Saturday, November 24, 2007


By Ben
Our Third Annual Thanksgiving Day celebration with our colleagues from the Concerned Parents Association was attended by a record 50 people this year! As you can see, we needed to slaughter two turkeys.

However this year, Abdallah, CPA’s driver needed to do the killing if he was going to eat the bird, as his Muslim tradition requires him (or another Muslim) to thank God for the animal before it dies. I was still charged with roasting and carving the turkeys!

Our staff once again sat around a large circle as Holly told the story of the King and his four daughters who were entrusted with one grain of rice. The first threw it away, the second kept it in a glass box and admired it, the third locked it in a secure place, and the fourth planted the rice. After the King returned several years later, he honored the fourth daughter for the plantation of rice which resulted from her initiative and use of her gifts. Holly gathered ideas on the meaning of this story and then asked everyone to introduce themselves (a Ugandan necessity, even if you know everyone present) and tell the rest of the group “one of your gifts and something to be thankful for”. Here are a few responses “I am grateful to God for making me a beautiful woman”. “I am grateful that God made me a man, even without consulting me first”. “I have the gift of loving people”. “I am thankful for being a peace-builder”. “I am thankful for the gift of reproduction (as she points to her pregnant belly)”. “I am grateful because I do not have any debts to God, because I’m using all of the gifts He has given me.” “I am thankful to be celebrating an American holiday”.

We ate turkey, fruit salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, cassava, pork, rolls, cabbage salad, pumpkin soufflé, pumpkin pie, apple pie, apple crisp and danced into the night. After everyone left, we were exhausted but happy to have had another great Thanksgiving in Uganda.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

LRA consultations/speeches in Lira

Holly and I just returned from a public meeting between the citizens of Lira and a delegation from the LRA. As a part of the third agenda item in the Juba peace talks, the Government of Uganda and the LRA have been visiting northern districts to gather opinions of the people affected by this 20 year war. Several weeks ago the government of Uganda held consultations; today it was the LRA’s turn.

There is no statement that can capture the views of affected people. Their questions and statements directed to the delegation ranged from, “How can we be compensated? “Our schools, economy, and social fabric have been destroyed” to “We forgive them, but the ICC [International Criminal Court] should keep the pressure” to “Why do we need the ICC when we have our own court in Kampala?” to “Is Otti [2nd in command of LRA] dead or alive?” to “You have a cell phone and a vehicle, are you going to pay our children’s school fees?” to “How can you come and ask for forgiveness when you are keeping our children in the bush? You should release our children as a sign that you’re serious about reconciliation,” to “If the LRA wants to fight the government then why have they been killing and mutilating citizens?”

The delegation (perhaps strategically) waited until the sun went down to even take these questions/statements and was unable to answer them due to time constraints.

However, the LRA delegation made a clear apology and claimed commitment to reconcile. At one point they equated Joseph Kony with the main character of Jesus’ parable, “The Prodigal Son”, saying, “We have made mistakes, all we want to do is come home and work alongside the workers in the field.” They pleaded with community to be the father in the story, who welcomed his wayward son home.

Naturally, the delegation emphasized the Government’s culpability in the displacement, atrocities and poor governance.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What grows in this soil?

Almost a month ago, Ben and I were in South Sudan when the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement withdrew from the national coalition government to protest the lack of progress by Khartoum on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. A cabinet re-shuffling and a series of meetings negotiating a way forward have been held since then, but serious questions remain, especially regarding oil resources and the borders in the Abyei region.

I knew, but had not witnessed in such vivid terms the bitter racism between Arab and Black Africans. I must admit it shocked me to be working side by side with colleagues on a curriculum for conflict transformation, while loose conversations in the evenings revealed (among some) profound bigotry. It felt like the peace agreement was eroding before our eyes and it was disturbingly expected. We were unsettled by the seeming readiness to shake off three years of relative quiet and the best hope for peace embodied in the CPA. I wondered: is this attitude a coping mechanism, reflective of a cynicism towards peace that has been strengthened through decades of violence? Or is it a more honest reflection of the shaky ground this peace is built on? The nature of supposed peace activists may be misunderstood. They are activists—but their end goal may not be what we hoped. Is it racially motivated activism? Is the end goal peace or is it political independence? At what cost?

I spoke with one of the “Lost Boys” while we were there. His entire childhood was spent with a gun in his hands. In his mid twenties now, he’s moving on, though once in awhile something triggers the pain of those years and brings back the war in his mind: wearing a jacket reminiscent of army fatigues, an evening guarding an office. I was concerned about how he’d react to the unfolding news. He said, “What pains me most is times like this when I look at the children around. I get so scared. I don’t want them to grow up like I did.”

One of those children is Danduru. He’s the son of one of the men I was working with, (a true peacebuilder). Their family used to live in one of the large Sudanese refugee camps in Uganda. After the CPA was signed in 2005 they moved back to their family’s land in Yei. As the first son born after return, he was named after a persistent weed-like grass that has a habit of taking over African compounds. When he was given the name, they said, “let him grow, occupy, and till the land of his family.”

Some have said that after the CPA was signed the South Sudanese went to sleep instead of ensuring its implementation, and that this recent move is an indication that they have woken up. There is an opportunity for strengthening the peace, (perhaps even encouraging more accountable governance?), but there is also an opportunity for devastation. I asked Sudanese colleagues, “What will happen now?” Looking down and shaking their heads, they replied, “Sister, you pray for us.”

Danduru has never known war. Let’s pray he never does and that he will raise his own family on the soil where he was born.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Accountability & the Whistle Blower

by Holly

Part of the Steps Toward Reconciliation project that CPA is doing (more in “it is possible) is a survey. It takes a couple of weeks in each district, so I’ve just visited each place for one of the days to see how it’s going and hopefully give some useful guidance. Without all the data in and analyzed, I made some anecdotal observations. Like formerly abucted girls tended to be bitter with the government for their failure to protect them as well as with the LRA, whereas the returned boys mostly blame the government for what they’ve suffered. Something I want to interrogate further is the concept of “accountability” in population surveys. Talking with my CPA colleagues conducting the survey, I noted how especially in focus groups with kids, someone will say in one breath that the LRA and the government/UPDF should be held accountable for what they’ve done and that everything should be forgiven for the sake of peace and there should be amnesty. So I asked, what I thought were obvious questions, “are they confused? do they feel they are obliged to answer in one way but then say how they really feel? Why such contradictory answers by the same people?” But then I realized the contradiction may be a cultural construct of accountability in me (and I think probably many other western people involved in population surveys). Yes there should be accountability. Yes, there should be amnesty. My colleagues told me to listen closer to the explanations of accountability. What I heard--they want compensation and restitution. Exactly what form differed, some actually think 7 cows should be given for each life lost or to every family in northern Uganda, and others want the destroyed churches and schools to be rebuilt and free education. But accountability explanations that I heard from kids (again, anecdotal, I don't’ have all the data yet) didn’t include judicial processes. The adults varied more, some said, “take them all to court!” one woman threatened to cut off the ears of Musevini and Kony, and many had similar views as the children. Some said they were ready to forgive everything unconditionally as a moral and spiritual choice, and others said forgiveness will happen only when all those killed are brought back from the dead.

I listened to a lot of stories. Sometimes what I hear is just so broken—so out of the frame of reference of my own understanding for human interaction, that regardless of how many times I hear the stories and see the faces it doesn’t become normal-- it still shocks the conscience. One boy in a children’s focus group stood out to me even before we started talking. We had individual interviews afterwards with formerly abducted children so we talked with him more though he was very open even with the other children. He was tiny, with big thoughtful eyes, and a ready smile. In his brightly colored thread bare school uniform I would’ve guessed he was no older than 9 but he’s 12. He was abducted when he was 7 and in the LRA for a year. He’s doing well now, he has no nightmares and feels he’s been cleansed from the past but he wishes he could be forgiven by the people he killed. He wasn’t given a gun, but he said, “what I did was worse, I killed indirectly. They gave me a whistle and I had to blow it when I saw someone trying to escape. I always wondered, if I took the risk and didn’t blow the whistle, maybe I could’ve made them believe that I didn’t see the person and they would still be alive. But I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me and I’d be killed, but I know it was wrong to blow the whistle. I killed so many people.” When he talked of forgiveness from the families, he said, “Is it really possible? Wouldn’t they just be angry and kill me?” I want to find out. He has taken on so much guilt and it is too heavy a burden for this child to bear. He needs to hear that he is not blamed and he’s forgiven. Is it really possible? What if an elder in the community where he fearfully blew the whistle could meet him and release him from the guilt he’s carrying? Maybe it’s possible for him to grow up with a lighter load on his shoulders.

There are so many children like him. A travesty of the re-integration process is that talking about the past or remembering it is often discouraged which risks that the pain and guilt inspired by crimes they participated in (forced or with some level of real or perceived agency) is downplayed. Maybe a “way forward” is to make safe spaces for kids like this to tell their stories and be shown mercy.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


by Ben

I was trying to relax one Saturday afternoon, when I realized I felt to hot to get up and do anything...except cool off in some water. While I would love to dig a pool in my back yard, that project seemed to extreme. Then it came to me, Slip N Slide!

I didn't know it was going to be so popular with the neighbor kids. I stopped off at the neighbor's house and asked the kids if they wanted to play, and if so, to go and finds some friends. Five minutes later 40 children showed up at our gate.

I invented a make-shift Slip N Slide until Josh and Erin sent us a genuine WHAM-O one (Thanks you guys!) It is such a blast to share a piece of my childhood with all the kids here (It's actually a good excuse to act like a boy again myself:)

At this point, I'm not sure how we're going to slow down the Slip N Slide momentum at our house. Kids come at all times of the day (including sun-up and sun-down) to ask if they can "Sleep and Slide". I come across children several Kilometers away from our house who ask "Ben, when can we come play...make sure Ogiko is on his chain"

Today we had our friend Godfrey and his family over. It has been nice to share life outside of the office with him.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Honeymoon Birthday

by Ben
Holly’s Dutch friend couldn’t remember the word anniversary, so she called our recent trip our “Honeymoon Birthday”, and we liked it. Last week we celebrated 5 years of being married! We spent one week on the exotic island of Unguja (AKA Zanzibar-Zanzibar is actually an Archipelago made up of several islands)

We spent a couple days in beach bungalows on the East coast. The beautiful white sand beaches slowed our walking speed and the relaxing atmosphere coaxed us into long conversations. The only thing separating us from the water were a couple of trees holding a hammock.

We stayed a little further down the beach for three days (one of which was our anniversary). Our agenda included: reading books, praying, yoga, runs on the beach, eating, and enjoying each other. However, on one of the days we went for a snorkeling and octopus hunting trip. On Unguja, the tide moves over 1 KM twice per day. When the tide is out, a shallow-water boat takes you off-shore to reefs normally under several meters of water. We caught two octopus (octopi???) and within the hour, brought them back for our chef to prepare. Delicious!

We also spent two nights in Stone Town. The mystique of both the Swahili Empire and the Omani Sultanate were captured as we walked through the incredible outdoor markets and ornately carved doors on narrow streets. We watched the sunset on a roof-top restaurant, slowly digesting 6 courses and listening to the call to prayer (Stone Town reminded Holly of Baku, Azerbaijan)

It was a time of affirming our marriage, gratefulness to God, talking over the highlights of the last 5 years, and vision for the next…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Land of outlawed plastic bags...1000 hills...and genocide

by: Holly

A week in Rwanda was filled with a handful of meetings with people working on reconciliation or transitional justice issues. I met with a couple of local NGOs, folks from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a Gacaca judge, and a victim's rights advocate. Besides the meetings, I had the sobering privilege of spending a few hours in the genocide museum/memorial and visiting two of the genocide sites in more rural areas outside Kigali. It was a time of reflection on the 800,000 lives that were ended during 100 terrible days in 1994. Appropriately, I was disturbed by much of what I saw. Not in a despairing way--because throughout the time there was a deep sense that I was witnessing something which had past and that today is a different day.

In the genocide memorial, perched on one of the thousand hills Rwanda boasts (and they should be proud, the hills are truly lovely)I noted the way the information was presented. Much of it I knew but I enjoy seeing which details are given priority and speculating about the interests involved in those decisions. Looking at photos--babies in bathtubs, young couples wedding, grandmothers bouncing toddlers, cool looking young men sporting the latest fashion, business men, farmers--I felt the value in being a witness to what happened to them. Somewhere in the exhibit the genocide was called, "the worst excesses of human behavior." A quote on a wall read, "There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity." Yollande Mukagasana. Another one said, "If you had really known me and known yourself you would not have killed me."

Before I walked out on the gardens and mass grave on the hill I went through a section devoted to children. It was full of portraits and bits of information about the kids, including the way they died. A photo of a girl with big pretty eyes, cause of death: stabbed in the eyes. A baby with curly hair--my mind flashed back to earlier in the day, I saw a little boy that looked just like him while I was drinking coffee, cause of death: smashed against a wall. Chanelle was 8 and her favorite song was, "My Native Land Which God Chose For Me." She was killed with a machete. Surely, that's not what God chose for her.

What a strange world this is, where I can witness such grave crime and suffering and an hour later be pleased with a coffee cup that was warm, served with whipped cream and good customer service unheard of in Uganda. Where I look forward to a week of luxurious celebration on white sand beaches on my 5 year anniversary trip. Is this really the same planet where babies are smashed and dull machetes end the lives of our neighbors at our own hands?

Many people were killed in churches where they had crowded hoping to find santuary. I visited two churches, Ntarama and Nyamata. In Ntarama church five thousand people lost their lives. The woman who showed us the place spoke broken English. When I walked in the door immediately in the entrance are shelves of skulls and bones sorted and stacked. The late afternoon sun cast light through the doorway and two windows--expanded by the grenades used to enter the church during the genocide. The woman said, "This was church."

I looked at the remnants of the congregation--the dry bones and I thought, "yes, this was the church." I felt sick and didn't know if it was the thoughts in my head imagining that day or the smell of lost lives that somehow still hangs in the air and clings to the musty and bloodied piles of clothes removed from the dead.

In Nyamata church ten thousand people died. Though it is more sanitized and the bones kept in glass cases, there are blood stained walls and the altar cloth remains. I could hear birds in the trees outside and the voices of children too young to remember the terror of those 100 days running home from school. How did this alter cloth soak up so much blood from the church floor with the statue of Mary looking on?

Outside the church I went into a hole in the ground, a deep hole with the bones of another 40,000 people who were killed in the town surrounding the church. I could barely breathe. It is a valley of death. I didn't think I could do it, I felt like I'd be suffocated from the pain. But out of respect for the survivor that was showing us the place, I descended the steep concrete stairs. Another grave was put for 100 people who were thrown in the pit latrines. The place had cleaned up death. I hope they never sanitize the first church. Genocide can't be made more palatable for the comfort of our memories. We need to see it for the nightmare it is.

In the memorial, looking at the portraits of children, in the churches, in the graves--I just kept wanting to apologize. A constant, "I'm sorry" was in my mind and on my lips. And then I asked myself, "who am I saying sorry to? the dead? the survivors? the families? God? humanity? And on behalf of who? the genocaidaires? the international community? humanity?" I realized there was no who. The distinctions and independent units seemed somehow irrelevant. Instead, this happened to us--it is our story. We have killed. We have been hurt. We have been killed. We are broken.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

It is Possible

by Holly
Last night I was chatting with a Ugandan colleague about the preparation NGOs have been doing for the return of an expected 2,000 women and children from the LRA. I said I hoped it would be soon. He replied with emotion, “I doubt it.” Both of us said together in almost the same breath, “but we have to hope.” I had an interesting encounter with a Special Advisor to the President in Gulu recently and got a little insight. The celebrated but little understood “agreement” that was recently signed between the LRA and Government of Uganda negotiating teams on accountability, the 3rd agenda of the peace talks, is reportedly not an agreement but principles that should apply to whatever agreement is reached. So, we’re not quite as far down the road as the local press made it seem.

Last weekend after we celebrated the MoU signing for the EU grant (“cause to celebrate”) we stopped in Barlonyo on the way back to Lira. In 2004 the LRA attacked and massacred a lot of people there. A mass grave and memorial was built on the site. The plaque on the memorial reads that on that day “121 innocent civilians were killed by LRA terrorists.” The local government says it was 314 people. I sat and prayed for a few minutes. The words running through my mind were familiar. I felt again the deep pain of people who have known too much violence, the groaning of the blood soaked ground, the hope that it would not happen again, that it is over and that healing is coming. I felt it in Srebrenica at the commemoration day of prayer, 10 years after Serbs killed over seven thousand men and boys. I felt it when I prayed on dusty streets in Palestine on the Reconciliation Walk just 2 months before the second intifada started. I heard someone say recently that if you act like you have faith the faith will follow—I don’t know if that’s quite true, but when I get tired or discouraged lately I’ve been saying to myself, “it is possible.” And I think it’s working, because I feel a greater sense of the vision and hope the statement implies. It is possible when we make daily decisions and decide to take steps toward peace, however far away we may feel at the time. It’s a journey, gratefully we don’t travel alone. At CPA we are on that road and we are moving forward.

CPA has begun a project called “Steps Toward Reconciliation.” (Funded by MCC.) The goal is to empower CPA’s community structures of parents and youth to advocate for peace, constructively respond to conflict, and participate in reconciliation. It is initiated and led by parents who are committed to a personal and community process of reconciliation. The project responds to the ongoing emphasis on the importance of incorporating local level mechanisms into a transitional justice strategy.

By the completion of the plan, four steps towards reconciliation will have been taken:

1. Consensus will be built on applying traditional methods of restorative justice in Lango. Significant effort has been made in Acholi to build consensus on how traditional forms of justice can be adapted and used in the modern circumstances. The relevance of this discussion extends beyond the Acholi sub-region to the Greater North, including the Lango Sub-Region, Teso, Karimoja, and the tribes in Arua West Nile. Little has been done outside Acholi to document and build consensus among clan and traditional leaders around traditional justice. As CPA is operational in Lango and Acholi, the project will document and build consensus on the application of traditional justice mechanisms in the Lango Sub-region.

2. Directly affected parents will publicly forgive the Ex-LRA Commanders who have returned to the community. A series of preparatory meetings will be held with the directly affected parties (beginning with founder parents) and their families and clans and separately with the ex-LRA commanders and their families and clans. The preparatory meetings will culminate in a day of forgiveness for those who want to participate. The event will celebrate the progress made toward reconciliation and share practical experiences about the process.

3. A delegation of most affected parents will take that message of forgiveness and restorative justice to the top LRA leadership and negotiating teams. Having documented and compiled practical examples of traditional justice and restitution mechanisms as well as forgiveness and reconciliation, parents will take these practical experiences to the people who are critical decision makers in the peace process. CPA believes that the voice of parents must be heard and considered as part of the negotiations, specifically as discussions are held on issues of accountability and on comprehensive solutions.

4. Parent Support Groups and Youth Groups will be empowered to transform conflict, reconcile and mediate between conflicting families and clans through 100 trained mediators from those groups. Mediators will contribute to the reunification of families as formerly-abducted children return and mediate in the many conflicts between families/clans that are a result of the war. Traditional reconciliation ceremonies will be supported. The experiences of reconciliation will be documented and shared through publications and radio providing a public example of practical forgiveness, truth telling and restorative justice as a way to peace in northern Uganda.

I was trying to think of a catchy name or slogan for the community mediators. The word “mediator” doesn’t translate well into Acholi and Lango. It makes people think more of a match maker Fiddler-on-the-roof style than it does someone who can facilitate a positive space for conflicting parties to brainstorm and agree on solutions. I was thinking of calling them yeast. Just a little bit of it in the bread of northern Uganda can transform everything making the whole thing rise. But then I was told that that in Lango and Acholi if you call someone “yeast” it’s saying they’re a drunkard because it’s used to make the local beer. So the mediators would’ve all been wearing T-shirts that said “Drunkards for Peace.” I’d still like to use some symbol that carries the hope of the power of small things to change everything--something that will encourage the mediators, me and others, when the inevitable fatigue or discouragement comes—to remember that it is possible. Any suggestions?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cause for Celebration

by Ben

Holly and I want to share the joy and success of CPA with all of our friends and family over a significant accomplishment. A few months ago the European Union put out a call for proposals entitled "Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Programme". 90 applicants went through the laborious process of applying, with only 8 organizations to recieve the award. CPA was one of those 8, and the only local organization working in Northern Uganda to recieve funding! It was a cause for celebration, a moment that we could take a breath and say "job well done" to ourselves and the entire CPA staff. This funding accounts for a large portion of our three year plan. Now we're gearing up for the challenge and are ready to give this programme our full effort.

(Here is Holly, Betty, and Sylvia on the evening of the MOU signing)

(CPA's chairperson and mother, Angelina, congratulating her children)

Friday, July 13, 2007

3 words 3 desires

Recently I read a novel. I had the feeling that half the women in the US who are 20 or 30 something have read it, are reading it or are planning to read it. But since I'm in Uganda I have no idea what the popular opinion or hype about it is. The book itself was a nice way to spend a couple of evenings feeling a little more connected to my cultural peers (and comparing my own experiences with those of the main character in Italy and India with pasta, italian and yoga). I like Rumi (the Sufi poet) and I don't know the context or what he said because I'm getting this from the book and not direct from the source, but the novel says that Rumi says that we all have 3 things that are the essence of what we really desire and want in life. We can narrow it down to three words. And then if we discover that any of those three things conflict with each other we will be miserable--so better to just pick one of them and stick with it. I don't know if it's supposed to be a static thing, that for our whole lives there are really only three things that we want, but I thought about the core of my consistent desires and I think it's all captured in three words:




Beauty could be the feeling of sand between my toes with my feet up on the dashboard with great music playing, or Acholis dancing, or the smell of Colorado air the first day of a new season, it could be the flowers blooming around my back porch, or it could be really good swiss chocolate sent in a care package that I eat after a long day at work, or it could be a moment between a friend or partner that you realize is something unique and shared or it could be purple pillows.

Love I don't want to sort it into categories. Describing it would almost certainly cheapen it (at least with my limited mastery of the English language). Maybe the only thing to say is that the desire is for love, not for me or from me but just love and more of it.

Redemption, I struggled to think of the third word although I feel the desire most strongly and am driven by it all the time--giving it a name was tricky because it changes. The desire in it's purest form is redemption--wanting everything and everyone to be restored to all that they should be and to be a part of that process. In it's most selfish form, it's just a desire for power. But since I think it's better to nurture my purer desires, I'll focus on redemption.

Ben's are: wisdom, love and contentment.

What are your three words?

Thursday, July 05, 2007


by Ben

I have always liked gardening. One of my first memories is going to my mom and asking her if I need needed to buy my own tools if I wanted to go to farmers college. But here in Uganda, my love of gardening has come alive. It certainly helps to have year-round warm weather and fertile soil. But the act of digging, planting, weeding, creating, and nurturing the land has given me rest in times of chaos.

Anyone who knows me will say I'm a "doer". I need to be productive. Standard ways of relaxation (yoga, meditation/prayer, journaling, sunbathing) don't stimulate me enough-my mind wanders. I need to be slightly active in something to actually free my mind and process my thoughts. And gardening is the perfect medium. Another similar activity is fishing--you're busy baiting the hook, casting and reeling, but it really doesn't take away from personal reflection and processing.

A typical evening in the garden: It's 6:00PM. I get home from work and take a few minutes to play with Ogiko and change into old clothes. I'm emotionally tired from a hectic day. I could escape into a book, movie or food, but I sense the need to process my day. I go to the shed and pick up my hoe. I feel the cool grass under my bare feet as I walk across the yard. I begin digging the ground around the green pepper plants. The ground is soft because I dig it frequently. The soil is black. In the distance I hear a rooster crowing and children playing. The sun is gently setting. I plunge my hand into the loose soil, pick up a handful and squeeze it. It smells rich with nutrients. By now I'm sweating and my muscles are warm. All of the sudden I feel balanced and connected to the earth. I can begin to look back at my day with healthy perspective. Anxiety and stress has been washed away and replaced with a sense of gratitude.

This is a picture of what I pick out of my garden daily (besides the pineapple-this is our first one). In front are two varieties of jalepeno peppers, next to a sprig of basil. To the right are some cucumbers. In the blue bowl are several varieties of tomatoes. Behind the tomatoes are passion fruit, and a pineapple to the left. Between the bowls are a couple of green peppers.

Still to come: onions, peanuts, carrots, broccolli, cassava, eggplant, spinach, and lemon grass. Other fruits include: guava, bannana, mango, and avocado.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A few pictures and thoughts

by Ben
I don't have any profound thoughts or insights, but I wanted to put a few pictures on our blog. Life has been full...and good.

Two weeks ago a group from our home church came to Lira. We set one day aside for a "solidarity day". Upon our arrival at an IDP camp about 2 hours out of town, men and women were divided and assigned everyday life tasks. Women went to go shopping and prepared food, while men dug in a rice field and tried to thatch a roof. It was probably a first for many of the women to get beef from a recently butchered cow placed on banana leaves on the side of a dirt road. They simply pointed to the part they wanted and someone hacked it off.

(This is Zach, Kimuli, Patrick and a guy from the camp digging in the rice swamp)

(This is Zach sitting on a grass roof after separating the grass, thinking, "So, I'm suppose to jump down like that too?" This is a hut for two boys who lost both of their parents in an LRA attack)

(This is a picture of a baboon after stealing our cookies out of the truck. Ask Zach for an impersonation.)

We also went on a game drive.

(The raw beauty of Uganda never ceases to amaze me)

On a different note, I was in Gulu last week, for the first of a four-week training in Narrative Exposure Therapy (for my trainers and other local staff from rehabilitation centers across N. Uganda). I am very excited about this training. It is being facilitated by researchers and professors from Germany. The therapy model is adapted for children in Northern Uganda and research has proven its effectiveness. Until recently any empirical data on prevelance or effective treatment of mental health disorders has been almost completely absent. I am grateful to be a part of this training and really sense people's committement to raising standards of psychosocial care in N. Uganda. I also co-chaired the first meeting of a new group called "Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Technical Team for Northern Uganda" with Quaker Peace and Social Witness last Friday. There seems to be increasing mommentum for this kind of work and I'm excited to see where this group takes us.

World Sorrow

by Holly
I used to like very serious movies with painful subject matter. No need for happy endings--I liked movies that depicted the sorrow of the human experience. Not that I don't still appreciate the art of honesty in film--but I just don't feel like I have the space to take it in. These days I only watch things that make me laugh. At the end of the day I don't need any more reminders of how painful living on earth is.

Lately, I've been pouring all my energy into work--and while the last month has been one that has been unparalleled with impact and significance for me, I'm tired and kind of stressed out. My body tends to take it on, so in an effort to surrender (and inspired by another yoga journal that Ryan sent me via the Celebration crew), I'm spending more time on my mat getting centered, grounded, and opening my heart, making some space in this crowded soul of mine.

There's an article in the journal about sadness and grief. Personally, I feel ridiculously blessed to have had an unfairly preserved life--If there is a reason, then I sometimes think it is so I have the capacity to feel more "Welt schmerz" or world sorrow--a sadness that arises without a personal cause--a transcendant feeling of pain for the state of the world. (apparently, this is written about in a book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the Sorrows of Young Worther, which I've never read but I'm now intrigued and if I can make enough space to handle something sad in my free time I will) I remember once calling my dad in tears, when I was having a crisis of faith and wondering if God was indeed good--and his first response was to ask whether it was me or a close friend who had experienced some great pain. It was neither, I was still in university and a war I opposed was starting and I was studying genocide and angry about unanswered prayer in Darfur and I just couldn't handle it anymore.

So, I've been thinking about the constructive potential of sadness--at the same time the risk of spiralling feelings of hopelessness and lack of vision that lead to a destination of either cynicism or resignation. The constructive potential is when we recognize that suffering is not personal but universal to the human experience. I say it has potential because the risk in recognizing the pervasiveness of suffering is that it can evoke paralysis, or feelings along the lines of the writer of Ecclesiastes, "everything is meaningless."

The other option is that it has the potential to inspire great compassion. I'd choose compassion over paralysis any day--but compassion is not a solitary discipline. I'm convinced that sorrow over the state of the world is channeled into creative and active compassion through community.

That means, as much as I enjoy doing yoga--I can't tranform strong negative emotions by myself--or just by realizing that I'm connected to everyone else, I think it's active, I have to be connected. God's spirit transforms through the experience of community.

It was a great blessing to have these beautiful people from Celebration in Lira. It was encouraging to be with them while they also wrestled with the tension between great compassion and debilitating hopelessness. It's a reminder that the struggle is worth it, and I'm grateful for their presence, from the first evening of receiving cards, books, and yummy things from home (Thank you everyone from CCC that sent us stuff!) to Solidarity Day in an IDP camp, to evening conversations, blueberry pancakes, lions in the rain, and swimming while overlooking the Nile.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Big Daddy Gave Me a Name

After an hour of bumping over potholes on narrow red dirt roads, our car pulled up at the home of “Won Nyaci” the Paramount Chief of the Lango tribe. CPA parents have been asking what we can do now to work for peace and reconciliation and what our unique role in that process should be. We’ve decided on 4 “Steps Toward Reconciliation” that we can take and we began the journey this morning. Tomorrow we’ll go to Gulu to meet with Rwot Acana the Acholi Paramount Chief. A team of 5 parents and a couple of “technical people,” like me make up the group.

We were led to a grass thatched open hut. The door is so low we had to duck to get inside. When I entered I saw the chief, or the Big Daddy—which is the literal translation of what most Langi call him. Unlike other times, when I’ve seen him decked out in colorful African fabrics, he was dressed in simple western clothes. The two other women got on their knees to greet him. No one briefed me on protocol and I’m a little uncomfortable kneeling in front of anyone—but I tried to look humble and kind of curtsied a little while I shook his hand. This was such a curious but significant meeting. Chickens walked along the edge of the open room which was lined by 15 wooden chairs with fuzzy leopard print cushions. His wife began praying as soon as we came and then walked back and forth with a handkerchief and an inhaler. She liked to move and seemed friendly and full of energy. Big daddy on the other hand sat very still and drew long breaths and smiled with his kind eyes. Angelina (CPA’s chairperson and great mentor and inspiration to me) explained about the new program of reconciliation that CPA is beginning and the vision behind it. She introduced everyone and told him about the work I’ve been doing with CPA for the past year and a half. Then each parent talked from their experiences and spoke their desire for peace.

People talked slowly to Big Daddy, as if every word deserved time and space and held some special power if it was considered and accepted by the listener. On paper, when I worked on the proposal to get funding for this project, this meeting looked very different. But here I was in this hut and it was so real. Each parent here had a daughter abducted. Each of them are raising the grandchildren of LRA commanders. One of them is still waiting for his daughter’s return. She’s still in Kony’s house—and here they are talking about reconciliation as if it’s a real and possible thing for them. They have turned such unspeakable pain into contagious energy for healing. Each word they speak does have power.

The entire meeting was in Lango—which I can catch bits and pieces of but my comprehension is often a combination of a few words and a lot of guess work. When it was time for Big Daddy to say something he looked thoughtful and then got out a piece of paper. Slowly and deliberately he wrote four names and then explained what each of them meant. One was someone who is feared, one was someone who organizes and keeps house well, I didn’t understand the third one, and the fourth was one who is so precious to everyone that her contribution to the community is invaluable. When he read the last name on the list the parents I was with nodded and made affirming noises and Angelina started to clap. I didn’t know what was going on but then he explained. The names are only given to women who have done great things for the Lango community and who deserve a special name. These aren’t names that are given at birth, but they have to be earned. He says that I need to be given a great Lango name and as the chief of Lango he will name me. The parents should confirm which of the four names is right for me. From that moment they stopped calling me Holly and started calling me Elit.

Big Daddy expressed his commitment to support our initiative and talked about how he felt it complemented other current efforts of peacebuilding in northern Uganda. At what we thought was the end of the conversation Angelina thanked them and said we should be going, but the Big Mommy jumped up. She shook her finger, scolding us, “when you are a visitor it is not you to decide when you are leaving. It is us who will release you and I have refused.” Then she bustled out of the room, ducking through the low door and walked to the smoking mud shack I assume is the kitchen where they were making us food. Five chickens perched on the edge of the room and watched us eat while what must have been a new litter of puppies cried and pawed at the board that barred their entrance into the room.

What we write in project documents packages a meeting like this with goals, objectives and objectively verifiable indicators. Program design makes it all seem so straightforward, predictable and measurable. But the reality is almost always decidedly stranger—and often more powerful.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Traditional Wedding (by Ben)

(The group from Lira)

Yesterday, Holly and I went to a village outside of a small town bordering Congo to attend a friend’s wedding. Carol, the bride (who works with us at CPA) grew up in the village near Congo, while Tom, the groom (a good friend) grew up in Lira. As such, we all woke up very early and caravanned to the village. Several goats and cows accompanied us on the journey.

(Congratulating Tom)

Holly and I have attended wedding ceremonies before, but this was the first one we really felt integrated with the other guests; the newly weds are friends of ours, and we had been to enough ceremonies like this to know how to conduct ourselves.

(Holly in her stylish Gomaz)

Holly wore a traditional dress called a gomaz, and I wore the traditional suit. After we arrived at the wedding, we waited for the “negotiations” between Tom’s elders and Carol’s elders to decide on the “bride price”. Half and hour was designated for the negotiations, but they lasted for over five hours. By the time they finished it was dark. But no problem…it was time to celebrate! Women were ululating, pounding the ground with weeding hoes, and waving dried fish on a stick. In the initial hours, men needed to wear a stern face, without smiling, or they would be fined. After speeches by fathers, everyone was allowed to visibly enjoy themselves.
(traditional dancing)

(Carol the bride)

Theories of Nonviolence and Community Reconciliation (by Ben)

(Lam and I)

Last week Holly and I were with CPA’s trainers in Soroti, Uganda. This was our eighth out of ten training modules. Holly and Lam (an Acholi peace activist) worked together to bring new levels of understanding and commitment to nonviolence. Lam vividly described his real life experiences and challenges of brining peace to Northern Uganda, while Holly placed new ideas and inspired reconciliation.

(Holly teaching a model on reconciliation designed by JP Lederach)

A common training technique to get participants to express and debate their views is an activity called “Agree-Disagree”. After a statement is read, individuals take a position by standing along the spectrum of "agreeing" or "disagreeing". One statement provoked an interesting discussion. It is a widely-held belief in the community that “the best punishment for a thief is death.” Participants stood along the entire spectrum of this statement. The legal system is Uganda is so unstable at times that “taking justice into your own hands” is the only way to deter crime. If thieves are brought to the police station, the police will often tell them that they should’ve been dealt with in the traditional way, and that they would release the thief in a day or so. Mob justice certainly is an effective deterrent to crime (and thousands lose their lives to mob violence every year). One trainer raised her hand and spoke of the passage in the Gospels where an angry mob is ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. In this story, Jesus says, “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone”. Slowly the crowd dissipated with the elders first to leave. Holly then asked, “Raise your hand if you have ever stolen anything in your life. Whether it be large sums of money or knowingly accepting more change than you were owed after a purchase”. Everyone raised their hands...and there was silence. The following day some participants expressed their new views: that killing wasn’t the answer. This led to discussions and questions on “what true restoration, reconciliation and rehabilitation would look like in Northern Uganda”

(Trainers hard at work)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Labor Day Football (by Ben)

Hi Friends,
We spend a lot of time doing our routine work in the office, but when we break away, it's fun share with all of you. On labor day, Holly and I traveled to Gulu for a Bi-annual football tournament. Several NGO's spend months training to win the tournament. This year, CPA was geared up and ready to defeat the returning champion, CARITAS.

Training and playing football keeps a lot of us balanced. Adrenaline and endorphins flood into our bloodstream and give us natural highs, as stresses from the office fade away. We were defeated again this year. 0-1. It was a good game and we're already looking forward to the rematch in October!


(Our "football mothers". Members of CPA's board who came to support our team)

Next week we're both out of town conducting a training in "Peacebuilding: Theories of Non-violence and Community Reconciliation". We hope to keep you posted.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Friends Continued (by Ben)

Yesterday we celebrated the birthdays of two of our closest work colleagues. On this special day, the birthday boys are called "Babies". Birthdays are often recognized in Uganda (especially if the D.O.B. is known), but seldom is a birthday an occasion for a party. Imagine the drain on resources if you had a party for all 15 of your children...

(Tonny "Warming Up" for the competition)

Godfrey, CPA's program manager, celebrated his first b-day party at the age of 35, and Tonny, the District Coordinator, had celebrated once before. We had an afternoon of games and competitions, an evening meal, and two cakes for the group of about 25 close friends and colleagues. Godfrey's cake read "Mzee (elder) Okello". He then turned to the oldest man in the room and sincerely asked, "May I be received into Mzee-hood?"

(Godfrey showing us his strokes in the dance competition)

Godfrey and Tonny were touched by the outpouring of affection and gifts given to them on their day. After presenting the gifts, all spoke aloud "what we liked best about the birthday boys". Godfrey's son (age 5) came up to him after the gifts were given and said with surprise, "Why is everyone giving you free things? I'm little, why don't I get something?" As it turns out, Tonny's team won the dance competition and won.... A NEW CAR!!! a prize. Because it was a toy car, Tonny was generous enough to give Godfrey's son something after all.

(Godfrey's children, Dan and Rachel also wanted to show us how to dance)

There is something bonding about celebrating a common tradition with our friends here. Sharing this experience made me feel closer to my culture and to theirs.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Friends and Family: by Ben

Having Travis with us for the past week really made me wish that all of our friends and family were closer. It feels like there is something “hard-wired” into me that makes me crave long-term relationships and regular contact with those I love most. Many of our African friends have such pity on us for being so far away from our families; they can’t imagine a life so far away from their families. In the West, we have access to travel that takes us to the ends of the earth in relatively little time. Jobs easily take us to other cities, states, and continents, and our contact with our loved ones diminishes.

I just finished a training on indigenous ways of healing. In this module we discussed ways in which people have traditionally sought healing through community collectivism and various ceremonies. I learned so much, and was amazed at the richness of social support built into the culture. We learned traditional ceremonies meant to cure physical, emotional, and spiritual illnesses, but we also learned about lifestyle practices such as hunting (dwar), sitting around the fireplace (Wang Oo), and dancing/singing (Myelo/Wer) that naturally build a sense of community cohesion.

There is a controversial debate whether resilience is a product of nature or nurture. Some people believe that resilience is inherited; that some individuals have a resilience gene or perhaps inherit a resilient personality. Others believe that it is the neurobiological process that occurs after the initial fight/flight survival reaction. The absence of “calming” hormones after the survival reaction leaves people over-alert; consciously and subconsciously awaiting a reoccurrence of the traumatic event. Such hyper-vigilance also works against our physical bodies. Others believe it is the social support offered after an individual has endured a traumatic event.

(This is one of seven parent support group representative trainers)

I suppose the answer should consider all of these factors. However, living in Uganda has highlighted the social support component of resilience. Imagine the personal resources someone has when in the presence of generations of family and a cohesive community versus going through a mental breakdown in an alien or isolated environment such as a hospital. All this to say that my heart is torn between the longing I feel from being so far away from friends and family and the joy I feel in sharing my life with remarkable friends here.