Thursday, October 28, 2010

Choosing Joy

This blog has been a long time coming. I've started and stopped it in a couple of nap times (which have become a regular way of marking my days now). I've had some time of self-instated maternity leave/doing less work over the last few months--but that time is officially over. So it's about time I share the process of bringing home our baby. I was reading something a parent of adopted children wrote about "learning to be a family" and then how at some point, you just feel like you are a family. The last 5 months has been like that. It's really strange, bringing home a child that you don't know, but is your child that has existed totally independent from you in the world. A stranger--that you love, but don't even know how to love yet. Who you comfort, in a way that feels familiar to you. But your hands stroking her back aren't familiar to her yet and it doesn't make her feel safe. You say "shh" softly in her ears when she cries, but she doesn't respond until you think to whisper "lingo" Acholi for quiet. She adjusted amazingly quickly, but when I look back at those first few days I realize how far we've come.

We didn't have 9 months of preparation for her birth. But the journey of becoming a family has been a gestation period of sorts--just much less predictable. No one has written the book "What to Expect when you're expecting" for adoption outlining a finite timeline of what will happen each month until you'll finally be holding a child in your arms. We had years of knowing we wanted to be part of a family that was formed through adoption. We had 8 years of marriage, 4 years of being ready to start a family. And 4 years of having hope deferred, again, and again. A few months of paperwork. And then, we had one week after being asked to parent a baby before welcoming her home.

In June, we decided to start the adoption process. We applied and were accepted as potential foster parents at several babies' homes and they told us to wait--that they would call if a potential baby was brought to them. Ever day we knew we might get a phone call telling us there was a child for us, or we might wait a long time.

She was the first baby we met. She was 4 months old then. It was our first babies' home visit as potential adopting parents. The administrator nonchalantly called across their grassy compound to a woman carrying a baby, plopped the infant into my arms and said, "Do you want this one? See! She already looks like you." We laughed when they told us her nickname--in Acholi, it means "white girl." I looked down into the face of a particularly fair skinned baby girl (She is beautiful--but looks nothing like me) with sweet chubby cheeks and thighs that had a pitiful little cough and wrapped her miniature hands around my finger. Ben and I laid in bed that night and wondered if the baby we'd held was our child or "just another baby." We wondered who would comfort her if she woke up that night. If she was going to be ours, we thought, we should bring her home as soon as possible, but how do we know or decide? How do you choose a child? This was one of the strangest things, and I'm tempted to re-write history a little, so that the narrative of our adoption story has a certainty of direction in its plot--like love at first sight, knowing "this is the one" and an instant connection. But I had a lot of ambivalence right up until we made a decision. We'd planned to adopt a newborn, and besides, at that point, a number of efforts were still being made to see if there were any known relatives that might be able to provide a home for her, so we needed to wait.

Then in the beginning of September the social workers from the babies home came to our house and asked us to take her. They had the blessing of the government social workers, the police and the babies home administration. Two months had past and she was 6 months old. In the grand scheme of things, it's not that long, but in the life of a baby--so many things happen. I'd already missed so many firsts and it made me sad. I just didn't feel peaceful, so I took a couple of days to do some things that help me still and quiet my soul.

Right at the beginning of the first day, something happened. I realized that I needed to let go of my feelings of entitlement to the first 6 months of my child's life. Entitlement. I've had multiple opportunities in the last years to experience and relearn how entitlement is a thief of so many good things. It makes decision making a more jumbled mess of ugly motivations. Letting go of entitlement to something doesn't always mean not having it, but it creates freedom to accept and appreciate what I'm given instead of demanding what I feel I deserve. So, I took a deep breath, and let go. A few more deep breaths and I let it sink in. And I watched all that yucky entitlement vacate my heart and a peaceful grateful feeling rush in to take its place. And then I felt peaceful about being her parent. Not just peaceful--happy, excited, appreciative. I wanted to be the mother to this particular baby, and so instead of spending the rest of my prayerful time wondering if she "was the one" I CHOSE her.

Earlier, I'd had this dream about her. She was a baby still but she was having a conversation with me like an adult. I don't remember details of it, but I remember her asking me about why I wasn't sure I should take her home. She wasn't being manipulative, or pleading with me. Her tone was very matter of fact and she logically explained why my objections, and inhibitions weren't very satisfactory reasons not become her mother and concluded that she thought I should take her home. It's odd to think about how tumultuous I felt from this side of the decision. I can't imagine not having her in my life. Ben and I are so totally in love with her. And I know her now. She's not a stranger. She's my daughter.

About a year before all this happened, I was at my parents house while they were out of town. I took long walks in the woods and prayed. That was the time when I first started feeling like maybe, the person who would become our daughter existed somewhere. Now, we know she was probably the shape of a peanut in her mother's womb. I thought about her mother, and what situation she might be in, in her pregnancy and what painful or broken circumstances would somehow make her child an orphan that would eventually form our family. It made me sad and simultaneously hopeful. A picture of how beauty can be made of ashes and mourning turned to joy.

Elliyah Joi Akidi.

There is a lot of discussion in adoption literature and circles surrounding an attitude of "rescuing" or "saving" orphans. So many people here thank us for our "good hearts" to care for a needy child. Others will say how lucky she is. I see the formation of our family differently. It's true that part of our motivation for adoption is a response to what we believe is God's call to care for orphans, an extension of what He's already offered to us--adoption as his children and heirs of his kingdom. But that call--I think, is less about obligation or altruism and more about love. It's not a humanitarian endeavor. It's not charity. We WANTED her. With the exception of our partners, we don't ordinarily get to choose our family members. But we got to choose her. And I'm so happy we did.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Justice for the victims

Concerns About Gender Justice at Kampala ICC RC from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

A friend just told me she did a Google search on women’s empowerment and gender justice and found this video of me. It was a surprise, since I’d forgotten about the interview at the ICC Review Conference and didn’t know that it had been posted online. It was one of those moments when without warning a camera is suddenly in your face and a microphone clipped to your shirt, you have no idea what you’ll be asked and you were already thinking about lunch—not being interviewed--and then as soon as the camera is pointed somewhere else you think of all the things you wanted to say—in fact, all the things you’ve been saying to anyone that would listen and finally you have a possibly wider audience and you didn’t say any of them! And then you have a pretend interview in your mind. (you all do this right? Tell me it’s not just me.)

My pretend interview begins after he asks me what the victims that I interact with in my research are asking from the Court:

Interviewer: What are they asking from the Court?

Me: Nothing.

Interviewer: Really? I would have thought that they would have many demands on justice, and critiques about how the ICC is addressing their needs. Why aren’t they asking anything from the Court?

Me: There are a number of things that they might ask from the Court, but because they have no idea that they are entitled to anything, or how they might access it, they aren’t.

Interviewer: If they were more informed, what do you think they would ask from the Court?

Me: Victims are so often evoked as the ultimate benefactors of the ICC—it’s always “justice for the victims” but in reality very little of the Court’s work seems to prioritize them. They would probably ask that aspects of the Court that were intended to be to their benefit be given more priority, such as the Public Outreach program, and Victim’s Participation. Perhaps most importantly, because their primary concerns are often material, they would ask that reparations and the Victims Trust Fund be used to their benefit.

Interviewer: Isn’t the Trust Fund supporting victims of rape now? I saw there was a presentation by a project they’re supporting on gender-based violence run by Coopi (an NGO).

Me: Yes, they’re supporting a great project on preventing and responding to gender-based violence with Coopi, but tragically, not one victim of rape that is a war crime or crime against humanity has ever benefited from that project. I talked to the manager of the project about this. The violence they respond to is domestic violence or cases of defilement (sex with a minor) or in rare instances, rape. The perpetrators of the crimes are teachers, farmers, husbands—but she admitted that none of them are soldiers or rebels. It seems like they are doing good work, and deserve to be funded—by someone. But not the ICC. The Trust Fund for Victim’s is meant for the victims of crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the court--not one of the women benefitting from the Trust Fund’s support to Coopi is a victim of a crime in the Court’s mandate, while many of the women I work with are within the Court’s mandate, they are in deplorable situations and are given no assistance.

Interviewer: One could argue that actually, their choice to fund a more general Gender-Based Violence project indicates a progressive understanding of how violence in conflict affects women--that they recognize the linkages between violence in war and the heightened level of violence against women in the domestic sphere. How would you respond to that?

Me: Part of what I’m doing in my own research is highlighting the links between war related violence and ordinary violence and how it effects women. But what the Fund is supporting right now is not evidence of an expanded definition; it is rather focusing funding in the wrong place. If the Fund was already assisting all the women that were direct victims of crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the Court, and they had resources to expand assistance along with their expanded definition of “victim” or if they were at least funding a project that assisted victims of rape in general but included victims of crimes within the jurisdiction of the court—that would be better. The Trust Fund has defined what “victim” means for them—a victim of a crime that falls within the jurisdiction of the court, those crimes that are detailed in the Rome Statute and were committed after July 2002, but in practice that definition is not applied to their decisions regarding funding—at least in the situation of victims of rape in northern Uganda.

Interviewer: That’s odd. Why have they chosen to designate funds for women who fall outside their mandate while there are so many women who fall within it that are being neglected?

Me: It’s a good question. I asked it to the head of the Victim’s Trust Fund in Uganda. I suggested to him, that there might be value in focusing their funds on projects designed to respond to specific harm that was suffered as a result of crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the court. This is what they have done by providing plastic surgery for victims of mutilation. Why not apply the same principles to victims of rape? I mentioned a few examples of women in my research who would fit into the category of “within the jurisdiction of the court” and what kind of assistance would be meaningful to them. His answer revealed some level of identity confusion. He said that the Fund is sort of a “donor of last resort.”

Interviewer: A donor of last resort? That sounds like it should be the role of someone else, perhaps a UN agency, the EU, DFID, USAID or other donor countries and agencies, not like the International Criminal Court or the Victims’ Trust Fund. Besides, aren’t there many projects on Gender Based Violence in northern Uganda that receive regular funding from other sources?

Me: You’re right on both accounts. Seeing their role as a “donor of last resort” rather than the providers of reparation for the worst crimes of humanity undermines the overall potential benefits of a system of international justice that the court is trying to realize. For them to be successful there must be more direct links between the crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the court and the court’s role in retribution AND reparation for those crimes. There are lots of donors supporting projects including responses to gender based violence in northern Uganda. The Trust fund loses all significance when it becomes just another donor. Its contribution must be unique if it is going to be meaningful and if the justice of the ICC is going to have a right to make claims their justice is “for the victims.”

*It might seem like I’m confusing reparations, and the more general work of the Trust Fund. The ICC has never done reparations, and the first will occur after the first conviction. Actually, I think it is the very specific nature of what at this point, it looks like is going to count as formal reparation (successful decisions in requests for restitution, compensation and rehabilitation of crimes that an accused person has been convicted of) which make the general work of the Fund so important. Because the scope of reparation is so specific, victims that, in my mind, should be entitled to reparations wouldn’t benefit unless they are assisted under the more general work of the Trust Fund. So, for example, the victims of the crimes in Raska Lukwiya’s arrest warrant are now out of luck since he’s dead and will never be tried or convicted. Or the decision not to include any crimes involving sexual violence in Lubanga’s final warrant means that all the victims of those crimes would not be entitled to reparations even if he’s ever convicted of recruitment and use of child soldiers. This is grossly unfair. It seems equally unfair that the byproduct of linking criminal conviction to victim’s entitlement to reparations is that being “defined” as a victim in this instance has the same burdens of proof, etc. as criminal conviction. But anyway, I digress and this is the topic for another pretend interview or blog.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Ben is cheatin'...

It's been almost a year that I've wondered what was going on. Especially the last few months I've noticed my husband's lack of devotion...

And now I know why.

He has new blog.

Read his blogging infidelity for yourself here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Life is like a deep hip opener (read: yoga analogy)

Right now, my life feels like that exquisite moment--when you've been trying to breathe and relax into a pose that is awkward and even hurts. You know it is creating space, that it will be filled with vital life force, but it's hard--and you've been in it so long you start to wonder if the instructor is daydreaming, or left the room or maybe you weren't listening carefully enough and you missed it when s/he moved on with the sequence. But then you hear a cue. After just one deep inhalation and exhalation you will step out of the pose. It's been painful and good for you, but it's almost over. and then you choose to surrender and make the last moment the fullest expression of the posture yet. and breathe.

That's where I am.

I wrote this last week. And then the moment was over. And this is what I was waiting for:

Friday, September 03, 2010

6 cups of coffee +1 cup of hot chocolate

I live in a commune.

It's not exactly the way I thought it would be. But it is really good.

It's funny, the expectations you have without really knowing it. I tried to be aware of them before we started this communal adventure. But mostly, it's in retrospect, that expectations announce their presence through the feeling of satisfaction or a little surprise or disappointment and then adjustment.

For example:
I thought we'd all be relatively happy. But no one predicts when grief and loss will enter our lives.
I thought our communal garden would get more communal attention. But all our tomatoes and most of the peppers have some disease that we didn't catch and deal with in time. Most of our herbs didn't grow(though we're thoroughly enjoying those that did!), the spinach is dying.
I thought when we did do communal work together we'd be listening to loud music, laughing and goofing around. But sometimes we don't work together and our schedules don't coincide, or we're just tired, sweating, and the electricity is off so there is no music--or ipods are in use--which kind of feels like the antithesis to the social bonding through work that I envisioned.
I thought we'd all practice radical hospitality. We're all relatively hospitable folks, but sometimes we say no when people want to stay with us, and sometimes I don't invite friends over because being conscientious of other people's privacy is important and so is creating a space for the growth of our communal relationships.
I thought we might have more energy for each other. But sometimes we need to be alone, and since I'm sort of an extreme extrovert, pretty much everyone (including my husband) needs more alone time than I do.
I thought I'd be less selfish. But I'm really not, and living with other people, makes me realize how much I think about my own needs and preferences over theirs.

On the other hand:

*We live the painful moments together. There are shoulders to cry on. And we live the messiness in the same place.
*There are some things that are just easier and more enjoyable about living together. We might not always do work together, but sharing the load of household responsibilities has made it so much lighter. Like how each family/couple cooks one meal a week. Cooking once a week makes me more inspired and creative--and also appreciated--for whatever I do. And I definitely savor their scrumptious meals at our shared table.
*We all bring something unique and sometimes surprising "to the table." Their presence and perspectives on our everyday life inspire me to think about the world and our place in it differently. Better. Like the day a neighbor threw a rotten onion at Casey while she was weeding the garden. She came in sighing, and I asked why and she shared how the smelly veggie fell from the sky. My first response was "what the hell? who does that? jerk!" Her's was to think about the curiosity that our neighbors must have about us, and begin brainstorming how we can build relationships and open our lives more to the people around us. I love it that she thinks like that. Or when our landlord was getting nasty and I wanted to call a lawyer but Kellen called us to take the higher road.
*And though we do need alone time, when we don't want to be alone someone is always there for us. One day I was wishing my mom or my sister could be part of preparing for welcoming a baby home. I painted the nursery wall and just wanted company. Kellen sat and read a book on my couch and commented when the book inspired a sigh or a giggle while I painted.
*I'm selfish, but my selfishness is more in my face now--Confronted with the ugliness of it--I'm more inspired to re-orient myself away from the natural human tendency toward self-actualization and more towards a purer love for God and the people around me.

So, I look at all this and I say it's good.
And if it is always like this, I'll be disapointed.

I've been practicing acceptance of things in the present. The desire to change and grow is there, but I'm OK with today. Actully, I'm not just OK with it. I love it. and I hope for more.
I started writing this last week and then got distracted. It's amazing to observe communal life evolves even in a few days. Labor day weekend we all spent working in the garden and finishing the chicken house. There was laughter and loud music (KBCO, which is a favorite Colorado radio station which kind of made the entire situation a bit surreal but wonderful to share) This week, as Ben and I have taken a few steps forward toward adoption we could not have asked for a more supportive, encouraging and challenging community to walk with us. We are changing and growing. And we have a thousand reasons to be hopeful.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Now, what will they say?

Reason to be hopeful: Finally a decision on "sedition" that makes some sense, and at a good time with elections coming up.

Reason to wring your hands: The issue of "sectarianism." What exactly is it? And why does it seem to be used arbitrarily to reign in multi-party politics? Apparently, the judges don't share my skepticism.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to get girls at Makerere (warning: this blog includes adult subject matter)

The dinner conversation in a house where people work on issues like rape, commercial sex work and child-trafficking can sometimes be heavy. We used to have a rule based on the occupations of those around the table at the time: no rape, torture or hostage crises after 9pm. We've since moved but still have similarly macabre vocations and now we have a clever 2-year-old at the dining room table with us, so we tend to reserve the rated R topics for after bedtime.

So the last couple of weeks a topic has come up later in the evening that we've had limited information about and then in a moment of genius (read: libation induced inhibition) we decide to randomly poll our friends. This is where "D" dialing meets research. (D stands for dinner dialing, obviously--why? what were you thinking?)

Research topic #1
At a little dinner party, someone was commenting on how depressed I must get hearing so many tragic stories of sexual violence. I brought up something that gives me hope--how much things have changed between what some of my Ugandan male friends grew up with and the way they treat women now. On particularly bad days I try to have lunch with friends that remind me that there are good Acholi men. I told the table about a conversation I'd had with one of them who recounted how his uncles began their marriages, basically, by getting together with their brothers and abducting the girl they fancied when she was on her way to the market or to the well. I asked what he thinks contributed to him having such a drastically different approach to wooing women. "Education," he said. But as we got into it, we realized he meant social education, not actually what he learned in a classroom. "That's not how you get girls at Makerere University," he said. At this point in the conversation, someone, I can't remember who, asked, "how do you get girls at Makerere?" and thus started the poll. Our Ugandan friends all answered with perhaps a brief laugh, and then a tone that was extremely matter-of-fact-- like they had a list of answers that were read- to-hand.

What we discovered:

"There are 2 ways to get girls at Makerere:"
1) Help her with her homework, papers or exams. (if you do poorly, that's too bad for her, but "you will have already gotten what you wanted")
2) Buy her a pizza. ("You'll need a little bit of money. Taker her out for a meal and buy her something she might not normally get for herself like a drink and a pizza. Then she's all yours.")

Then we thought, how different is this from "our" context? (the table included Americans, and an Irishman) So we called our brothers.

What we discovered:
1) Get her drunk. (put more or less delicately depending on the brother)
2) Buy her a nice meal.
3) Impress her with your dance moves. (this may work better if you're a professional dancer)

Actually, wooing University girls doesn't seem all that different, the world over. Impress her. Buy her a meal. Alcohol helps. (I know, sweeping generalizations, but don't forget it's based off of hard evidence and research) We did comment that none of the women at the table were "gotten" in quite this manner, but that might be beside the point. And the point is: pizza is a better way to get a girl than abduction. It's a sign of social progress.

Research topic #2
Ben recently did a consulting gig where he was developing a curriculum that will be used with commercial sex workers. Sometimes it was a challenge to marry the realities of life in Uganda and the philosophies of some of his Dutch advisory group (the Netherlands is known for a very particular view on commercial sex work--think Amsterdam). One example that we discussed over dinner: they (the dutch people) thought the section on sexual and reproductive health needed to include a demonstration of how to put a condom on a man with one's mouth. Hmm. OK, that could be true. Maybe, if that skill leads to more regular use of protection it could be justified. But is that true? Research with commercial sex workers suggests that sexual intercourse is most common, and they rarely perform other sexual acts. So, how relevant is this in this context? Was there any evidence to suggest that a client that is refusing to wear protection would acquiesce if offered an alternative way of putting it on? Thus started the poll.

What we discovered:

1) Yes, Ugandan women do sometimes put condoms on their partners with their mouths.
2) No, if a man is decided he doesn't want to wear one, an offer to spice up how it gets on wouldn't change his mind.

This over speaker phone at the Chinese food restaurant in Gulu. (We don't know how universal this is, because we already used up too much phone credit on international calls in the last poll.) It was actually kind of a depressing topic, but the absurdity of our inquiry brought some light-heartedness to it. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be entertained by what is actually evidence of our broken state as humanity. Sometimes you just have to laugh, or else you might cry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Adoption, Nido, Justice & Wooing Women: what I’m not writing about

I showed up today. I did the morning routine. Got a day in front of me with no scheduled distractions, and protecting against the impromptu interruptions. I made a pot of tea. Cleaned off my computer desktop. Minimized all windows of email news sources and decorating ideas for a nursery. I put my phone on silent. I opened up the document called “Justice on the Periphery.” And now I’m staring at it. I start stringing words together hoping that my mind will take a cue from the movement of my fingers on the keyboard and realize it’s time to think insightful articulate orderly thoughts, but it’s not working yet--clearly, since I’m writing this blog instead of an article that MUST be drafted by the end of the month! (my own deadline, not my supervisor’s. Does anyone else have difficulty taking their own deadlines seriously?) If I were at LSE I’d probably grab a couple of fellow PhDers and head across the street for an espresso, a breath of fresh air and share a few ideas—hoping that one would trigger thought flow that lends itself better to prolificness (is that a word?) but I’m in Gulu. Yesterday, I had this fleeting moment of Londonsickness. Since I only lived there one year I’m not sure I’m entitled to call it homesickness, but it was a nostalgic twinge of longing for an upcoming autumn, academic colleagues, a beloved housemate, my parents and sister a train ride away, warm drinks and chilly weather—I even imagined riding on public transportation with no little affection. I comforted myself by appreciating my ability to walk or bodaboda most places I need to go within minutes and how relaxed my spine is when my shoulders are never forced to migrate north to my ears for the winter. I have different sources of inspiration here. I live with some great minds, have friends and colleagues that are willing to let me spew half-baked ideas off of them and of course, I can spend time with the women that are the subjects of my inquiries. Truly, the ability to sit and talk about observations with them is an excellent privilege and, I hope, enlightening to all of us involved in the conversation. This is the part where I should write some sort of resolution, how I overcame my mental hurdles. But I’m at a loss for words, so instead, I promise to keep showing up, to get back to writing after I post this and I invite your suggestions.

I know, I’ve blogged twice about difficulty writing, and I promise I’ll move on to more interesting topics—as soon as I can get myself writing instead of writing about writing (which I realize is kind of taboo, but I figure it’s not all bad since the creative process is something that most of us struggle with to some extent in our life’s work—so hopefully you can resonate and maybe even help me). I do have a few blogs brewing, like “how to get girls at Makerere University” (don’t worry, it won’t be based on my own experience or Ben’s) and how Nido (powdered milk) could spell the tragic downfall of our commune, or my rookie thoughts on mommy blogging (did you notice that I now follow a blog called “rage against the minivan” hah. the transformation is occurring…) and sensitive ethical questions about adoption. In other news: there was an election in Rwanda yesterday, there have been several notable developments in international law, Kenya voted on a new constitution, and Uganda is taking a public holiday tomorrow in honour of a former president who died last week. I won’t be taking a holiday. I will write. I will.

(an update: I wrote this earlier today, and did actually get some decent writing done between then and now, but when I was really getting into the groove I had an interruption. A good friend was in a car accident. Kind of puts life in perspective. I didn't have details for the first hour or so and that was a prayer-filled very long hour. But a visit to the hospital and assurance that a lot of sleep-inducing silly-making pain killers for the next few days and then the patience to let a few broken ribs heal is what the doctor's ordered was a big relief. He's going to be Ok.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How I really spend my life

I have some internal angst about the title of our blog. It feels misleading. I've been staring at a computer screen all day today. It occurred to me, when i looked at the top of this page, that if the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives then maybe I spend my life staring at a machine. I'd like to say, that most of the time with this Apple in my lap I'm writing what will be a brilliant article or chapter in my thesis that will also somehow fantastically transform lives of women who've suffered sexual violence, but actually--if I'm really honest, maybe, I spend my life procrastinating. That's an awful thought. Mostly because I'm afraid of how true it might be. I cleverly justify it as waiting for the next moment of inspiration while checking email, FB, followed blogs, news and journal sites for the umpteenth time. (Of course, these days I have a happy reason to put off serious writing that feels equally if not more important, but I'll save that for another blog). I had a really good week recently. Early morning yoga, a couple of good cups of coffee, and a solid block of no internet--just writing until lunch. After lunch either some editing or out in my second research site interviewing women and getting more inspired, having examples and quotes that I'd weave into the next day's session. I'd come home just in time for dinner with the commune-ers. And I thought, this is so much better than wasting time and feeling guilty for not accomplishing enough, and then I got distracted again. It's not that days like that are unusual, they're just not consistent. Seems everyday has that potential, but I've got a limited, though hopefully expanding capacity for it.

I'm such an amateur and I want to get better. I need to get better. and I think I could really like this, this process of transforming thought onto the page, and then conversely, what is on the page begins to mold my nebulous ideas into more focused observations.

It brings up good things for me. I mean, it brings up some pretty silly things that I wish I could rip out of the notepad of my soul, crumple up and throw away. But it's healthy to work through it--the indiscipline, the fear of failure, the desire to prove something--I'm not even sure to who. maybe myself, maybe you, potential readers. Sometimes I have these exquisite moments, even hours and once in awhile, days when I don't live there. I find myself writing from this place that is centered, where what is expressed somehow deletes my smallness, my ego, from the equation and it is about the idea that is part of something much greater and much more important. It's a tiny contribution to that greatness but the awareness of just how small my part is, is somehow freeing. Inspiring. It doesn't feel very academic. and then I wonder whether it'll work. Are there enough citations? have I engaged 'the literature' as if that's some stack of books and articles that is finite and knowable? Is my writing style too colloquial? or have I over-compensated for my casual voice by throwing in a bunch of barely understandable jargon-filled run-on sentences? or the most terrifying question: is what I have to say worthwhile? the questions kind of kill the creative, centered inspired moments. What I produce during those moments is so much more honoring to the experiences of women who are the subject of my research, and I enjoy writing so much more.

Sometimes though, I don't want to write. And I weary of my own walls. And I want to run outside and spend more of my life like this:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What keeps me up at night

Last night I woke up to the sounds of an angry mob in the street outside our house.

I haven't written in awhile. It's a shame because around the time of the International Criminal Court's review conference there were a lot blogworthy things going on. The time coincided with Tim, my supervisor's, visit to Uganda. For 2 weeks I was eating, sleeping and breathing debates about justice and the Acholi context. There was no time to write--only to think, listen and talk. Now, since the dust has settled I have started writing again but something a little more demanding--what I hope will be a chapter in my thesis and/or journal article. As I've sat down to write it's made me realize how much rich material I have and challenged me to start interpreting it in a way that is shareable. So far, it has felt a little like clearing my throat onto the page, but I'm hopeful my throat is almost clear and I can finally say something. In the midst of ruminating in my thoughts these past weeks, a vivid example of the exact dynamic I am writing about jolted me awake.

Our watchman and a neighbor caught a thief breaking into the kiosk nextdoor. It was 4 o'clock in the morning but it didn't take long for a large crowd of our neighbors to form and begin beating the man. They didn't call the police. We asked our watchman if someone should. "Ah, no!" He laughed. I wasn't surprised. I understood. But it still disturbed me deeply. "I have instructed them not to hit his head," he assured us. As if this would be very satisfying and now I could go back to sleep without worrying that a man's life might end tonight, less than 10 meters away from me and I did nothing. We've had a lot of conversations with him about pacifism, plus, we must have looked concerned, so he continued, "They will not kill him, the Local Councillor is there." He repeated it twice for emphasis, and maybe to keep us from running into the street and doing something rash. He warned us not to get involved since a mob is unlikely to listen and more likely to turn on us. It would probably be solved more quickly and in everyone's interest if they just handled him here and now, in our street. locally. If the police had come, everyone who was there would waste time in the police station making statements that would likely get lost or never be used. Any property that he'd stolen that they might be able to recover as a group of citizens would be confiscated by the police and likely never returned to the rightful owner. No one would expect the man to be held for long. And what would his incarceration do anyway? We learned later that he's been locked up several times before but hasn't reformed. Instead he allegedly met other thieves that he now works with. The correctional part of his punishment has yet to be successful. Besides that, from what he is yelling at the crowd around him, he is an orphan that is taking care of his brothers and sisters that are fully dependant on him. An angry response and the sound of a strong kick and a loud groan cut his plea short.

This is what happens in this space, I thought to myself, between an efficient national judicial system and local solutions that are accountable to no other higher authority. People still take justice into their own hands but with an increasing level of constraint in light of the presence of a strenthening judicial system.

Finally, the sound of fists, shoes and wooden rods against the body of another human being subsided. His piercing cries for mercy quieted to muffled sobs. But a few minutes later it began again with a few yells. I was scared. The mood of a mob changes quickly, and I wondered if the constraints on their behavior were strong enough not to rupture under the fervor and violent impulses I heard in their voices. If just one person had a slightly larger stick, if they were just angry enough to disregard the admonition of our watchman not to direct the blows below his neck, if the Local Counselor's authority was only slightly less respected, if there was a weaker sense that the police were only a mobile phone call away by one concerend community member--they might have killed him. But they didn't. They beat him, insulted him, humiliated him and forced him to give names of other thieves in the area and recovered the property he'd stolen. Now he's in the hospital. The LC later proudly showed where he'd written the record of what happened in his official book. With a smile, he guaranteed that "other thieves will think two times before they enter our area."

I can't help but wonder: if there was a history of trust built between the citizens of the area and the law enforcers and the rest of the judicial system, if the police were well trained and honest with a reputation for resisting corruption, if confiscated property was always returned to the rightful owners, if massive delays in the courts were not the norm, if just punishments were given that looked at alternative sentencing and community service, if there were systems in place that considered particular circumstances of juvenile offenders, social services for his dependents, if if rather ordinary, peaceloving, friendly and hospitable neighbors wouldn't have left their beds in the middle of the night with their crying children following behind them into the street to beat a man near to death. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they need the cathartic effect of releasing pent up aggression. But maybe, if communal harmony was better protected by an efficient judicial system there would be less aggressive feelings in general floating around or at least non-violent and trusted alternative ways of settling them.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Obama, the LRA Bill & my 2 cents

I'm in Kampala attending the International Criminal Court's review conference. It's the third day of the conference and Saturday the ICC President held a town hall meeting in Gulu. Each day deserves its own thoughtful blog if I can find time. Hopefully there will be more here soon. But given my last blog I thought it was important to share this statement that Obama made when he signed the LRA bill and a couple of brief thoughts:

Today, I signed into law the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009. The legislation crystallizes the commitment of the United States to help bring an end to the brutality and destruction that have been a hallmark of the LRA across several countries for two decades, and to pursue a future of greater security and hope for the people of central Africa.

The Lord’s Resistance Army preys on civilians – killing, raping, and mutilating the people of central Africa; stealing and brutalizing their children; and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Its leadership, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, has no agenda and no purpose other than its own survival. It fills its ranks of fighters with the young boys and girls it abducts. By any measure, its actions are an affront to human dignity.

Of the millions affected by the violence, each had an individual story and voice that we must not forget. In northern Uganda, we recall Angelina Atyam’s 14-year old daughter, whom the LRA kidnapped in 1996 and held captive for nearly eight years -- one of 139 girls abducted that day from a boarding school. In southern Sudan, we recall John Loboi -- a father, a husband, a brother, a local humanitarian assistance worker killed in an ambush while helping others in 2003. Now, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, the people of Dungu and of Obo, too, have their stories of loss and pain.

We mourn those killed. We pray for those abducted to be freed, and for those wounded to heal. We call on the ranks of the LRA to disarm and surrender. We believe that the leadership of the LRA should be brought to justice.

I signed this bill today recognizing that we must all renew our commitments and strengthen our capabilities to protect and assist civilians caught in the LRA’s wake, to receive those that surrender, and to support efforts to bring the LRA leadership to justice. The Bill reiterates U.S. policy and our commitment to work toward a comprehensive and lasting resolution to the conflict in northern Uganda and other affected areas, including northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic. We will do so in partnership with regional governments and multilateral efforts.

I commend the Government of Uganda for its efforts to stabilize the northern part of the country, for actively supporting transitional and development assistance, and for pursuing reintegration programs for those who surrender and escape from the LRA ranks.

I also want the governments of other LRA-affected countries to know that we are aware of the danger the LRA represents, and we will continue to support efforts to protect civilians and to end this terrible chapter in central African history. For over a decade, the United States has worked with others to respond to the LRA crisis. We have supported peace process and reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and regional recovery, protection of civilians and reintegration for former combatants, and have supported regional governments as they worked to provide for their people’s security. Going forward, we will call on our partners as we all renew our efforts.

I congratulate Congress for seizing on this important issue, and I congratulate the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilized to respond to this unique crisis of conscience. We have heard from the advocacy organizations, non-governmental organizations, faith-based groups, humanitarian actors who lack access, and those who continue to work on this issue in our own government. We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards -- you have made the plight of the children visible to us all. Your action represents the very best of American leadership around the world, and we are committed to working with you in pursuit of the future of peace and dignity that the people of who have suffered at the hands of the LRA deserve.

What I love:
-the emphasis on reconciliation, justice and protection of civilians
-the shout out to Angelina--who we worked with at CPA for 3 years and continues to be an incredible voice for peace and inspiration to me and many others. Having the President recognize her and the suffering of those who have experienced similar pain is meaningful and appropriate.
-recognizing the role of non governmental folks like us writing blogs and letters and advocating--so if you haven't yet, consider writing a letter based on the previous blog or getting an institution that you're part of to sign on to it because he's paying attention!

What I found a bit disappointing:
-the shallow analysis of the conflict reflected in the statement that the LRA has "no agenda and no purpose other than its survival" that plays into the biased narrative that the Government of Uganda and many others intentionally perpetuate to further their own interests and to support a military agenda. I fear that defining the "LRA problem" exclusively in terms of humanitarian devastation and as apolitical will lead to inappropriate and ineffective "solutions."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Local Voice & Non-Violent Solutions

On May 24th Obama signed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recover Act into Law. Now the administration has 180 days to develop a plan with ambitious and laudable goals: to eliminate the threat of the LRA in the region, provide civilian protection and support comprehensive reconstruction, transitional justice, and reconciliation efforts. The legislation doesn't specify an exact shape that the plan will take but commits to "political, economic, military, and intelligence support." Many people who have been affected by violence are concerned that in practice this plan might mean military support over preferred strategies and priorities. Local consultation was done by NGOs involved in advocating for the Bill (e.g. The Enough Project, Resolve, Invisible Children, etc.) however, some communities have expressed that their views were misrepresented. This is an open letter calling for consultation and non-violent solutions that a number of Ugandan organization have already signed. It has not been sent yet to provide more time for potential signatories.

Open Letter to President Obama Regarding the “Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda
Recovery Act of 2009 (S.1067/HR 2478)”

Dear President Obama,

For over two decades, the people of Northern Uganda have endured horrific violence as a result of a war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda (GoU). Despite numerous attempts to bring an end to the
conflict, all efforts have failed and to this day the civilian population in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Central African Republic (CAR) continues to suffer from the effects of LRA violence.

Mr. President, we are thankful for your desire for peace and justice in the world. More specifically, we are grateful to you for not ignoring the plight of the people by signing the “Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (S.1067/HR 2478)” into law. The potential of this historic legislation to support efforts to achieve sustainable peace, reconciliation, and meeting humanitarian needs in LRA affected regions cannot be understated and communicates that we are not forgotten.

As you and your administration begin the enormous task to develop a plan to implement the legislation, we strongly urge you to enter into consultations with regional CSO’s, NGO’s as well as grassroots leaders and their communities about the best way forward to bring an end to one of the world’s longest running conflicts.

While many have lost hope in any peaceful resolution to the conflict, the reality is that the peace process which started in 2006 is responsible for the relative calm being experienced in northern Uganda. Sadly after achieving such a significant outcome and ignoring the complexity of the LRA concerns and issues, the government of Uganda lost patience in the process. In a final attempt to end the LRA once and for all, a regional military offensive dubbed “Operation Lightning Thunder” was launched in 2008 with U.S. support. Like the numerous past military offensives launched against the LRA, this one also failed to meet its objective.

Military action has time and time again not only failed to end the conflict but caused it to spread into regions once immune to LRA violence resulting in further suffering of civilians. We therefore strongly implore you to prioritize and creatively explore non-violent actions to resolving the conflict. We believe this is the only way to bring a lasting solution that will foster healing and reconciliation in a region of the world that longs for and deserves peace.

Mr. President, we look forward to continued dialogue with you and your administration. May God guide and grant you and your administration wisdom as you discern how to effectively achieve the mandate of the “Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (S.1067/HR 2478)”.


Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI)-Gulu, Uganda

What you can do:
Get any institution or organization that you are affiliated with (university, church, NGO, etc.) to sign on (preferable before June 12th). To do so email the name of the institution and country of origin to Wade Snowdon at the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative at:

AND/OR Borrow language and reference this letter in your own letter to the President encouraging consultation with the affected communities here to develop the plan and to pursue non-violent over military "solutions." Need his address?

President Barak Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Friday, May 21, 2010

'Poverty & the Pill' or Gender and the Pill?

I know, my suggestion doesn't quite roll of the tongue as easily as the title of Kristof's article in the NY Times about the use of contraception in the Democratic Republic of Congo--but I think it might be a more precise identification of the core issue.

He talks about the "fixable" challenge of unavailable birth control in many poor countries. Referencing a report by the Guttmacher Institute, he writes that,"If contraception were broadly available in poor countries, the report said, more than 50 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted annually. One result would be 25 million fewer abortions per year. Another would be saving the lives of as many as 150,000 women who now die annually in childbirth." By all means, every woman who wants contraception should have access to it. But most interventions in this regard vastly overestimate women's freedom to make choices about birth control for themselves.

In my research I also ask women about how they make decisions around family planning. Most of them are familiar with the idea of "child spacing" and have various methods for achieving it, some of which are free--but the majority are denied the ability to make those decisions. If I ask who does, most respond: "my children's father." (and a few: "God") A number of the women who have reported sexual violence within their marriages said the man justified his actions in relation to having more children.

Poverty isn't the cause and money isn't the solution. Kristof does allude to the gender factor, for example, noting the practice of hospitals requiring women to bring their husbands with them so they know whether the man has agreed to using family planning methods and men's resistance to condom use--both of which are as relevant in Uganda as in the DRC. Though he raises a few of the challenges that make family planning "harder than it looks" the article misses the crux of the issue. Although I think I'd be all in favor of re-appropriating 2 weeks of military expenditure in Afghanistan to make contraception available "worldwide"--the real issue isn't unavailability--it's the relationships between men and women that are socially entrenched that prevent women from exercising power over their reproductive health.

I could link a photo to liven up the blog from his article--but instead of attaching the somewhat forlorn expression of a woman who almost died in childbirth--I share this one with you:

He is a beloved former colleague who confesses to having 28 children that he's aware of. How many does he think he actually has, "I don't know. Around 50 maybe?"

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sad in the same place

I watched a casket being lowered into the earth. He was 42. I didn’t know him, but he was a beloved cousin-brother of Lajara. She spent the last few weeks by his bedside in the hospital. They ran down the paths of their childhood together. Last semester he helped her pay tuition at Gulu University where she’s continuing her education. Lajara is a woman whose friendship is steadily restoring my weakened belief that solidarity with the poor isn’t just an ideal but a possibility. And so when I heard she had lost someone I came. It doesn’t matter that it’s Monday and there is work to be done. We buried him with singing. I held Lajara’s hand while we crowded around the open grave and she cried, her handkerchief in her free hand covered her face. She’s a tall, strong woman and her long arms trembled a little. We have sat together on mats in the shade enough afternoons for me to know she is not unfamiliar with sadness, but this, I can see, is an especially painful moment. This is unquestionably the most important thing I could do today.

We crowd into one of a half dozen tents providing shelter from a light sprinkling of rain that dampened us while we sang. They’re giving speeches from the head table but we can’t actually hear anything they’re saying. No doubt, they are reflecting on the kind and loving character of the deceased. Some grown men are crying. Others are commiserating on the latest developments in their land conflicts in their villages. Some women are sobbing. Others are cooking a meal for 300 mouths to consume. Over the rain, the conversations, the muffled speeches, is the sound of rocks being mixed with concrete to pour over the grave. I’m struck by how practical and ordinary things happen in this solemn space.

The people sitting next to me are other friends of the grieving family. I’m feeling rather useless—a burden to the overworked women in the kitchen, wondering why we’re all here. I find myself wanting to cry. Why? For the sadness of those who are nearby. For the reminder this day evokes of the burial of a dear friend I couldn’t attend last year because I was in London. And for our fellow communer who lost her dad suddenly two weeks ago whose hand is too far away to hold. When I look around I realize that it’s not about what is being said into the evidently useless microphone. It is not really about what is being done either.

This is a space to be sad in the same place. For those who were close to him it is the chance they have to sit and feel his absence from the world, for life to pause to recognize his passing. Many of the women pound, grind, boil, stir and serve through their grief--together. They carry their handkerchiefs while carrying food and stoke the cooking fires through tears inspired by his loss more than the smoke. Some of us came only because of them. This is an act of solidarity. From what I can tell, they experience our presence as meaningful and not an arduous chore as I feared. It is important that we eat this meal together, that we drink this cup as one. Humanity. We all lose people we love. We all die. We all clasp the hands of friends when we mourn.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Babies' Justice

Maybe it's the effects of living with Judah that I'm all the more fascinated and amused by this article in the NY Times. Perhaps we're born with a universal desire to see "bad guys" get punished?

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

You can read the rest of the article here

The article actually sparks some more provoking questions, like: Is the core of "justice" and morality universally impartiality as the article suggests? Could it be some other trait that enables the most harmonious functioning of any given society? Or is the replacement of impartiality for harmony a sign that societies have lost sight of the truth we were born with?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Feel good about yourself--Become an extremist

John Cleese tells us how to avoid the dark truth of our inner nastiness and transform ourselves into champions of truth.

(Hat tip to CB who hat tips MR)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interpreting Screams

My house is loud. My mind is quiet. Thinking has been replaced by the voice and energy of two-year-old activity and the responses of us adults around him. I fully expect the substitution of noise for thought to be temporary--confidant that I will adjust to new ambient noises of play. But in the mean time, here I am, interpreting loud noise instead of phenomena related to justice after rape.

New sounds for these ears: His sweet bare feet pattering in excited circles on the concrete floor of the living room, giggles, legoes being poured from their box, automated toys, an enthralled and repeated introduction of himself into the fan, "I'm Judah!" which I think means "I'm happy and excited about the discovery of the effect these whirling blades have on my voice!"and of course screams-some of surprise and joy-"this bathwater is cold!" or "that praying mantis is awesome!" others demanding, or sad or asserting his will "pay attention to me" "my tummy hurts" "I don't want to sleep"or "I want to play in the mud, not wear sunscreen and suck my thumb before I let you wash my hands!" he really says all that--at least that's my translation. Much of what is being said I think might be summed up as, "I am still overwhelmed by my new surroundings! adjusting to them is hard and will take me a little while!" Lest, my words be understood as a complaint--this is an appropriate time to remind the reader of 4 important things: 1) I am head-over-heels in love with this kid, 2) his volume is surely not uncommon or above average for his age 3) I happily chose with my eyes wide open to be part of a community with his two-year old self, and 4) I recognize in cries and yells a valid and noteworthy form of communication.

If I screamed right now it would mean a few things. "I'm so unproductive it's scary!" "I need to work!" "I can't concentrate on reading other people's ideas let alone come up with my own!" and much more deeply honest, "I don't want to massively fail at the one thing I am trying to do that actually matters: loving people."

In all truth, I don't really feel the need to scream. I rather feel like taking some deep breaths and enjoying the solitude inspired by a few moments towards the end of a yoga practice recording that Kellen brought with her. (It has been awesome having a practice partner!) After sweating through an hour or so of beautiful posture sequences in a final resting posture, Tracy Chapman assures us, "Ooh Child, things are gonna get easier." At that moment the lyrics present themselves as irrefutable truth. Then a rather bizarre thing happens--the yoga class next door (when the original recording was done) begins screaming--for some inexplicable reason. We have no idea why--but the recorded instructor jokes that they are expelling demons. Perhaps that's not a bad idea. Maybe we all need to scream once in awhile and be given permission to act like we're two.

If you screamed right now, what would it mean?

Monday, March 22, 2010

2 cups of coffee & the meaning of commune

by Holly
This morning I reminded myself of my grandmother. For probably two decades every time we have a family gathering she will at some point look around with pre-emptive nostalgia and say: “this might be the last time that we’re all together.” Her comment is inevitably followed by eye rolling and hugs.

Tomorrow I’m picking up the Kurtz family in Entebbe. The Hoins come in a month.

This morning, while Ben and I sat on the front veranda sipping our habitual coffee, I said it: “this might be the last time we’re alone like this.”—OK, I admit I’m being dramatic, but it really is going to be a much more rare occurrence that the two of us share the solitude of a quiet morning cup of coffee in a house where we’re the sole occupants. “Our life force is about to expand,” Ben smiles. “We need to buy more mugs,” I decide, and make a note on my expanding to-do list.

The other night I semi-jokingly told a group of friends that we were starting a commune. I say “semi” joking because—we sort of are. But I just feel goofy using the word, like I’ll either be dismissed as some kind of crazy hippy or like I’m formalizing and glorifying a rather common phenomenon: living in the same house with a bunch of friends. Someone asked, what I meant—and I responded something to the effect of: we really like each other, and want to do life together, encourage each other’s visions, and vocations and share resources. The questioner, asked, “then, you won’t, like, grow food together?” I don’t know why that seems to be an integral part of a commune—but somehow the collaborative production and consumption of food does appear a central feature of communal living. Yes, I answered confidently—we’re going to have a big garden and grow veggies—and keep hens and eat lots of eggs and vegetables together. Does that mean I will live in a commune? I didn’t really know, so I broke a sacred taboo. I did something self-respecting PhD students are NEVER EVER supposed to do, or at least, admit to doing: I referenced Wikipedia.

My synthesis of the authoritative wiki voice: A commune is an intentional community of people living together, sharing common interests, property, possessions resources, work and income. Decisions are made by consensus. We reject the idea of hierarchy and bureaucracy as necessary to have social order (on a small scale). We try to live with a light ecological footprint. We recognize the importance of a group beyond the nuclear family. We have emotional bonds to the whole group. We share housework, childcare and other communal activity. We’re profoundly egalitarian.

I think we’re starting a commune.

But I guess I can’t really decide that on my own. The 7 of us have to reach consensus. What do you think folks?

Wikipedia tells me communes are no longer associated with free-love and flower children. “(P)ragmatics rather than psychedelics” rule the day. I suspect the fact that they have to spell that out indicates more the presence of the continued association rather than the evolution of common perception. Well, we’ll see how it all unfolds, and keep posting.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Going south: false/wishful advertising & laughable logic


This is the bus I took last week from Gulu to Kampala
Scheduled departure: 8:00am
Time I was told I should come to catch the bus: 8:30am
Time I decided to show up (because I think I've learned from experience): 9:30am
Actual departure time: 11:47am

We really miss out if we're too aggravated to laugh at the irony. It reminded me of a similarly long wait for a bus a few years ago. After the wheels finally started moving, the bus made it several blocks before breaking down. We waited for the next bus which also broke down. When the third bus, which finally proved itself road-worthy came, it had a slogan painted across the upper part of the windshield: "God likes patience." The increasingly disgruntled passengers had to laugh in spite of themselves. Waiting patiently is a useful spiritual discipline. So much of life is waiting for something, without exercising it, we spend too much time frustrated and annoyed. There are many opportunities to practice. One little celebration of the road: hundreds of speed humps which have in the past apparently served some often-speculated but little-understood constructive purpose have been removed! I'll have to find something else to practice my Acholi counting skills to pass the hours heading south--but the journey is so much more painless without an hour of jostling over kilometers of bumps.

Proof that I really am learning from experience: I went to the bus park in Kampala early, booked my seat back to Gulu and left my luggage. Exchanged phone numbers with the conductor. "Waited" in a cafe for a couple of hours with a friend. Conductor called me 10 minutes before the bus left, just enough time to clear the bill and boda back to the park. It was great! I highly recommend the strategy.

A new feature of the journey: the police stop the buses at every check point. Ostensibly, this is because they register the bus at each point to regulate speed. At one stop, the inspector boarded the bus in an immaculately cleaned and starched white uniform and black beret. He introduced himself and gave us all his phone number. I still have it in my constant moleskine companion where I quickly tried to write every word he said--his logic was truly dizzying. He marched up and down the aisle of the bus for the next 15 or 20 minutes lecturing the passengers and driver in turn about the perils of speeding, societal ills of corruption, benefits of taxes and healthcare. Well, sort of. "You are bribing us too much!" he shouted. "You have bribed me enough. You're giving me that money and I am eating alone, yet you are the one's who are all dying just because you are in a hurry." He asked passengers if they were satisfied with the speed of the bus since we left Gulu and how we rated the driving of the man behind the wheel. We mumbled a mediocre response. He was driving fine. "You are in a hurry and going fast can end life! Then we catch you and you bribe us with fifty thousand (around $25) but how much is the life of a person worth? It's better if you get a speeding ticket to go to court. Then you pay the government. Then the government will use that money to offer you health care when you are all injured from motor vehicle accidents because of over speeding! You should pay your taxes and go slowly instead of me eating all this money from bribes alone and all of you dying!" He paused, for dramatic effect, I imagine, "Go safely!" He finally finished and the bus responded to this rousing end with a round of applause!

It's not every day a police officer admits to taking bribes and is publicly lauded. But then, no day, is really like any other day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Blood & light: a lenten contemplation 'On Turning Ten'

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light -
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

-Billy Collins

When I read the poet say now he is mostly at the window, watching the late afternoon light, my memory responded with a quick flash of a history of evenings. It evoked two concurrent associations: coming home, and the end. In my warm surroundings I recalled an angled sun, pulling my coat tighter and turning my iPod up—Gnarls Barkley while I walk briskly over the Waterloo bridge after a lecture, or a cold drink and “a pile of meat” on the grill with Ben and Pete in the garden after writing all day. I remembered my short Denver commute, sitting at a traffic light facing west with cyclists and joggers rushing through the cross walk on their way to Wash Park, undiminished appreciation for the awesome Rocky Mountains behind them with snow turned pink and purple in the middle of summer. I thought of the golden light of Ugandan sinking sun pregnant with life reflecting off of ancient trees and red roads—work is done. I’m on my way home, on the back of a boda boda bicycle, or in CPA’s old pickup dodging potholes but still moving too fast for my eyes to focus on any of the blurred leaves in the bush I'm passing. But then there are the evenings by the window, that insist you acknowledge something is over, that a time you loved has finished. It is, indeed a solemn moment, almost holy. I don’t know why, but for me they always seem to happen in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the warmth, or all of the conversation and collaboration that happens around preparing meals. Yesterday I felt it here. I shooed a chicken out the back door, closed the screen and looked around my kitchen in the evening light. I’m not going far. But I’m acutely aware that my life is about to change.

Maybe it’s actually part of going home. Acknowledging all the little ends. Letting go. Embracing what is ahead and celebrating the ways that it expands our limits of being. Recognizing the new. Accepting loss that comes with it. To inhale, we have to exhale.

I felt this today when I was practicing yoga. A beautiful pose with my heart open. I took a deep breath and sunk in. Suddenly I became conscious that I was a little bit deeper than I have ever been before. I was experiencing my body in that state for the first time. I felt this rush of joy even while I noticed my tight hips and shoulders, smiling to myself and realizing a newness of being—like a child discovering her hands. We have so much that we have yet to explore. We have so many limits that we can expand, boundaries in our bodies, minds and spirits that can and do shift. I think we lose the wonder when we begin to believe the lie that all is known, experienced and stale. What is true: Everything is being made new.

There is a kind of solemnity and appropriate sadness that comes as 10 becomes 20 and 30 and so on—but this poem reminded me of a duality in being that allows for the cohabitation of child-like joy and loss:

When you cut me I bleed.

And I shine.

Both these things are true.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

No Smoke Without Fire?

*Photo from BBC link below
By Holly

In January the BBC aired a Newsnight special on ‘ritual child murder in Uganda.’ It provoked an unfavourable reaction, where a number of critiques were brought against it that I talk about below. I wrote this about a month ago, but didn’t get around to posting it and then attention had moved on until child sacrifice splashed out in the news again on the BBC and, this time, nationally in the New Vision. The Ugandan Government was evidently embarrassed by the piece and arrested the primary BBC informant, a “reformed witchdoctor” Pollino. The word on the street is that he was given a choice: be charged with 70 counts of murder that he confessed to the BBC and subsequently the police or be charged with lying (less jail time for the latter). Whether this ultimatum was truly delivered, I don’t know. But those close to the situation say that he was certainly involved in numerous child sacrifices even if 70 might be an exaggeration and he is now being held for giving false information to a police officer. Since I wrote this I was finally able to listen to the radio version of the programme (a new café in Gulu opened with faster internet!). I still haven’t been able to watch it. The friend that I mention was with the BBC film crew who hadn’t seen it, finally did. More than a month after it had aired they received a DVD copy that the BBC sent.

I’m in a village a few kilometres from Gulu town sitting in a grass-thatch hut with a group of about a dozen people, my laptop and a portable modem. We load the BBC website and navigate to Newsnight’s special on child ritual murder in Uganda that aired several weeks ago. Five or ten seconds play at a time, broken by a rotating circle assuring us it’s ‘loading’. The Internet is slow here. In an exchange between the BBC and several anthropologists, the BBC pointed out that criticism has only been from British-based academics. People in Uganda must like the report since they haven’t complained. Looking around the room, this defence is perceptibly feeble. I hoped to remedy the paucity of Ugandan voice in the discussion by showing the piece today and sharing reactions. But after repeated broken promises from the twirling icon we finally give up and discuss a few issues raised by people far away on a report that none of us have seen:

Generalized use of the term ‘witchdoctor’ is unhelpful
There are diverse practices of people involved in the supernatural: people born with uncontrolled power to harm or help, herbalists, those involved in divination, séances, exorcisms, curses and charms. The group lists titles in English and Acholi: wizard, witch, night dancer, Ajwaka, Lajok among others. Categories I draw from their descriptions and that anthropologists have outlined (p’Bitek, Girling) are much more neat than the complex fluid social understandings. I asked how they would feel if the BBC referred to them all as ‘witchdoctor’? One woman responded, “If they misrepresent the situation, it doesn’t bother me since all of them are doing bad things.” Another person disagreed citing positive work of herbalists. Unfortunately, the Ajwaka who lives next door wasn’t around. Her main activity is to bang her shoes together, throw them on the ground and read your future by the way they fall. She would certainly be appalled at the idea that she belonged in a category accused of brutally murdering children.

Perpetuating fear poses danger to the accused
If there were any indication that Ugandans were watching this would be a significant worry. Northern Uganda is in transition, when such issues should be handled with extra care. Disordered times create space for the enactment of widespread fear in extraordinarily violent ways. In the lat time of transition a predecessor to the Lord’s Resistance Army, Cilil, was infamous for torturing ‘witches’ forcing them to carry hot coals or burning them with melted plastic. One person in the room admitted she set a trap seriously injuring a night dancer.

Everyone has a story about ‘witchcraft’ usually speculative and told as fact. A few months ago, one of the young women recounted how her friend had fallen sick after stepping on charms placed by an old woman in their village. It took a lot of prodding before she admitted she had not seen the charms and her reason for suspecting the woman was that she “looks sideways when she fetches water from the well.” One day I passed the apparently witchy lady while we were collecting water together. The young woman looked at me triumphantly, “You see!?” she said, sure that I witnessed manifest evil. I have an untrained eye, but the woman appeared quite ordinary and not unfriendly.

They all assured me, however, that the six known Ajwaka in their village were in no danger as long as they continued activities within the law. I would add, as long as there are no rumours to the contrary.

Such stories revive myopic prejudices
Unfortunately, we could not comment on whether the ‘stylistic requirements’ of the BBCs audience that Whewell defended in his correspondence were fair or sensationalized. It’s clear that the target audience was not in Ugandan. Even a friend who helped Whewell’s crew in Lira was not shown the final product and, like me, has been unable to access it online. But, I asked in general, how they felt about such stories in western media. A young man said he worried that people would think Ugandans are “backward.” Another woman wondered how BBC decides which stories to report. She paused thoughtfully, “Well, we’re tired of people always giving attention to the war. At least now they are reporting on something else.” Yes, it’s nice to see media breaking from perpetuating the image of Africa as a place of endemic political violence to focus on witchcraft for a change.

Medicine murders are rare, not new and not the result of modernization (as the BBC suggests)
The only thing new modernisation contributes to ritual murder is media’s effect on public perception. According to the group, ritual murder has “always been there” but tends to have clusters of popularity followed by lulls. Competition among powerful people resorting to similar dark methods is followed by negative attention that forces practitioners to withdraw until the popular imagination moves on. I asked them, what they believe prompted this particular perceived cluster of child sacrifices. They suggested politics. Some politicians are rumoured to use witchcraft to secure power, or in campaigns to manipulate fear in their favour. One person had personally witnessed evidence of child sacrifice. She saw the body of two-year-old boy that was used in ritual. The police stopped a crowd of people from stoning the man who was later convicted.

There have been a small number of similar cases documented by police. In addition to these reports, the BBC included a child rights NGO consortium among their main sources. I worked for one of the member organizations for three years. It’s worth noting that sensational violence against children is more likely to tug at the heart and purse strings of potential donors. Past funding to the consortium has been used on advocacy campaigns such as bumper stickers urging people to ‘Stop child sacrifice.’ It’s difficult to imagine that someone who kills children for ‘medicinal’ purposes would read this and suddenly see the error of their ways. Instead, the message feeds the “growing concern” that (those who have seen the report say) the BBC has taken as evidence of growing practice.

“We have a saying in our language,” a woman offers by way of conclusion. As she says it, you are reminded how universal some things are: “There is no smoke without fire.” I pushed the issue, recalling an instance a few months ago when a severed hand in the middle of a road sent people into superstitious panic until a one-handed woman turned up in a hospital. She was driving with her arm out the window when a lorry carrying sharp cargo passed. Well, sometimes, they concede, there is smoke without fire. However, on the issue of child sacrifice, “there is fire. But it seems the BBC also reported the smoke.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sex is a mental thing

by Holly
It was a hard day. For vicarious reasons. I have little claim to feel sad, angry and betrayed. I’m trespassing on someone elses pain and I have no right to take it home with me. But I do and I can’t help it. I always come home to a violence-free house and a partner that loves me madly. I never, ever worry what he might do to me tonight.

No one I talked to today* could say the same. I've decided I need several hours in the presence of really wonderful men to each hour of hearing about rape. Thankfully, there are amazing men in my daily life—Ben—and many excellent Ugandan colleagues and friends that help me balance out my over-exposure to the wake of other men’s depravity.

A couple of days ago I went to a meeting with some agencies working on Gender Based Violence. Suddenly, I was taken back to Lira, 2005. It’s funny how little “coordination” meetings change in 5 years. But that’s beside the point. (the point, is still to be determined—perhaps it’s just the catharisis that comes after sharing things too heavy to carry alone) Sitting there, I kept thinking of how many women have no idea these NGOs exist or what services they could provide them. I’ve been asking women who they would go to for help if something happened to them. They typically say something like, “Well, I hear that there is a group in town called ‘Human Rights’ but I don’t really know what they do.” Several different NGOs have hotlines—one for counselling, another for legal advice, etc. I suggested they make a joint card with all of the available hotlines—written in Acholi and distribute it as widely as possible. I’d like to have such a card to leave with some of the women I talk to.

It might do a little good. I recalled one of the women. She’s not going to report her husband to the police or seek legal advice. She just wants him to stop. She wants to talk to someone without them making her feel more ashamed than she already does. “If I tell anyone,” she lamented,” they’ll just ask me why I got married if I don’t want to have sex. They’ll say it’s my duty to satisfy him.” She wants someone to tell her it’s not her fault. She wants someone who can commiserate. “My sister,” she touched my arm and shook her head, “when he comes home so drunk and violent and with the smell of alcohol, how am I supposed to begin?”

A card with phone numbers isn’t going to help her. She can’t read. She doesn’t have a phone.

And then I remembered (the gist of) a provocative question my supervisor asked me. (I think/hope he was going for a reaction and not reflecting his opinion.) If marital rape is a normalized experience, does it do more damage than good to problematize it? Maybe, if women don’t perceive being violently forced to have sex as wrong they are less traumatized by it’s occurrence, accepting it as a normal part of interaction with husands.

Preposterous. (this is my obligatory more refined substitute for what I really think: b*** sh**. My mom always said that using vulgar language was a sign of a poor vocabulary—but honestly, once in awhile profanity is simply most apt.)

Every woman I’ve talked to that shared her experience of being raped by her partner experienced it as something wrong. They KNOW it’s not right. To suggest otherwise is demeaning. “What I know,” one of them told me after sharing the violent forced conception of her first child, “is that making love is supposed to be an agreement between a man and a woman.” Living in a village in Africa, makes this no less true than anywhere else. Another woman told me how she has never talked to anyone about it except for her husband. “I tell him, ‘What you’re doing is bad! This is the wrong way to treat your wife! Strangers do this to strangers but you should be ashamed to do it in your own house!”

Say what you want about cultural relativity. Acholi women like foreplay just as much as the next woman. Whether you sleep on a papyrus mat on a dirt floor or a pillow-top king-size mattress, women want the person lying next to them to respect their yes and their no. Perhaps to persuade them—but never to force them. Most of them are angry that they live in an environment where people around them identify ways they are to blame and make excuses for the man’s behavior. One of my personal fravorites: “well, maybe he is just trying to save them both from HIV” –implying that the only alternative to benevolently forcing one’s wife to have sex is to have sex with someone else.

A couple of months ago I had a chat with the Resident District Commissioner for Gulu. A male colleague came along and made a comment I might’ve been tempted to slap him for if I weren’t a pacifist (to be fair, I’ve seen how well he treats his wife and he’s a good guy)—something about how marital rape was a difficult issue because men have “greater sexual appetitites than women.” I bit my tongue. And sat on my hands.

Ochora, (the RDC) leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully before he delivered his verdict. His gigantic belly protruding onto his desk when he leaned forward. “Sex,” he pronounced, “is a mental thing. It is mentally driven. If the wife says she is not in the mood then men should be able to understand.”

(*For confidentiality purposes, I did not post this on the day I wrote it.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"There is no medicine for rape" & "All women are monogamous"

by Holly

I’m a bit of a geek with data--so I really can't wait to play with all the wonderful information I'm collecting right now. Statistics is the only kind of maths I've ever come close to doing well (I almost failed secondary level geometry, did fail algebra the first time, and barely passed amidst a lot of hard work and tears the second time). Loving this stuff as I do, I happily spent days on a papyrus mat under the mango tree in the Local Councilor's compound extracting the names of all the women from 9 books of census data that he collected last year to get the random sample of women I’m interviewing right now. It should have been mind-numbingly boring—but I get kind of a kick out of it. And I couldn’t beat the venue. The kids around would show off their reading skills over my shoulder exlaiming every name they recognized: “that’s my aunty” or, “we always see her at the borehole.” More than once I shooed chickens off of the books and away from my computer.

I came to this village first in 2006 and since then I’ve gotten to know many of the families so I was able to compare the census data with what I know. It’s fascinating to see how social realities translate into ticks and numbers in boxes. By necesity, categories obscure truths. Unlike FB, here is no “it’s complicated” option for relationships. Women I know are separated/divorced from their husbands listed themselves as married. After entering several booksworth of data I noticed that the code for a spouse of a polygamous relationship was only used for men. I asked the LC about it. I wish you could have seen his face. He looked at me incredulously and laughed: “Can a woman have more than one man!?” (this was clearly a rhetorical question) “ALL women are monogamous!” Later I repeated this to a few Ugandan girlfriends--they laughed so hard I started wondering if maybe they were crying.

I also noticed that the Ajwaka (often translated as “witchdoctos” or “traditional healers”) in the area , listed their main source of income as “support from children.” Right.

I interviewed one of them a few days ago—not because she is an Ajwaka. She happened to be in my sample, but I threw in a few extra questions at the end of the interview about her work. When I told her I was interested in learning more about the work of Ajwaka, her eyes got big and she said, "Well, I'm veee--eery good at it!" She proudly explained how her father had chosen her to inherit his power instead of any of the boys in her family and listed the many spiritual ailments she is well known for curing: broken legs, cross-eyes, when people give you unfair portions of food, if your house regularly catches fire, if your eyes close abruptly and won’t open again, blindness, unfaithfulness--especially in men, asthma, all mental illness and many other sicknesses. (I couldn't help but recall that her husband is blind and she had earlier complained that her daughter-in-law never gives her enough food...but I decided this wasn't the right time to bring it up)

I was curious if any women who have experienced sexual violence had ever come to her for help—so I asked. She laughed at me (I get that a lot).

“There is no medicine for rape! I tell them to go and report to the government so that the man is arrested and they will be safe!”


How I do wish there was a medicine for rape.