Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Bits and Bobs

by Ben

Please forgive us for our lack of communication over the past couple of months. Not surprisingly, life in London is full of opportunities that send my easily-distracted mind (and person) on continuous and exciting tangents.

Maybe we’re still in the honeymoon phase of re-entry, but our transition into London life has been very pleasant, not least because Holly’s parents and sister are nearby and we have a great place to live and fun flat-mate.

My professor of the refugee studies class I’m taking coined the phrase “nostalgic disorientation” to describe a common experience of refugees in asylum countries. It is the phenomenon of a mixture of emotions like frustration, sadness, angst, confusion,……disorientation, but not really knowing why. He talks about the “mosaic” or “tapestry” that is home, including the tangible and intangible elements that are continually processed intuitively. On a much different level than a refugee, I can relate to this confusing nostalgia. A few days ago, I suddenly became aware of the absence of African music playing behind our house and the murmur of men gathered around the drinking pot. Where is the ubiquitous scent of sunflower oil, the warmth of the red earth, the sound of children laughing and crying, the breeze coming through open windows, or the occasional roar of youth watching a football match down the road? Sometimes, I imagine the buzzing of mosquitoes at my ear and try to make sure the net is in place when I fully wake up and realize where I am.

Thanksgiving really highlighted the difference in our new environment. We always celebrated Thanksgiving in Uganda, but I had to kill the turkey, Holly had to roll the pie crusts on the floor, and 50 people came to eat in the front lawn. It was so nice to be with family this year. We shared our thankfulness with one another, cuddled around the fireplace to talk philosophy and theology, and ate delicious food for hours on end.

Jay and Teri wanted to minimize my culture shock so they let me pretend that I was going to kill the turkey (that came in plastic wrap with the inner organs tied neatly inside)

Here is Holly and I hanging the mistletoe. Guess what we did when I put her down :)

Teri thought I would look nice with a raw liver mustache

Last weekend we attended the European gathering, a place for leaders in high profile places and up-and-coming leaders to network and talk about how their faith impacts and influences their work.

The venue for the gathering

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Out of Africa

As you can imagine, this photos was not taken in Lira, Uganda. (behind Dad's new boat in Colorado)

The last three years of my life cannot be described in absolutes, nor can the people of Uganda be described in a blog posting. I can say absolutely, however, that I found another piece of myself in Uganda. By engaging in a culture radically different from my own, I have shaken off big pieces of what both cultures have led me to believe as true or right and now live knowing fewer truths, but holding them stronger. It is difficult to hold these worldviews simultaneously. Someone told me in church yesterday, that "our true selves only emerge after being put through trying experiences", using the analogy of a teabag being placed in hot water (a proper English analogy).

I like analogies, more so, I like twisting or stretching their meaning past the original intention. If I am a "teabag" and have been placed in hot water through my experience in Uganda, and am now being placed in another cup of hot water in London, I ask myself, "Is my flavor going to run out or get weak?" Before landing in London, I was accepted into a PhD programme for the therapeutic care of refugees at Essex University. I also decided that I was going to find a job and work full time. In other words, I wanted to put the same used teabag into another cup of boiling hot water. After some prayer and reflection, I decided that I needed something else this year. As a counsellor, I have given advise about self care to many burnt out, disillusioned, cynical, and angry workers who have depleted their energy, ambition, hope and meaning. I made the tough decision to seek spiritual and psychological restoration over my drive to excel academically and professionally. I will not be joining the PhD course this year.

What this will look like is still unfolding, but I already have a good start. I am looking for part time work and voluntary opportunities with agencies who work therapeutically with refugees (and have a few leads). I am creating enough space to respond spontaneously to artistic and intellectual events. I have already attended public lectures by : Lord Nick Stern (leading climate change activist), Luis Moreno-Ocampo (Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court) and tonight Thomas Friedman (of the NY Times). I am also looking for ways to rejuvenate spiritually, both in community and individually. I will still be attending the most interesting class of the PhD programme called "Working with Refugee Families". I also realized that overloading myself with work and school would distract from my desire to be more available and loving to Holly, so one of my goals is to be a better support to her this year. And, I have joined the LSE orchestra! We had rehearsal last night and I am overjoyed to be playing cello again. Lastly, I wanted some time to think about and potentially start fundraising for a very exciting idea that has been surfacing regarding an initiative with war-affected youth in Uganda next year (Ask me more!).

So, family and friends, go get another teabag. Life is too short to spend it spent.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Kitenge in London

The move to London has been a contemplative transition. It’s prompted me to ask profound questions about the universe and the nature of life, such as: Do all the women in London live with feet that hurt? Or do they adjust to walking long distances at frantic paces in such high heels? Are all the people in London cold? They must not be. They must adjust, because when they are in short sleeved shirts on a pleasantly sunny autumn day I’m still fidgeting with my scarf and sweater (I think I’ll keep calling a sweater a sweater. I am comfortable with changing my vernacular from trash to rubbish, cilantro to corriander and a toilet to a lieu, and pants to trousers, but calling a sweater a jumper conjures images of myself in the eighties and dress-like things with huge arm holes I wore over turtle necks --I’m happy to leave that memory in the past) and occasionally shivering.

Tina met me at the airport with a housewarming orchid, a big hug and smile and all the makings for supper in her weekend bag. The next three days she gave me a crash course in shopping and public transportation in London. Yesterday when I picked Ben up from the airport I appreciated my progress in London geography as I tried to pass it on. I was even asked for directions inside the tube by an elderly Italian man and I was actually able to direct him. I missed my train in the process, but another one came a minute later and it was unquestionable worth the little delay to help him. He grabbed both of my hands and shook them and said, “bless you!” It is not easy being a foreigner in a strange place.

At least I’ve got the geography of my new kitchen down now. Our house-mate is out of town so we’re exploring on our own (though he left us such a thoughtful welcome in our room we felt warmly received). I know where the herbs, pots and pans and the plates are located. I even know where to go to re-stock the kitchen. There are small supermarkets and vendors with butchers and fruits and veggies in walking distance. Our neighbourhood (According to a friendly Indian shop owner who made me tea and chatted with me while fixing a broken pair of earrings he refused let me pay for) has about one third actual British people and the rest are mostly from Nigeria, Somalia, Ghana, India and Pakistan. I felt so at home yesterday in the supermarket when a woman used a piece of kitenge fabric and re-tied her baby on her back exactly the way Ugandan moms do. People in the neighbourhood have, so far, been friendly, they even say hello when you pass them on the street sometimes. Tina says that’s so not like London. When I told Ben about the old man in the subway he said the same thing. But it is characteristic of my experience of London in the first few weeks.

I spent the weekend in the country. That is what it feels like after this city just a short train ride away to mom and dad’s house. We went to the market in Hitchin and stopped by their local pub for strawberry beer. We caught up on life and they drove me in to London with some of our things we’d left at their house. It will be really good to live near them this year.

I registered at the London School of Economic & Political Science last week, so I have now officially re-entered the academic world. I expect studies to get more intense in the next weeks, but until then it’s a nice time to get settled in a new place. We will still blog, not just about our lives and musings in London. We will continue to focus on northern Uganda in both of our studies and connecting our thoughts and work towards building peace there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Happy Days

My sweet little sister, Mrs. Tina Randall James is now married to this dear Mr. Mark Randall James. The wedding was beautiful, the time was beautiful, and Tina was, of course, beyond beautiful.

It was great to have family together. Here three generations of women with "hidden" names. At the rehearsal dinner, the groom shared about names, and especially the ways in which the hidden maiden names and what they mean have contributed to the character of our families.
It was a happy day. I was just so happy. I loved seeing the happiness of my parents and especially, the happiness of my sister and my new brother-in-law.

Listening to my sister, a person who is, more than anyone else, kindred to me, say her wedding vows, made me think about my own. It was less a reminiscence of my own wedding day, six years ago this Saturday, but a remembering and affirmation of what I have promised before God and a community of supporting friends and family. So powerful and right the vows are and yet somewhat ambiguous. There is a bit where we promise to be a comfort to each other. Comfort is a continuum. There are times in marriage when we are guilty of inflicting pain rather than offering comfort. But happy days, like July 31st for Tina and Mark, and August 16th for me and Ben remind us, inspire us, to live out our promises to the fullest.

Monday, July 14, 2008

15 Minutes or Never

Mom and dad visited a couple of weeks ago. We took them to Kampala and booked rooms, but there was some mix-up and their room was not self-contained room. Wanting to make my parents feel comfortable in my Ugandan home, I tried to convince the lady who ran the place to give them a room with an en-suite bathroom. There was an empty room but it needed some cleanup, so I asked when it could be ready. Her reply: "15 minutes"...long pause, "or...never."

With all the momentum behind the Juba Peace Process--the plan to negotiate the last item on the agenda and have all parties sign within a few short days in April--it seemed like it was all going to happen, in perhaps the same time frame as my parents' room. 15 minutes...or never.

The first time we really expected/hoped/doubted that Kony would sign the final peace agreement (April 10th) I was on Ssese Island for the CPA staff induction. I sat with Immaculate, Sylvia and Tonny on the edge of the water and we watched the sun set while we listened to the day's news on radio. In this case, no news was bad news. If the peace agreement had been signed, something would have been reported. But it got darker and still the announcer said nothing about what we hoped to hear.

While peace delays, our days have been full. We finally had some time in an Acholi village--something we've planned to do for a long time. We spent a week in grass thatch hut. We were hosted by a Parent Support Group that we've interacted with a lot over the past years. Ben spent time in the garden with the men, constructed a chicken house and swept the compound.

As much as possible, I wanted to do what a traditional Acholi woman would do. I woke up each morning and swept and mopped the hut and then carried water from the well (on my head) and prepared the water for Ben to bathe. I had to take a break from feminist practice in order to really experience tradition. I practiced Acholi and listened to countless stories of village gossip, usually involving someone allegedly stepping on charms, speculation about who was charming who, etc. I wanted to learn Acholi cooking, so every day I went to a different household to make lunch and dinner. That meant twice a day of collecting food from the garden, pounding sesame or ground nuts, then grinding, cooking, serving, kneeling for washing hands before eating. All the pounding, grinding and cooking takes place in kitchens that have charcoal fires and virtually no ventilation. After the first day, my back ached, my eyes burned and my hands were covered in blisters. Because of the novelty of it, and because my effort was so appreciated--it somehow retained an element of fun. Were I born in that village, and the work was all I knew and it was as thankless as it is for most of the women, it would not have been fun. It is tough being an Acholi woman. And they are tough.

After supper, the drums come out and there is dancing for those with any sweat left in their bodies.

One evening after we danced we sat around a fire and told stories. It felt like any typical campfire, and they told stories with an easiness in their voices. The ensuing laughter would have given the impression to anyone that subject matter was light. But they were all stories of war, encounters with rebels, nights spent lying in maize fields shivering in terror in hope of escaping being burnt in their huts. They could laugh, because they felt safe. They felt like what the recalled was behind them. The unspoken claim was, "It's over." One of the women my age turned to me and said, "I've never known anything like peace in my life." I held her hand, and hoped that it really was over, and that she would know peace now. It is all so fragile, maybe deceptive--this fake or fragile peace we're enjoying in northern Uganda.

It was wonderful to spend time with my parents when they visited. We shared a taste of life in Lira, work in Gulu, Philip's traditional marriage in Kampala and a game drive and relaxing at the lodge in Murchison. My favorite animal is the giraffe.

We thought we'd miss the big cats. The grass was so tall, my dad said, "they could be 15 feet away and we wouldn't even know it." At that moment we saw this one, a baby, even less than 15 feet away. It's mother woke up and another cub emerged and the threesome ran off.

Mom and jelly bonded.

We finished our time with them dropping them off for a conference they had in Jinja. An hour before they had to arrive dad suggested bungee jumping. I've never had any desire to do it (I don't like the sensation of my heart being in my throat), so mom and I watched Ben and dad leap off a huge tower at Bujagali falls down to the Nile below them. I think we were more scared than they were.

I can hardly believe how soon we will be leaving for London. In periods of transition time takes on a curious character. The days somehow seem longer, but the months fly. I find myself in the middle of a tension, straining toward what's ahead and dissolving into nostalgia/regret on what's past. I find equilibrium in the middle of that tension. I manage to be fully present. In those moments every conversation has it's own life and meaning and each encounter is accepted and appreciated for what it is. It's often humbling. Sometimes, my expectations far exceed the reality and I wish for more. Usually, I feel grateful.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Last Month By Picture --by Ben

We are sorry that is has been so long since we last posted. The past few weeks have flown by. Here are a couple of recent highlights.


Here is a picture of me given a presentation on personality in the workplace using the Enneagram exercise

Holly and Immaculate. We reviewed procedures and policy during the day and enjoyed our evenings growing closer personally and as an organization.

Holly flying her kite on the beach of Sesse Island where we conducted the staff induction.

After session beach ball


Angelina, CPA's Chairperson left for a six week-long advocacy trip with MCC in Canada and the US.


Christian Aid, one of our partners, brought us together for a week long capacity building workshop to improve our financial compliance to EU funding.


Here is one of seven groups of trainers for the second phase of the psychosocial training.


We had fun embarrassing Tonny and Godfrey

It turns out that we played the same games at childhood birthday parties as our Ugandan colleagues, so we thought it would be fun to reminisce.


We were making an assessment of a Savings and Loan Group. It's hard to visit without a dance show. So here we are watching.

Fun with a camera


Holly has been busy helping the Peacebuilding Programme Officers train community mediators and develop a new curriculum for youth to reintegrate ex-combatants.


Holly and Sylvia at Karuma Falls on the Nile

Philip was very proud of his fish


Here is my new demonstration plot for tomatoe plants

Jelly is always so dirty

Here is Ogiko getting headbutted by Jelly

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Night Peace Came

by Holly
A couple of weeks ago Ben and I got a text message from someone in Kampala who’d seen a news report celebrating the end to war in northern Uganda and guessing that there was some serious jubilation where we were. There was indeed jubilation, but it was because of the annual Lira NGO volleyball tournament, a beautiful starry evening, good music and good company. We started asking friends if they’d heard the news—most hadn’t and the few that had shrugged indifferently. They commented about how divorced the peace talks were to life of grassroots people, or about what a farce the entire process had become since the link between the LRA negotiators and the LRA fighters seems increasingly dubious. Could it be, I asked with a mix of incredulity and hope, that we will remember tonight as the night peace came?

No. Partly, because what was signed that night was an agenda item of the ongoing peace talks and not the comprehensive peace agreement, and partly, because peace doesn’t come all at once. It’s an agonizingly slow process that is benchmarked with agreements but must extend beyond signed pieces of paper. We might remember it as an event, a day, a night, but it will be a long journey.

The formal peace process in Juba is moving forward right now with ambitious momentum. The final peace agreement was scheduled to be signed this Friday (March 29), but this morning’s papers (New Vision & Monitor) say it’s been postponed until next week, April 3rd. Before the signing, the negotiating teams from government and LRA together with a delegation of about 100 civil society leaders including Angelina, CPA’s Chair, should agree on an implementation schedule and framework. They intend to travel to present it to the LRA leadership in Ri-Kwangba, and return with either Kony or his delegate to sign on his behalf in Juba next Friday. Easter Monday, before Angelina went to Juba, she told us her goal would be to push for the two ‘big men” to sign the agreement with their own hands. I admire her determined optimism, but it’s hard to imagine that either of them will be holding pens in the same room in the near future.

Most of my colleagues don’t believe Kony will ever come out. Perhaps he won’t block the peace accord, but he won’t be part of it. He realizes that many of his ranks and the affected community want peace, but he and a few others have no intention to ever return. That idea somehow is not unsettling to many I’ve talked with. They believe that Kony and company will either become mercenaries for the highest bidder in DRC, CAR, Sudan or Chad or that there are already plans of apprehending them as soon as the agreement is signed (no one says this outright, they just hint around it as if speaking plainly might jeopardize some covert operation). Someone put it this way, “this peace agreement affects almost everyone and we all want it. The ICC is just for three people, the peace agreement doesn’t need to be for those three people too.”

I’ve been surprised by how little concern has been raised over the implications of the reports in the past couple of weeks of 100 new LRA abductions in the Central African Republic and 70 more in south Sudan. Maybe that’s due to the amount of unreliable information we get. Though many people seem to have an as-long-as-it’s-not-in-Uganda attitude. Of course there have always been and will continue to be doomsayers. They have warned the delegation of 100 civil society leaders of the risk of going to Ri-Kwangba this week. They fear that some apocalyptic fate may await them, or they will be captured and held ransom with expected demands to be made to the ICC.

From the beginning LRA top command has made it clear that the ICC issue is a deal breaker. Yet few people I talk to here think that the issue will have any bearing on the outcome of this week’s discussions. It’s not clear to me yet if this is a hope that international law will suddenly become “flexible,” wishful thinking about the trust that’s been built between the government and LRA leadership or something else. One friend suggested, “make it as easy as possible for him (Kony) to sign the agreement and then just disappear." Perhaps that's what the organizers have in mind. Maybe we are boldly moving forward ignoring the impending collapse of the process. Or, could there be some quiet plan to take 3 people out of the equation all the while making public statements that make impunity-conscious human rights folks squirm?

What is actually happening is hard to say. In any case, notwithstanding further postponements, the next 7 days of events may determine which night we will remember as the night peace came to northern Uganda.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Exported Ideals

On a recent field visit to an IDP camp near the border of Sudan, I came by a clinic. I was interested in knowing the services available in this remote location so I greeted the nurse and was invited in.

The majority of the nurses and patients were gathered under mango trees as the clinic building was very small. As I walked into the building I saw a room titled "Group Counseling Room". I was delighted to see that the patients were receiving both medical treatment and psychological care. As I approached the room I noticed that room was stacked from floor to ceiling with food aid.

I imagined the expatriate staff writing a proposal for this clinic. The donor wanted to see something to do with "psychosocial support" or "counseling" fitted into the clinic proposal. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for international actors to recognize the importance of psychological wellbeing in sustainable development, yet most have no idea how to implement healing interventions. Exporting the concept of group counseling and allotting a space is not enough. Real psychosocial healing takes a massive investment from the local community and trained healers with long-term commitment. Many mental health professionals are contented with short-term consultancies or establishing a system of care. However, psychological healing takes imagination and creativity; fostering this cannot be accomplished through a one-off input. There must be a commitment to the individual and his or her process. This commitment is not "cost-effective" and may not yield immediate results but underpins the entire process of restoration in the individual and wider community.

The World Health Organization has a motto that says "There can be no health without mental health". While we can agree to this truth, the investment in mental health remains lacking in many developing countries.

While I was saddened at the missed opportunity for psychological healing through group counseling, I applauded the community members for their utilization of space. I turned to Holly and said, "Hunger always wins out over half-baked ideas of emotional support"

Is psychological wellbeing a luxury or a necessity?

Can we expect the community to value psychological healing when current interventions are superficial and material aid has been fine-tuned?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Leb Ngec by Ben

Life has been flying by since we’ve been back in Uganda. Here are a couple of pictures of a recent hunting trip I took with some CPA colleagues. We stayed in tents, deep in the bush, in a place called Leb Ngec (the monitor lizard’s tongue). The entire experience was more natural than I knew this world could be. My sister in law, Erin, told me that people can store memories more permanently when they try to isolate each sense and get their full benefit. As I explored my surroundings with my eyes, hears, hands, and nose, the atmosphere came alive.

(Philip and I, trying to look like hunters)
It was a time of incredible bonding. We stomped through the tall grass for hours on both days until we were exhausted. I learned how to hunt different animals and live off of wild fruits when meat wasn’t available. We all related freely-I only wish that my Luo was better.

(Ben and Robert-as the sun goes down and the fire comes up)

(The landowner's cute son)

Work is going really well. I have been coordinating a baseline survey for the EU project, as well as orienting our new Psychosocial Programme Officers to the re-implementation of the project I have been working on for the past two years.

Holly has been traveling a lot recently. She has been co-facilitating and monitoring trainings of community mediators for the Steps Towards Reconciliation project funded by MCC.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Meet Jelly Belly

For my birthday, Holly gave me a ticket for "one young, good-lookin' cow" (just what I wanted). Today I woke up very early and went to the cattle market and waded through thousands of cows and people to find Jelly, my new cow! She is one and a half years old, weighs about 200 pounds, eats a ton, and has a nice loud voice.
Ogiko and Jelly are still working out their relationship. (Jelly has kicked Ogiko in the head several times, and he hasn't seemed to learn the lesson.)

Beautiful Floating Popcorn

A Ugandan friend told us his impression of snow the first time he saw it in the UK, “It’s like beautiful popcorn floating slowly.” We remembered his description watching the snow fall in the Porter backyard, enjoying a white Christmas with new perspectives that have changed our appreciation of snow and everything else.

It has been over two years since seeing the Porter family. Our family grew by two people since we've been in Uganda. Meeting and getting to know Anya and Dmitri (our niece and nephew) were highlights of our visit to Colorado. We even saw our soon-to-come niece on a 4D ultrasound and felt her kicking. We celebrated something almost every night (Dmitri’s 2nd birthday and Ben & Josh’s 30th, Christmas, Baby showers, breaking through the ceiling, New Years, etc…).
Evenings were filled with good food (thanks to Mom Porter’s mouth-watering culinary skills), conversation and music. We also had a chance to stop by Celebration and reconnect with dear friends. Though all of us have experienced profound change in our lives we clasped hands again with deep appreciation for a community of friends that continues to march to the same beat. We witnessed the beautiful transformation of friends becoming parents. Holly held Kellen’s hand and recalled the Acholi saying, Dako nywal ki nyeke—a woman gives birth more easily when her friend is with her. Ben accompanied the Kents playing their songs wrestling with mortality and outrage about injustice in northern Uganda. We entered the New Year with Ben playing cello with other classical musicians and Austrian New Year traditions with his former cello teacher. On our way back to Uganda we saw the Randall clan in the UK, went wedding dress shopping with Tina (who looks absolutely beautiful in everything she puts on), discussed theology, community and gender with her fiancĂ©, ran around London looking at possible PhD sites with Travis, and had sweet conversation with mom over tea and with dad in a local pub.

As per the Austrian New Year’s tradition, Holly dropped melted led into a cold bowl of water. The shape it takes is supposed to show your fortune for the year. It looked to us like a funky clump of metal—but we’re sure it meant that 2008 will be a great year. It was nice to play in the snow, but our feet are happy to be in sandals walking near the Equator again.