Tuesday, November 30, 2010
A month ago today I set out for theJust Journey to Uganda. As the trip’s leader, I was unsure of many things then — whether everyone would arrive on time (they didn’t), whether the transportation across bumpy roads would be smooth (it wasn’t), and, mainly, whether I could provide the kind of experience that would bring the issue of our partner’s work in northern Uganda to life. To animate it in a way that would make people truly understand what was at stake and how complex the process to restore justice to those affected really was.
On the way back from the airport that first night with a load of weary just-arrived participants in the van, I asked the young woman sitting next to me why she decided to come on the trip. She was effusive: the description sounded amazing, she’d never been to Africa, someone in her congregation had read about UUSC’s work. “Lots of reasons,” she said, a little bleary-eyed but happy. “But really, it was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I couldn’t pass up!”
Her words made me nervous, and all the way back to the hotel I worried about the sacrifice it had taken for her to get here — the cost, the time away from work, the toll of the international flights. Had I done enough, I wondered, to ensure that this woman would go home saying that this indeed had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip?
The thing is, at UUSC we can only do so much. We have fantastic partners, and our work with Caritas in Uganda is no exception. They are people who have put their lives on the line so that those ripped from their communities during the brutality of the civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army can go home again. They are an inspiration to all those who work on behalf of justice. Staff at UUSC work hard to construct pedagogy for these trips and to lay out what we hope participants will take home with them.
But ultimately, that learning is up to the traveler. And once the plans are made, the speakers lined up, and the transportation seen to, we put our faith in those who opt to come along that they will let themselves grasp the true meaning of being there.
“The longest journey you will ever make in life is from your mind to your heart,” Chief Joseph once said. That night on the bus, I couldn’t have foreseen it, but everyone aboard would indeed be making the trip of a lifetime.
For more information on UUSC JustJourneys, please contact me, Nichole Cirillo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
The JustJourney to Uganda ended on November 16 after two days of delightful hospitality with the Unitarian Universalists of Uganda. On Sunday we arrived in Kampala in time to attend a special worship service at the New Life Church, led by Rev. Mark Kiyimba. The service was extraordinarily welcoming, inspirational, and lively. Our group presented the congregation with a chalice from the United States, and appreciated the warm welcome we received from the congregation. During the service, Rev. Mark described the work of the UUSC's partner - Caritas - in Northern Uganda, and how important those efforts and BGLT work are for Unitarian Universalists.
On Monday morning, we drove down to Masaka district where the New Life School and Orphanage are. Along the way, we stopped at the equator and saw the Coriolis Effect demonstration, which was really neat.
The welcome we received at the New Life School was pretty incredible, and the continuing growth of the school was amazing to see. The presentations that the children made for their parents and us, their visitors, were great: singing, dancing, etc. They must have prepared for weeks, and we were so grateful. We also visited a poultry project that was inspired by a UU Community Capacity Building workshop held in the same community last spring. The project is doing great and is inspiring similar livelihood projects around the community.
Our last visit of the day was also remarkable: The New Life Orphanage is a home for 18 children whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. The children we met here will be with all of us for a very long time. Rev. Mark also showed us the location for a new orphanage which will have twice the space and be the home for nearly 45 children. Its building is off to a great start.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The trip to Pader has been amazing. Two things I'd like to comment on are the villages we visited and the "bush." Actually, the villages are deep in the bush so they are related.
My wife and I were with the group that visited two villages — one with perhaps two young families and one built for the vulnerable or elderly. These villages seemed self-sustaining, especially with the availability of oxen and plows. A number of members of the villages told us their stories of survival during the war.
The bush is truly dense and extensive; a person who steps in the bush would disappear in a few steps, especially if he or she stays low. It is easy to see how a rebel or a villager could completely disappear in the bush, with its dense grass, bushes, and a few trees.
We have completed the first leg of our JustJourney. It has been a profoundly moving trip, rich with testimony of deep and previous wrongs as well as rebuilding, repairing, and envisioning an empowered future.
We have learned firsthand about the atrocities committed in northern Uganda and listened to heartbreaking testimonies of abductions, years of subsistence living in the bush, and deaths of mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. We have felt the shame of having been part of this long-forgotten conflict.
But peace in northern Uganda is now at hand. Families have returned to their villages, schools are being built, children are beginning to feel safe again, and people are starting to earn their own livelihoods again. We visited villages which are alive with the energy of optimism, moving from owning one goat to five, one ox to two oxen and a plow — all indications of growth and rebirth.
We have spoken with villagers, government representatives, and university and school teachers, and each conveys a singularly consistent message: we believe in ourselves and the future of Uganda. The times of handouts and foreign aid are winding down, and Ugandans are ready to steer their own future.
So we leave humbled and hopeful — humbled by what the people of northern Uganda have endured and hopeful because we know their future is in their very capable hands.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Today our group is still in the Pader district, after spending two days out in the country where Achioli people have returned to their villages from the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. UUSC’s partner organization, Caritas, has worked to help people return by having social workers work with returning families to help them find resources to enable resettlement. Today one of them, Jennifer, shared her story with us:
Jennifer’s first experience with the war in northern Uganda came in 1996 when her village was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She spent two days hiding in the bush with her young children until they were gone. A secretary by training, Jennifer left her job at the primary school when people were being displaced to camps, but she was able to get a job helping with food and supply distribution in the IDP camp for Sudanese refugees. In 2000, that camp was attacked by the LRA; she sought to make her way into the bush, but she was in trapped in the office and surrounded that night.
In the morning she watched as LRA members sorted and butchered her coworkers, some of whose body parts were boiled in a kettle. Before she was forced to eat this, however, the government army entered the camp and gave chase to the LRA soldiers. Jennifer, taking her four-year-old with her, decided to make her way on foot to her home village, which took almost three days. She arrived to learn that the LRA was hunting her, and that they had already killed two of her uncles who had denied knowing her. Her father advised her to flee, and gathered a little bit of money from relatives so she could make the trip to the town of Lira. She found lodging there, but had no more money and two children to feed. The women from whom she was renting her room helped her start selling small things in a market stall so she could support herself. After awhile, she was able to find a job as a secondary school secretary in another town. However, the town where this school was located was not in Achioli territory; she was in the Langey area, and the Ugandan Army attacked there, so again Jennifer left her job.
She then learned of some American scholars doing a study in the IDP camps on the effects of war on youth, and she was able to work with them as a field researcher. As this study was concluding, she came to the attention of Martha Thompson, UUSC’s Program Manager for Rights in Humanitarian Crisis, who had come to do an assessment with UUSC’s Program Director Atema Eclai for the UUSC to begin work in northern Uganda. UUSC decided to partner with Caritas in Pader district in northern Uganda, helping people return to their villages. When UUSC launched their program through Caritas, Martha remembered her discussions with Jennifer and negotiated with Caritas to join the team working with the displaced. Jennifer began to work on the UUSC Caritas project in 2008.
It’s easy to see why Martha was impressed by this amazing woman and wished to bring her onto the team. She has shown courage, commitment, and amazing resilience in the face of adversity. The need to support and care for her children, one of whom has been traumatized badly by his war experiences, has been a driving force for Jennifer. She supports not only her own two children, but seven of her sisters’ children as well, because her two sisters were killed — one by the Ugandan Army, one by the LRA – during the years of fighting. When Jennifer engages with her clients, they learn that she is truly standing with them, having experienced many of the same horrors and hardship they have during the long time of war.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Tonight the electricity was out in Pader, a remote town in northern Uganda much traumatized by the long-forgotten war. As our group gathered at the end of a long day, former UUSC board member Jim Gunning lit our flaming chalice in part for its light but especially to remind us that the chalice was originally designed in the 1930s for us in Prague and elsewhere in Europe so that the Unitarian Service Committee could be identified as a safe haven to those fleeing the tightening vise of Nazism.
Now, in another country and on another continent, UUSC’s work continues as UUSC partners aid refugees who — despite horrific losses, dislocation and trauma — now attempt to return home to their villages in the aftermath of war. For many years, thousands of people were forced to live in the fear and chaos of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), women and girls risking rape when seeking firewood beyond the camp perimeters.
With many children abducted to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves, and many others murdered and missing, there is need today for both justice and reconciliation within families, communities, and badly brutalized hearts. In the remaining days of our JustJourney, we will continue to hear the stories of those hurt and healing.
Noticing that it is November 9, I realized that on this date in 1938 fascist mobs across Germany attacked, desecrated, and destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues and stores. Kristallnacht, the “night of the broken glass,” is recalled as a harbinger of the Holocaust. Condoned by the state and empowered by the silence of bystanders, evil enlarged overnight.
For northern Uganda, it was more than 10 years before the world much noticed the war and the suffering of thousands. “We felt abandoned,” the people say. Today, with the guns mostly put down and the camps mostly closed, many relief workers and nongovernmental organizations are leaving Uganda and returning to their homes in other countries. Meanwhile, the Ugandan people are now returning to their homes and villages, their lives devastated by war, still needful of justice and reconciliation. Sharing their lives and aspirations, UUSC remains with them.
On this anniversary of Kristallnacht, I recall those who once fled their homes in Europe and, on this dark night in Pader, I honor those who here and now are returning home. May peace prevail and may none be abandoned.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
I have been on many tours where I have seen evidence of terrible atrocities and injustices. Though these experiences are emotional and moving, when I return home I realize I cannot do anything about the events, and they become memories eventually. Even though this is an observational journey, I am beginning to realize that I may start to take ownership of some of the issues in Uganda and feel some responsibility to try to do something about the issues when I return home.
One person we’ve met on this trip has particularly impressed me. His name is Matthew Odong, and he is in charge of Sacred Heart Seminary. He represents a strong anti-war voice in Uganda. Along with others, he has organized the religious community in northern Uganda to influence the government and the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] to sit down together and negotiate a peace settlement, which has been done. The country is now in the very early stages of peace even though this agreement has not been completely ratified by both sides.
Odong speaks strongly about the fact that military action is not the answer. Many people in the United States also feel this is the case, but so far our political leaders have not completely received this message.
The past few days have been incredible. On Saturday, we left Kampala for Northern Uganda, to begin the next phase of the trip. While in Northern Uganda, we are travelling through communities that were ravaged by the civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), largely in Acholi-land.
The remaining abducted girls, like thousands of children from all over Northern Uganda, were forcibly integrated into the LRA and suffered horrendous atrocities. Many further attempts were made to bring about their return and, over many years, all but one of the students ultimately did return.
We heard this incredible story and learned about the resilience of the school from its current headmistress (pictured here), who served during much of the civil war. She described immense trauma and pain. But she also described the ongoing commitment of the school to its mission of providing one of the leading educational experiences for girls in Uganda. It was truly inspirational. The complete story is told in the book Stolen Angels.
At the school, we also connected with our hosts, who are the coordinators of Caritas, a human rights partner of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. They introduced us to the Iceme Mission and its pastor, Father Luis. He cared for his community during the civil war and continues to serve them well during the ongoing recovery. He described the deep spiritual and emotional trauma that the community experienced and continues to struggle with.
All of Sunday was spent with Caritas partners in the town of Gulu, the headquarters of the diocese. The monsignor explained more about the context of the LRA and the struggle. He helped us to understand the psychological scars as well as the recovery efforts that are underway. The staffers at Caritas told moving stories of how they intervened–and continue to intervene–on behalf of their community, and spoke about interfaith initiatives to seek justice and reconciliation. (The Caritas headquarters in Gulu are pictured here.)
Today, we travelled to the small town of Pader where Caritas is working with internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are in the difficult process of “returning home” from camps. Along the way, we stopped at Fort Baker, which was a brutal transit site of the slave trade. Tomorrow, we’re looking forward to visiting former IDP camps and people in that “returning process.” We’ll share more of that experience soon.
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) – Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) experiential learning trip to Uganda is off to a terrific start. Fifteen Unitarian Universalists from across the United States arrived in Kampala on Thursday, November 4, 2010, for our first day together. And, if today is any measure of what we have in store, this is going to be a powerful trip infused with a deep faith dimension, with tragic and inspiring stories of human rights and justice work, and with the development of a sense of community between us and the people that we meet along the way.
Each evening, we will share reflection time together. Tonight there was a great deal of sharing, especially about the welcome that we received from four members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kampala: Marie, Tomas, Frank, and Peter. Each of them has been deeply involved in the fight against bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender (BGLT) discrimination in Uganda, each of them has provided incredible support to the BGLT community, and each of them has sacrificed and suffered – sometimes horrendously – because of who they are.
We heard frightening stories of ostracization, of being “cut off” by family, churches, co-workers, and society as a whole. We heard of the brutal attacks that they have suffered, and of the constant fear of being attacked at home, at work, and in all places. Even still, these brothers and sisters in faith and justice-work risked a great deal merely to meet with us – an incredible privilege for us – and helped us to understand a little bit better the reality that they face daily.
They thanked American Unitarian Universalists for being what they described as the sole religious voice supporting them from abroad. And they recognized political pressure from the United States as the only reason that the infamous “Anti Homosexuality Bill” has not yet been passed in Uganda. This is frightfully ironic, as they also credit conservative religious movements in the United States as the source of the current violence and systemic homophobia in Uganda.
And yet, when I asked these beautiful souls how they would feel if I took a photograph of them for publication on the internet, they enthusiastically gave permission.
“Our photos are already out there,” they said, “all of Kampala already knows we are gay.” The dangers inherent in that are clearer to me today than they ever have been before. And I hope that all who hear their story, and see their photographs, will recognize that we are implicated in their fate. We are tied together in interdependence. May we claim our privilege, our power, and our responsibility.
God bless Marie, Tomas, Peter, and Frank. God bless the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kampala that welcomes all people. And God bless the ties that bind each to all.
We are staying in a compound near the cathedral; there are bells at 6:30 a.m. Nuns who were up late to care for us were up early to make sure we had breakfast.
We are clearly in the north. One of our hosts said, "In the south, they say, ‘What can I do?’; in the north, they say, ‘What can we do?’" In the south, the institutions were run by the government; the churches are the anchor of the north. The religious compounds are for religious services, language lessons, schools, medical care, and security. We saw amazing caretaking.
We are reflecting on yesterday’s inspirational stories. Sister AnnaMaria from the Aboke girls’ school (where the rebels abducted 139 girls) talked about the abductions and the fact that she lost some of her girls, which she had to come to peace with. Fr. Luis told of the father who searched for his lost son, found him in government custody, and had to get paperwork to show he was not a rebel — only to return with the paperwork and find him dead. He said he's unable to forgive because his government killed his son for no reason. Paul, one of the Caritas leaders, told us that church leaders came together up here to start working on the peace process. Even imams joined in.
In our meeting at the seminary, they told us that northern Uganda was left alone without any help for nine years of the war. It was off limits to travelers. The Africans have a saying: "When two people fight, it is the grass that suffers."
Paul, the Caritas worker, is a remarkable young man. His nephew was abducted and later rescued, and Paul has forgiven him. One of four children, Paul has experienced much loss. One brother died of disease, and one other died in the war. Together they left five children, and Paul came back after university in Kampala to raise them. "I was a father before I was a husband," he says. He and his wife have a 14-year-old son and two daughters. Paul was a "night commuter" with his children, walking into Gulu every night to sleep.
Monday, November 8, 2010
We are just beginning our Uganda JustJourney and have spent the morning with the Refugee Law Project, an ally working on post-conflict reconciliation. Among other things, they have just sponsored the National Reconstruction Bill, designed to foster dialogue and forgiveness throughout the country.
Tomorrow, we are heading up north, where we will meet with UUSC partner Caritas in Gulu and Pader. There we have been working to help families return to their villages and help regain livelihoods and local support services.
One of the unique aspects of this trip is that it is being jointly led by the UUA and UUSC. It's a rich and unique partnership and a model for the future.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
In northern Uganda, more than 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes for as long as 22 years. UUSC has been working there for two years with partner Caritas Gulu, piloting a unique program that has empowered thousands of displaced people to return to their villages. During Witness to a Return Home, participants will learn about UUSC's work with Caritas Gulu and see this eye-to-eye partnership model at work.
"Participants on this journey will see what it means to work for justice," says UUSC Experiential Learning Manager Nichole Cirillo. "It is this ‘up close and personal' witness that helps them transform their own notions of human rights."
Complementing UUSC's work in northern Uganda, the UUA has fostered a strong relationship with Rev. Mark Kiyimba, leader of a UU congregation in Kampala, Uganda's capital. Kiyimba runs a 550-student school and 20-child orphanage near Masaka and has been campaigning against Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill. JustJourneys participants are scheduled to meet with the UU Kampala congregation; talk with Ugandan leaders of the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people's rights; and visit the school and orphanage the Kampala congregation supports.
Eric Cherry, head of the UUA's Office of International Resources and coleader of Witness to a Return Home, is looking forward to the unique educational opportunities the trip provides.
"Our time in Uganda is in direct response to Unitarian Universalism's sixth principle: to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all," says Eric. "Even for those who are deeply committed to social-justice work, it's easy to forget that there are countless people who want — and need — to tell their stories. To be confronted with the existing need can be daunting, but it's also inspiring to see how the UUA and UUSC have been able to make a lasting difference — through partnership — in Uganda."
As this social-justice sojourn unfolds, on-the-ground updates will be posted to this collaborative blog, offering photos and a variety of personal perspectives. Bloggers will share thoughts on their meetings with visionary leaders, visits to important cultural and environmental sites, including Kabarega National Park, and their interactions with the people who live in resettled villages in northern Uganda.
More than tourism, JustJourneys bring social justice to life in different locations around the world. For information on future trips, including the 2011 JustJourney to Haiti, contact Nichole Cirillo.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a faith community of more than 1,000 self-governing congregations that bring to the world a vision of religious freedom, tolerance and social justice. For more information on the UUA, including recent press releases and news articles, please visit their online press room.
UUSC is a nonsectarian organization that advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies. For more information on UUSC, visit www.uusc.org.