Monday, July 4, 2011

Malaria Chicken

Junior’s back and the chicken is still here. Baraka’s father was sick for about three weeks, which gave Junior’s scary chicken enough time to come up with a plan to cheat death and Sunday dinner- she started laying eggs.

Ironically, while the local government’s campaign urging women to give birth in the health centers verses at home has largely fallen on deaf human ears the message has been heard loud and clear by Ngai’s poultry population.

Junior’s chicken wakes up in the morning, walks out of the bathroom, across the compound and over to the maternity ward where she lays her eggs.

Adding to the irony, while delivering in the health center is a safer option for human mothers and babies, it’s proved to be more dangerous to the lives of chickens and chicks.

After a few days, the bored and anemic pregnant mother started making omelets and Junior is guessing that it will only be a matter of time before they help themselves to a big pot of scary chicken stew.

While the pregnant mother’s decision to steal their midwife’s eggs is questionable at best I’m happy that this new development has put malaria chicken back on the menu and hopefully out of the bathroom once and for all.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Peace Day

Violence is an unfortunately present aspect of life in Northern Uganda. Domestic abuse is endemic throughout the country and what we would consider to be child abuse is thought of as discipline or sometimes even a form of love. Additionally, Northern Uganda suffered from a 25 year war. The LRA focused most of their brutal attacks on civilians and refreshed their ranks by abducting children, forcing them to serve as soldiers, porters, or ‘wives.’ My entire community was forced to live in Internally Displaced Persons Camps (like refugee camps but within your own country) for years so that the army could ‘protect’ them. The army officers who were sent to fight the LRA and guard the people were often no better than the rebels. They would beat civilians, rape women, and accept sexual favors from young girls, often sent against their will by their families, in exchange for food. Life in the IDP camps also resulted in an escalated rate of HIV, alcoholism, horrible water and sanitation conditions, the break-down of local cultures and traditions, lack of education opportunities for school age children, and a population explosion. Baring all of this in mind it’s not shocking that people have become desensitized to violence.

After returning home from a training in Kampala a few months ago I was met with the news that three violent murders had taken place in Ngai within the previous month. First, an army officer who was originally from this area was invited back to facilitate a training for the local police. While here, he heard rumors that his sister, who was still living in Ngai, was romantically involved with an unsavory local youth. Unhappy about the situation he confronted the young man. A fight ensued and the army officer was beaten to death in the road.

Second, a local man went back to his house late in the evening. He had been drinking heavily and ran out of money. Apparently his drinking habit had been a major drain on the family income. When he attempted to take all of the food that remained in the house, all of the food that they had to feed themselves and their many children, his wife hit her breaking point. She protested, they argued, things got physical and she, 9 months pregnant at the time, managed to overpower him and hit her husband over the head with a large rock, killing him instantly.

The last and most shocking incident involved primary school children. Apparently two girls, one in 3rd grade and the other in 5th, had been harassing a 4th grade boy for sometime. They had been forcefully trying to convince him to have sex with them but he repeatedly refused. One day the harassment escalated. The girls managed to lock the boy in a hut with them. Enraged by his refusal they beat the boy to death. The medical officer who examined his body said that the damage was extensive and brutal with several broken bones and a mutilated groin area.

As I mentioned earlier, violence is fairly commonplace in Northern Uganda and the first two incidents didn’t cause much of a stir. The case of the primary school students was different. People were upset about what happened and shocked that such a crime could be committed not only by kids but by girls. My coworker, Tonny, and I decided to pay a visit to Onek Gwok, the school that the students had attended, to see what kind of activities and counseling were taking place to allow the other students to grieve the loose of their classmate and process the horrible attack that lead to his death.

“Nothing!,” the head teacher told us. “No one has come to help us deal with this situation but the students must be scared and confused. We would really like to address this with them.” We got to work planning a school meeting. We invited all of the local religious, political, and cultural leader to the event to show support to the students and demonstrate that the death of a pupil would not be taken lightly. We also invited the chief of police who explained exactly what happened so that the students would understand that they themselves were not at risk and that it was an isolated incident. Lastly, the head teacher spoke to the children. While it’s hard to accept, the fact is that this murder was committed by students. The head teacher asked them to think about their own behavior. He encouraged the students to think of one another as brother and sister and leave violence and bullying behind. It was a challenging day but overall successful and the school management committee even decided to schedule a second meeting to speak with the parents of their pupils.

A few weeks later I met with the head teacher again. He was very pleased with the way that our meetings had turned out and was seeing a positive impact in the school culture. “How would you feel about hosting an community event about peace building here at Onek Gwok?” I asked. I had been secretly hoping that things would move in this direction all along. While the murder was horrible it was also the only thing that had gotten the community to think critically about the culture of violence that resulted from the war. It had created an opportunity for people to think about the kind of community that they wanted to live in and make more calculated changes to address that. “I think it’s a great idea!” The head teacher exclaimed. Plans for the first ‘Peace Day Celebration’ were put in place.

I arrived at Onek Gwok early on the morning of June 30- Peace Day. I was met at the school grounds by hundreds of excited children. Music, Dance, and Drama aka MDD seems to be Africa’s favorite was of addressing social issues and Peace Day was no different. Throughout the weeks leading up to Peace Day, teachers at the school had been busy composing songs and plays that addressed issues such as gender based violence, land disputes, and positive communication for the student to perform. During the planning process we also discussed the breakdown of local culture and thus the management committee decided that the students would perform the traditional Lango dance Abuda. I had been at the school all of 10 minutes before I started tearing up at seeing that the dancers had taken it upon themselves to make the beautiful headdresses that are traditionally worn for Abuda.

After admiring every headdress and praising the owners I started looking around for the school staff. They were nowhere to be seen, there were about 400 students at the school and as far as I could see, I was the only adult around. Not even the head teacher with whom I had worked so closely to put the event together was there. Just as I was starting to get annoyed and upset he arrived. “Bad news,” he said. “One of our teachers has died and is to be buried today. It’s customary for the entire staff and all of the pupils to attend the funeral.” Shocked and feeling guilty for my earlier impatience I didn’t know what to say. “I’ve spoken with the family and asked them to postpone the burial but they’ve already made the announcements on the radio and their hands are tied. All of the teachers will be attending the funeral but our music teacher and I will stay behind for Peace Day. It’s unfortunate timing but we can’t turn back now!”

Here’s a piece of advice for anyone who is thinking about planning community events in rural Africa- don’t schedule them to start in the morning! Our agenda had us beginning at 10am at the head teacher’s request (we had a lot to cover). As you’ve seen, my morning had already been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions and by one o’clock in the afternoon I was ready to throw in the towel and sadly accept defeat for the event that felt so close to my heart. “Wait, they’ll come,” the head teacher kept telling me. “They went to their fields to work in the morning, went home to bathe, now their cooking and eating lunch, they’ll be here around 2.” Sure enough about 200 villagers arrived at 2. Why we didn’t just plan to start at 2 is a mystery to me but I have most definitely learned my lesson.

Peace Day was phenomenal. In addition to the student’s beautiful songs and dances we also had a drama performed by the Women’s Guild from the local Catholic Church. The local leaders spoke about the importance of having peace in the community and looking towards the future. NGO workers praised the community for taking the initiative to put together such an amazing and important event. Local leaders spoke of times before the rebels infiltrated the area and enchanted the kids with traditional Lango instruments, the likes of which they had never seen. One of the elders insisted on performing a ‘traditional American dance’ in my honor. The number was entitled ‘I’m a tricky tricky tricky tricky cowboy’ which also happened to be all of the lyrics. I returned the favor by joining in at the end of the students amazing performance of Abuda.

Unfortunately a lightning storm blew in and the head teacher quickly dispersed the crowd. Lightning has taken the lives of about 20 people throughout the country over the past few weeks. The local leaders, school representatives, and planning committee stayed for a post Peace Day reception featuring a grizzly goat stew and sodas. As preachers, government officials, and clan leaders all expressed their gratitude for the event and committed themselves to the mission of building peace in the community I was once again overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. When it was my turn to address the community leaders I told them honestly that only time will tell how the event will effect the community and we still have a lot of work to do but I feel honored to be here in Ngai, honored to be a part of this work, and hopeful that, with the help of their community leaders, the people of Ngai will be able to live in the kind of place that they want.