Thursday, November 26, 2009

Workshopping Peace

The past few/couple/I’m not even sure how many weeks have truly been an exhausting whirlwind. Holly and I were preparing to formally present our project to our core local advisory group at what became officially known as our 3-day Modules and Content Development Committee (MCDC) Workshop. Relatively new to the world of workshop facilitation, Holly and I were anxious - would the MCDC find our materials appropriate for the Northern Ugandan context? Would we fall on our faces? Would the committee members participate? Before I tell you all about how awesome the workshop was (and how outstanding Holly and my facilitating skills turned out to be), let me shed a little light on what exactly this MCDC workshop was all about.

Before even setting foot in Uganda, Holly and I partnered with several exceptional organizations in the field of peace education. For the purposes of the MCDC workshop, we utilized materials from two of these organizations, Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) and Tapori.

FHAO is an internationally recognized organization that promotes civic responsibility, tolerance, and social action among youth through innovative curricula and teaching modules. The content and activities covered in our MCDC workshop were most heavily based on FHAO, and fell into the following units: 1) Identity and Individualism; 2) Communities and Conflict Resolution; 3) Case Study: The Holocaust; and 4) Promoting Peace: Be the Change.

We used Tapori’s collection of issue-based children’s stories to illustrate some of the complex concepts introduced by FHAO. For example, a story about Jacinto from Guatemala depicts a young boy living in poverty, who suffers from hunger and must regularly skip school in order to help his half-blind uncle tend to their crops, provides a context for our primary school students to understand the overly legalized jargon of “Human Rights.”

While all of our materials went over well, our MCDC members were particularly enthusiastic about the Holocaust case study- something truly groundbreaking in the Ugandan education system. They eagerly explored the causes, realities and consequences of hatred, as they made connections to their own atrocity-ridden past. We designed the program to give Ugandans a case study to which they could connect their own experience with mass atrocity. We were hesitant to present formal lessons on recent Ugandan history, but it quickly became clear that open discussion about the war carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army will be an essential element of our program.

Kaa salama,


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Unsung Heroes

The road to Paicho IDP camp leads out of Gulu to the Northeast through rural farmland and neighboring camps, a dynamic pair of symbols: the first of hope for a future that allows people to return to their peaceful pastoral lifestyles, and the second, living legacies of the war.

Paicho, the site of one of our two pilot schools, has become somewhat of a hybrid between the two. During the armed conflict, mud huts stood crammed together, tens of thousands of people living 9 or 10 to a room. Food was delivered once or twice monthly to long crowded lines of families waiting to receive bags of rice. Camps were set up for people who lived in remote areas to provide protection from rebel attacks and abductions. But often the camps increased the efficiency of rebel activity, condensing large populations into one relatively small, miserable space with a disturbingly disproportionate guard-to-civilian ratio.

Many Paicho residents have lived in the camp their whole lives. Women have raised children there, young adults have spent their formative years there, and communities have organized into support groups and nonprofit organizations. Many people have left to return to their original villages in order to reclaim their land and resume farming and relinquish the crutch of the UN. Others, though, have made Paicho their home, building more permanent structures, investing in the school and participating in local leadership structures. One such resident is Richard Onen, a man who's commitment to peace and development is only matched by his humble kindness and true optimism for his community. Along with his childhood friend, Victor Ochen, Richard founded the Ugandan branch of the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). It is a small organization whose accomplishments put mega international organizations with ten times the resources to shame. With a staff of 11 and a small office based in the town of Lira, they aid vulnerable populations in over a dozen sub-regions of Northern Uganda.

This year alone, they are pursuing eight projects, including reconstructive surgery for youth who were mutilated by LRA rebels, micro-finance projects for young widows struggling to support their families and the resettlement of 4,000 internally displaced persons returning to their homes after 20 years of war. As they carry out their work, AYINET is audited by veteran institutions like United Nations and USAID, and consistently found to be working at over 80% efficiency, blowing their bigger richer counterparts out of the water. What explains the discrepancy? These are two individuals whose hearts and souls are tied up in their work. Their experiences during the war manifest in aggressive commitment to ensuring that mass atrocity does not reoccur in their communities. Their intimate knowledge of Northern Uganda - politics, tradition, religion, money, water, land - mean that they are better equipped than the most well-funded, PhD-ridden international aid staff out there.

Victor and Richard are a dynamic team who work harder than anyone I've known - I often ask Victor when he sleeps, to which he replies, "It's good to be exhausted. If I'm sleeping, I can't be moving around to all the ones that need support." On top of their insane work ethic, their charisma and humor makes spending time with them a total joy. They pay attention to the human side of suffering, and avoid the jaded attitude of development workers who have little personal long-term investment in Northern Uganda's future.

Politicians, celebrities and international humanitarian advocates puzzle endlessly over the best ways to carry out development work, dumping funding into large-scale cut-and-paste programs. Many of them are missing the local component. We would go a long way in supporting transitional democracies simply by spending the time to find the individuals who make magic happen in their communities. These are the people we need to support.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Dust Your Average Day

Don’t you just love that red African soil? I know I do. I love it thinly coating my entire body, gathering greater density in the crevice between my nose and sunglasses, clinging to my Burts Beeswax-covered lips.

But how do you achieve this ‘look?’ (You’re clearly asking yourself right now). The answer is simple- you hop on the back of a ‘boda-boda’ motorcycle for a 40-minute ride from Gulu town to Paicho Primary School, in Paicho internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.

You may have gathered through conversations with me over the past few months, or maybe just from pulling up this blog, that Holly and I are here in Gulu to develop and eventually implement peace education curricula. As the first phase of our project, we’ve been meeting with local experts in the fields of education, youth leadership, and human rights. Most importantly, we’ve started to get to know the primary level 5 and 6 students from the two pilot schools we’re working with- Police Primary in Gulu town, and Paicho Primary in one of Gulu district’s countless IDP camps.

Police Primary is a beautifully maintained ‘urban’ school (urban for Gulu), recognized in the district as a ‘model’ school, with the some of the top teachers, highest examination scores, access to resources, etc. Paicho Primary is at the other extreme- a ‘rural’ school, with a larger population of directly war-affected children, and a scarcity of resources.

Today, Holly and I slathered our pasty selves with sunscreen, filled up our water bottles, and mounted a couple boda-bodas with boxes of needs-assessment surveys in tow. We rode up to Paicho Primary, where we were greeted with the typical stares, giggles, and shrieks of ‘munu’ (whitey). We carried out the surveys with the P5 and P6 students- the upcoming P6 and P7 students with whom we’ll be implementing our curriculum come February.

While we haven’t yet had a chance to read through the hundreds of surveys (combined with those from Police Primary, we have about 450), we hope that the children’s responses will help us to understand their knowledge, attitudes and skills around peace and conflict resolution.



Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rebranding Aid

Reporting last week on President Obama's recently won Nobel Peace Prize, celebrity artist-turned-anti-poverty-activist Bono writes in a New York Times Op-ed that this is the beginning of the rebranding of America. He says this year's Prize is a signal that Obama is a leader who will bring us into the global peace building fold rather than one whose initiatives consistently undermine it. Of the new administration, Bono excites, "From a development perspective, you couldn’t dream up a better dream team to pursue peace in this way, to rebrand America." A sea change for the US, to be sure. 

But what about a change for the direct beneficiaries of peace building and poverty eradication efforts, regardless of whose flag those efforts are under? The problems with international aid go far beyond the US's recent absence. As a global community, we need to look at what has happened to and due to status quo aid work. In our very small way, this initiative aims to confront those questions and attempt a change of tack. This blog will keep you posted on what comes of it. 

Some background: Northern Uganda recently emerged from an armed conflict between government and rebel armies that lasted from 1986 - 2006. The war's architects conscripted tens of thousands of child soldiers and led campaigns of ethnically-based violence, widescale sex slavery and the displacement of 2 million people. 

In the immediate post-war setting, Uganda was a magnet for emergency humanitarian aid programs. Our program base is littered with UN compounds and European government-funded projects. At the height of the war, in their well-oiled way, they came in, set up shop, and saved lives by the thousands. Now they've moved to post-war reconstruction, handing out the last of the food aid, resurrecting demolished buildings and doling out micro loans to entrepreneur hopefuls. These are necessary activities, but there is a significant lack of two things here as in many peace building efforts elsewhere the world: preventative approaches and intellectual development.

This year, we are bringing attention to the war-afflicted population of Northern Uganda in a way that hasn't been done before. Our beneficiaries: youth and the future they influence. Our method: build democratic classrooms and give children the tools to promote the survival of peace in their society.

With this project, we want to participate in rebranding post-conflict and poverty-eradication efforts toward paying as much attention to the minds of future leaders as is paid to the roof and four walls that we call a classroom.

Blogging from our base in Gulu, Uganda, we'll keep you updated on project progress, informed on issues relevant to the region, and entertained with daily reflections and photography. For more on the overall project plan, philosophy and parent organization (Insight Collaborative) visit our program website.

Finally, let our experience be a call to action - there is a lot to be done to rebrand aid and the trajectory of the next generation. As Bono points out, "The Nobel Peace Prize is the rest of the world saying, ‘Don’t blow it.’ But that’s not just directed at Mr. Obama. It’s directed at all of us."

Enjoy the blog and please send comments—we’re excited about the year ahead and love feedback as much as the next novice fieldworker.