end and only sits with the groom briefly before leaving again. Gertrude, however, could not seem to keep her face in sadness; small smiles flashed across her face and you could just feel her happiness and pleasure.

After the bride's family had introduced all its members and fed and watered the groom's side, the time comes for the bride price to be presented. The groom's side all participates in this with the women carrying baskets on their heads, someone bringing in a stick to symbolize the cattle, and all the gifts are arranged before the bride's family. Traditionally, the groom presents his bride with a suitcase filled with clothing and other necessities she will need to start her new life with him. Another traditional gift is that of gomez fabric and konzus to each of the bride's immediate relatives.

After the gifts are presented, the real party begins. Food, music and dancing. The bride's family feeds all of the guests, which is an other opportunity to showcase their wealth. The previous day, David slaughtered one of the cows he purchased for the bride price (or had slaughtered). This was then delivered to the bride's family and I suspect made its way into our post-introduction meal. Typically, the bride's family stays the entire night and parties while the groom's side returns back to their hotel or homes to celebrate on their own.

After the introduction, more affluent families, or more urban (and thus, western) families will also choose to perform a western marriage ceremony in a church setting. In Uganda, however, not all marriages performed in churches are legal. Only a certain number of church types can perform legal marriages. If a couple chooses to have a church marriage, they will also then have a marriage performed by a justice of the peace to make it legal.

And now, some pictures:

The girls lined up ready to enter the introduction in our gomezi! Looking good!

Before we were allowed to enter the introduction, we were "immunized" by several nurses. Our "immunization" consisted of them pinning knitted or crocheted green and white flowers on our clothes.

Some of the bride's family being introduced.

More of the bride's family being introduced. There were probably 5 or 6 groups of women who all danced out and then knelt before the groom's side. In the Buganda culture, women kneel when greeting or speaking to men or elders.

The bride's side.

About midway through the introductions, the bride's grandmothers (or jaja) burst into the ceremony in their digging clothes (the one in the front is wearing a digging gomez) and insisted on knowing why they "weren't invited to the ceremony!" They were invited; this was part of the "drama" of the evening.

The bride's family fed the groom's family sodas, meet samosas, a boiled irish potato and a chapati during the ceremony.

They found him! Bringing the groom to the front after finding him in the crowd.

Putting the sash on the groom. It's made of barkcloth, a traditional Buganda cloth.

Presenting the bride's family with a crate of soda.

The bride, outfit number one, looking mournful.

The "bride price."

Cutting the cake (with flares?). The groom didn't cut the cake with the bride, it was all her side of the family!

The bride serving cake to the groom and his "sister"

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Election Season

There is a park (I say park, what I really mean is that there is a patch of undeveloped land that people lounge about on during the middle of the day) near my house that has recently become a hub of election campaigning. Several days ago, while walking home from town, I noticed a cluster of individuals sitting quietly beneath group of trees. Strange, I thought. That so many people would be sitting so quietly and peacefully in this little park. Usually the park is filled with young boys or youths playing football, or sugar cane vendors shouting for customers (or at the muzungu). But there they sat. Quietly in conversation. The next day I figured out why. They had returned, but this time were all wearing bright yellow shirts and now included a number of bodaboda drivers, also wearing bright yellow shirts, and a few had strapped large megaphones to the backs of their bodas. The trees were papered with yellow campaign fliers. Later that evening the bodas took off blasting music and grainy campaign messages all over town from their over-sized megaphones.

These days, I hear the sounds of campaigning everywhere in town. I hear music blasted from cars and bodas as I lay in bed attempting sleep, I hear garbled campaigning shouted through megaphones as I walk the streets and shop in the markets. Every available surface is wallpapered in various campaign fliers; prospective mayors and women MPs smile down at me from every available surface - walls, windows, trees, fences, garage doors. Young boys in matching t-shirts hand out fliers on the streets and the local Democratic Party office always has its doors wide open, animated discussing escaping into the street.

There are also however more serious signs of next year's impeding elections. I've observed many more of the private security firms (who I don't believe to be officially associated with the Ugandan military) conducting drills and marches and various military-style exercises. It's actually quite amusing to see grown men in uniforms and carrying rifles (next year it'll be strange to again live in a country where seeing a man walking down the street with a riffle is not the norm and is certainly a cause for concern) struggling to understand exactly how to march in two single file lines for X amount of steps, turn in unison and march back. Pure hilarity. Even the children abstain from gawking at me and my fellow "muzungus" to stare unabashedly at the security men practicing their marches.

As of now there's not much evidence that the country will go south before, during or after the elections next February. We will probably be on "standfast" at least, meaning we can't leave our sites. There's little doubt in many of our minds that Museveni, the current president, will win his bid for reelection. Ugandans are, for the majority, of the same mind - very few of them think he will lose reelection either. It'll certainly be interesting no matter what happens!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eye Glasses Clinic

A few months ago I took a few days to do some work for a Danish organization here in town. They had received a shipment of donated eye glasses from Denmark and needed some help organizing them. I went through all 3,000 or so glasses and organized them into their own little boxes by prescription strength. I knew they would be distributed in the village at some point, but since that day failed to come....I forgot about it. To my surprise, an American friend and Child Care worker, Fay, contacted me last week to let me know that the clinic was scheduled for the weekend and would I like to help out? Of course!

I left the project early on Saturday and met Fay at her office. We left together for the village church where the clinic was to take place. Since this is Uganda, we were late. But not really...since you're not "on time" here unless you're late. We set up in the church office and a trickle of people came in throughout the afternoon to get their eyes tested and receive their brand new glasses. Most of the people had problems with reading close up, but a couple needed help with seeing things far away. Most of the villagers who came were women, but a few were men and we had a couple children who had problems reading the board at school.

Since my writing skills seem to be going downhill fast, here's some pictures:

And baby David, who was thrown down a pit latrine when he was just a new born. He was rescued and is now being raised by the same organization. He's now four months old, laughing, crazy ticklish, making all sorts of noises, and wearing 12-month-old size clothes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Afri-Pads Workshop

This last weekend I went to a small village near Kyotera to my friends' Courtney and Ashley's sites. We had a fun and relaxing weekend making pita bread, guacamole, fried rice and banana pancakes. We also threw a little work in there. Another volunteer, Amber, came and gave the girls at Ashely and Courtney's schools a presentation on Afri-Pads, re-usable sanitary pads for women.

Typically disposable sanitary pads (Always brand) are 30,000 shillings per year. While this may not seem like much ($15 US), to a Ugandan girl or family with more than one female, the cost of disposable sanitary pads is too expensive. They resort to less costly (and sanitary) options: cotton, old clothes, rags, newspaper, leaves, chicken feathers. The use of such materials can cause infection, discomfort, and embarrassment. They can leak, they can smell, they can fall out when walking or playing sports. For these reasons, and others, many girls choose to stay home for an entire week of school when menstruating. This means they can miss out on around 25% of school each year - one week per month! Their grades may suffer, they may not pass their exams granting them access to Secondary school or University and their educational futures are dead.

While disposable sanitary pads can cost 30,000 shillings per year, a pack of Afri-Pads is only 3,000 shillings - far more affordable for rural school girls. A pack comes with a pink liner, which snaps onto the underwear and has ribbons to hold the pads (each pack has 5, both winged and regular) in place. These are washed each day and hung in the house to dry. Afri-Pads says that these will last 12 cycles, or one year, but most girls will probably use these for several years with careful washing.

Waiting for the students to arrive

Amber leading a discussion on the problems these girls face when they're menstruating

The girls listening attentively

Amber showing the girls what an Afri-Pad is and how to use it

Amber and Ashley demonstrating how to put Afri-Pads on your underwear

Adding up the cost of disposable pads versus reusable Afri-Pads

Some of the items girls use during their periods

Amber talking to some girls after the presentation and taking orders!