Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rebuilding Northern Uganda

The waters of the Nile rushed white and foaming beneath us: the Karuma Falls, gateway to what could almost have been another country altogether.  The soldiers posted on the bridge gesticulated and shouted at us not to take photographs.   Sorry, my finger slipped. 

Karuma Falls, the gateway to northern Uganda.
Once we crossed the bridge, we could see that we were in northern Uganda.  We had driven for mile upon mile across central Uganda on a broad tarmacked road that ran as straight as a die from Kampala to Gulu, if you ignore the long bend to the left round Lake Kyoga.  We had sped across the wide sweep of rich agricultural land of central Uganda, almost every inch of which was farmed, sometimes almost too intensively.  

Turning bush into farmland.
The precious wetlands are being encroached upon and mile after mile of Uganda’s forest turned into charcoal for urban cooking stoves.  We had seen herds of cows grazing in clearings, nibbling their way down the verges and criss-crossing the road itself, well aware that they were the most important and valuable creatures in Uganda, far more valuable than their two-legged keepers.

Turning forest into charcoal.
Across the bridge into Acholi-land, the land should be just as productive, if not more so.  This is the most fertile farm land in Uganda. From the road to the horizon we saw acres of green, but not the green of crops.  This land has not been farmed for years, some of it not for twenty years or more.  It was getting late and in the failing light we could barely make out the low grass-thatched huts, for they were hidden below the tall encroaching bush.  They were in much larger groups than in other rural areas we had visited and clustered behind the brick shop fronts in the trading centres.  Many of the shops and houses had been abandoned and we drove through long lines of empty ruinous shells.  Nevertheless, the road was still good, for soldiers need good roads.

Huts surrounded by weeds and bush.
Why were Stuart and I visiting the north?  We had wanted to come here for ages, keen to see how education was helping to rebuild war-torn communities and mend shattered lives. Fortunately we did see signs of physical regeneration: new brick buildings and freshly thatched houses.  However, the land itself had scarcely been touched: mile upon mile of rich farmland going to waste, from the Albert Nile in the west right across the top of Uganda. 

Many of you will already be aware of the conflict in the north of Uganda, so just skip the italicised paragraphs below.  However, for those of you who are interested, here’s a summary, with some links to further reading. 

In the nineteen eighties, the northern Acholi and Langi formed a high proportion of the Ugandan national army and during the bush war were accused of violence against civilians in the south of the country.  In 1986, Yoweri Museveni successfully rebelled against the government headed by President Okello, who, like his ousted predecessor President Obote, came from the north.  The northern soldiers fled home, fearing reprisals.  Many northerners regarded Museveni not as a liberator but as an oppressor and accused Museveni’s National Resistance Army of terrorising the north.  The area has experienced only brief snatches of peace since that time.

Under Museveni, Uganda’s economy, devastated by the Amin years, gradually picked up, helped by huge amounts of western aid.  Central and western Uganda benefited most from this investment, while the north and north- east suffered relative neglect, a situation which some came to believe was ‘punishment’ for the region’s role in the bush war.  Some commentators suggest that influential politicians deliberately encouraged southerners to see the northern tribes as ‘barbaric’ and violent.   Ex-soldiers in the north became fertile recruiting ground for rebel forces.   In 1987, an insurgency by Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Movement got to the outskirts of Jinja, within kicking distance of Kampala, before being defeated.  However, it was the rebellion by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) shortly after this defeat which tore the whole of northern Uganda apart and traumatised an entire population. You may be interested in the following accounts of the conflict.  The Wizard of the Nile: the hunt for Africa’s most wanted by Matthew Green is about how a journalist ‘chases’ the story of Kony.  It includes telling accounts of interviews with Ugandan military personnel, ex-child soldiers and rebel leaders.  The Worst Date Ever or how it took a comedy writer to expose Africa’s secret war by Jane Bussmann covers similar territory and is cleverly written and (astonishingly) both very funny and deadly serious.

Kony's tactics were horrific and included burning villages, killing babies in front of their mothers, hacking off limbs of people seen riding bicycles and padlocking or slicing off their lips, ears and nose as a warning not to inform. The rebels also abducted children and young people, at least 10,000 of them, from as young as seven though most were between 12 and 14.  Some managed to escape after a matter of months; others stayed for years.   The girls were raped and acted as rebels’ ‘wives’, bearing their children and, in many cases, becoming HIV positive.  Some, like the boys, became soldiers, the core of Kony’s ‘army’, a good number apparently eventually identifying with the beliefs and values of the LRA and even attaining high rank.  Kony claimed to be a spirit medium and his soldiers had to follow various rituals and rules.  The abductees sometimes had to undergo initiation ceremonies in which they were asked to attack their own villages or maim or kill new abductees or people close to them: their friends, neighbours or even members of their own families.  This tactic made it difficult for them to run away and return home as they were overwhelmed by guilt and fear that they would no longer be accepted by their own communities. If they were discovered escaping, they were severely punished and usually killed.  (This YouTube video tells you more:

Map showing areas of northern Uganda affected by conflict.
At the worst of the insurgency, villages right across the north were affected: about a third of the country.  The most famous case of abduction was that of 139 girls from St Mary’s College, Aboke, the raiding party including boys abducted a couple of weeks earlier from Sir Samuel Baker’s School.  Both of these are well-known and respected establishments - rather like abducting girls from St George’s School Edinburgh using boys from Stewart’s Melville.  Sister Rachele, the deputy head, managed to negotiate the release of all but 30 girls and, with the Concerned Parents Association, spent years searching for the rest (See Aboke Girls by Els De Temmerman). 

The St Mary’s abduction is just one of many similar incidents.  Over the years, up to 25,000 young children used to walk miles into Gulu every evening to sleep on the streets, just to be safe from abduction.  There is scarcely a family in the north untouched by the conflict: parents losing children, children losing parents, thousands maimed for life, physically and psychologically.  More than 10,000 civilians were killed in Gulu and Kitgum alone.  Dozens of schools were destroyed.

The government’s reaction to the rebel activity was to herd almost the whole of the rural population, 1.8 million people, into Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps to ‘protect’ them from the LRA, rather like the British incarceration of Boer civilians in concentration camps in the early twentieth century.  People could no longer farm their land, which reverted to bush.  Instead they were fed by the World Food Programme and other international donors.  The camps were enormous, some holding 45,000 people and even as many as 80,000.  Imagine grass-thatched mud huts as far as the eye can see.  We saw the remnants of these camps as we travelled around the region, most now occupied only by the elderly and disabled, those with nowhere else to go.  Sanitation was totally inadequate and children’s education completely disrupted.  Community values and structures broke down, the rate of defilement (child rape) and prostitution soared and sexually transmitted diseases swept through the camps and among the Ugandan troops who acted as the inhabitants’ ‘protectors’.  Thousand of those living in the camps died from preventable diseases, including a third of all children under five. 

Last remaining huts in an old IDP camp.
The insurgency went on for twenty years and spread from Acholi-land across the Lango region and into Teso in the east.  Many analysts claim that the Ugandan government was very slow to resolve the situation and a few have said that this delay was deliberate, an attempt to destroy the Acholi culture.   (See The Lord’s Resistance Army: myth and reality edited by Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot)  Many parents were traumatised: they wanted the government to end the conflict, but were reluctant for the rebels to be bombed as many of them were their children. Even if their children eventually returned, they had changed and many had done terrible things.  Re-integrating them into families with younger children was difficult.

The conflict is still not resolved.  Even though it is now about five years since the last attack in Uganda, the rebels have simply moved across the border into neighbouring Congo and the Central African Republic where they continue to carry out their mutilations, rapes and abductions.

The victims of Kony’s rebellion were his own people.   Some young people have returned to live in communities after having done terrible things.  Many others have never returned home, or have no homes to go to.  People who have not farmed their fields for twenty years have forgotten their skills and their children, unlike those elsewhere in Uganda, have never learned them. Property boundaries have been lost or forgotten.  Landmines and discarded weaponry are sometimes still a hazard.  Many of those who moved into towns like Gulu or Lira are reluctant to leave, having got used to an urban lifestyle and fearing to return to their old way of life, far from health and other services.  They have also lost the habit of providing their own food having lived off hand outs for the best part of twenty years.  During the conflict, the number of cattle fell to 2% of the previous numbers and annual income to just 10% of the national average. 

One of the most serious social issues in the north is the large number of young people – abductees and those brought up in camps - whose education has been completely disrupted, who have no jobs, lack relevant skills and are without family support.  Many ex-child soldiers and adult rebels are alienated from their communities despite attempts to reintegrate them by reviving traditional Acholi approaches to reconciliation.  All these factors have led to a growing view that the area remains a potential powder keg.  Rebuilding northern Uganda is therefore a major priority for international aid agencies and, indeed, for the government. Towns like Gulu have been awash with such agencies for years, dealing with the victims of the insurgency as it unfolded.  Now their main concern is to mend a broken society.

Junctions in Gulu are covered with signposts to aid agencies.
All this sounds very grim.  However, we did see some very promising work which we believe will make a real difference to young people’s lives and to northern Uganda as a whole.  We tend to think that Ugandan education is too theoretical, too rigid and too focused on passing examinations.  Skills development is correspondingly neglected.  The Uganda of the future needs young people who are flexible, innovative and creative.  They need to be able to make their own jobs, because there certainly will not be enough for the rapidly rising population.  This is even truer of northern Uganda.  Here young people literally have to learn to rebuild their communities. 

St Joseph's Technical School
St Joseph’s Technical School just outside Gulu is an established technical school which trains 200 young people in construction, carpentry and vehicle mechanics, in addition to the usual secondary subjects such as English, maths, physical education and the sciences.  Students also study entrepreneurship.  New courses to attract female students include catering and tailoring.  

Practical construction work.
New kitchen for catering studies.  Donated electric cooker on the right.
Students also learn to cook using traditional charcoal stoves.
The school's own kitchen.
Donated Singer sewing machines powered by treadles.
All students undertake practical placements with local employers and take UNEB examinations and the Uganda Junior Technical Certificate.   Students either enrol at around 13 having passed the primary leaving examination (with varied success) or in S2 or S3 having dropped out of ‘academic’ secondary schools.  Many have poor skills in literacy and numeracy and all have been affected by the conflict in one way or another.  A priority therefore is to help learners develop basic skills and provide appropriate support and counselling.  Charities like War Child and World Vision are doing sterling work in the north, providing training for adults like those at St Joseph’s who work with distressed and vulnerable young people.  They also provide direct support for such young people themselves.  World Vision has provided considerable support to St Joseph's.  (This video gives you a brief insight into War Child’s work - )   

You will also be pleased to know that the European Union is using your taxes to improve the facilities and resources at St Joseph’s.  Indeed, the German government has set up a computer lab in a container, complete with solar panels, and provided training and technical support.  The accommodation and resources may not look particularly modern or sophisticated by UK standards, but they represent a major investment in developing the skills of young people in the Gulu area.  We are told that young people from St Joseph’s are successful in gaining employment or moving on to further education establishments.

Computer lab in a container, solar panels on the roof.
Inside the computer lab.
A more ambitious development for an older age group is the newly established Northern Uganda Youth Development Centre at Labora not far from Gulu, where some of our VSO colleagues work.  

Northern Uganda Youth Development Centre.
The Centre takes young people aged 14 to 35 irrespective of any qualifications they may or may not have.  All have missed out on education through being abducted, orphaned or involved in conflict.  Some may have been boy or girl soldiers.  Some students come from nearby South Sudan, also a war-torn area.  The Centre is supported by the Commonwealth and receives funding from the UK’s Department for International Development, in other words, from your taxes.  It currently has 680 students, a huge increase on the 126 it catered for last year.  All students are residential, for almost all have no homes to go to.  Originally they lived in old IDP accommodation but now live on the campus.

Learning to dig.
Happy hens.
As at St Joseph's, the curriculum is skills-based.  A major strand of the Centre’s work is developing farming skills among young people who may not even be aware of the life cycle of plants.  It has a poultry unit and piggery.  Other courses include carpentry, metal work, construction and electrical installation, all skills which are essential for rebuilding the infrastructure of northern Uganda.  The curriculum also includes catering, tailoring and art & design courses.  All the courses develop practical job-related skills.  Students are presented for a range of certification including trades-based assessment.  The Centre also has four satellite centres across the north.

USAID-donated machine for making animal feed.
We have sometimes felt quite pessimistic about the capacity of aid agencies to deliver discernible improvements which have a real and sustainable impact on the lives of people in Uganda.  However, we were very encouraged to see the range of work which international donors and NGOs are doing in the north.  The focus on developing practical skills which motivate young people and encourage them to be financially independent is entirely appropriate.  We are aware of the current financial pressures on people in the west.  We hope you see these developments as a worthwhile use of your hard-earned taxes.  You are all making a real difference to the lives of young people in northern Uganda.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

A moral and legal conundrum: justice for northern Uganda

Visiting schools in northern Uganda

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