Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The North is Another Country

According to travel writer Philip Briggs, “Education in northwest [Uganda] and associated prospects of employment were deliberately stifled by the British, in order that the region might remain a ready source of military recruits and manual laborers.”

Northern Uganda is acutely and obviously impoverished. For those of us who work in the region, being aware of this problem becomes like breathing. Hunger, abuse and disease are all around. But in our isolated Gulu, relative comparisons become scarce. This is poverty in a vacuum.

It wasn’t until I recently went on holiday in Uganda’s southwest that I realized, after 9 months of work in the north, just how damaged and disadvantaged this region is.

In the south, impenetrable forests contrast dried up croplands in the north. Nearly thriving tourism in the south juxtaposes an onslaught of foreign aid workers in the north. Children vibrant with health, energy and crisp colorful new school uniforms stand out against distended bellied toddlers wearing stained scraps of second-hand t-shirts. Brilliant green tea plantations stretch for miles across southern farmland, contrasting the squalid IDP camps that desertified the north (pictured below).

The scenarios make sense – the Civil Society Organizations for Peace in Northern Uganda estimated the cost of the war in Northern Uganda to be $1.3 billion, with 90% of people in Acholiland forced out of their homes. These are catalysts of long-term, widespread damage that can be seen, felt and heard simply by moving from one end of this Oregon-sized country to the other.

As we moved through protected, profiting national parks and lively, stable towns, I felt defensive of the north and protective of the people suffering there. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether this kind of deep contrast happens across borders or within them. But seeing the difference in the south and knowing this was still Uganda gave me pause and incited frustration outside of the familiar concern I have for poverty and war devastation per se.

Shortly after South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy, Allister Sparks said of the emerging system: “Tomorrow is another country.” Here, the north - south divide makes Uganda feel like two different nations, governed by two different administrations and run on two different economies.

Healing a region after repeated offense takes time and attention. The Ugandan government, the shepherd of the nation in its entirety, would do well to strive for a less conspicuous rift by giving Northerners what they need to fulfill their potential and match their compatriots to the south.



Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Proving Peace Education Works

Development work is often volatile- we pour our hearts and souls into a program, and hope that our efforts will result in sustained impact. But even the most effective organization, complete with dedicated staff and deep community integration can find itself without sufficient funding and thereby paralyzed o continue their work.

As we’ve been labored over grant proposals aimed at securing funding for such continuance for our own impact, I’ve asked myself what the future will hold for the Insight Peace Education Project, and for myself as one of its staff. What could we do with 50k? 100k? 500k? What could we do, what do we want to do, and what would make for a quality continuation?

Beyond having ideas, the most important factor to ensuring a continued impact is having proof that the project is both affective and effective. While we’ve been following expert monitoring and evaluation protocols, I never expected to have any “evidence” that our materials worked within a mere few months.

When we recently sat down with our teachers for our monthly meeting, we were humbled to hear them report (unprompted, might I add) several significant changes that they’ve observed among their students since we began curriculum implementation. Female class participation has increased significantly. There is more order both inside the classroom and during break-times. Students have gained a sense of peer-enforced accountability. More students than ever before are making their way to the school libraries, requesting to take out books.

Could this all really be a result of our program? It’s both relieving and rejuvenating to know that our efforts have led to visible positive change. It’s rare to see the impact of one’s work so quickly, and these changes support the core beliefs behind our project- that children are malleable, and that through youth education we can positively affect the future.

Kaa Salama,


Monday, March 8, 2010

Are We Together?

During our week of teacher training workshops, we used various methods to get to know the five teachers we would be working with at our two pilot schools. As we moved through our sections on Identities and Communities, we gained insight into their lives. Our concern coming out of the workshop: How do you relay the same lessons and build the same trust and collaboration in a class of one hundred and fifty students effectively? Now that we’ve begun our classroom implementation phase, the answer is clear: you leave it to the professionals.

In the past four weeks, I’ve spent most of my time with the Primary 6 classes at Police Primary, watching their teacher, Nyerere, dominate the classroom in a way I could have never imagined. The first time I walked into his class, I had a heavy feeling at the bottom of my stomach, the same one I often get right before a big game. After the class greeted me, Nyerere wrote “Peace Education” on the board, and soared away with the planned lesson, while I sat in the corner and watched the show. As we discussed different ideas surrounding the meaning of the word peace, a hundred hands flew up in the air, and in forty short minutes, I had heard from virtually every student in the classroom. Looking around the classroom, I felt that each student had been touched by the lesson in one way or another.

The curriculum that we’ve offered the teachers is beyond interesting; it is educative, exciting and motivating. Still, a great classroom needs more than a great lesson plan. Typically, Nyerere opens his class with a review of what we talked about in our last lesson. As he emphasizes what’s important, he somehow finds little ways to relate his words to every single student, making the classroom erupt in laughter. Before you can blink, Nyerere has moved on and the children are quiet and attentive, and most importantly, extremely engaged. As he walks up and down the narrow isles in his classroom, he asks the class “Are we together? Are we together?” As the children say “Yes,” in unison, Nyerere offers a mellow “Ah,” and class continues.

It’s just about the most peaceful thing I’ve ever seen.

- Kijana

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


"[Children] construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it."

Some things are universal. This recent op-ed in the New York Times captures core principles that compel the work we're doing. Enjoy, share, repeat.


Monday, February 1, 2010

New Arrival

This month, we are thrilled to welcome a new member of the team - Kijana will be interning with the project for the next 4 months, helping on everything from workshop facilitation to impact monitoring and day to day interfacing with local stakeholders. Here are her first impressions of life in Northern Uganda:

Although I had been greatly anticipating my arrival in Gulu for several months, I was constantly reminding myself to stay away from creating a false picture in my mind. It was hard not to be anxious, excited, and nervous, knowing that every minute of my eighteen hour voyage across the North Atlantic would bring me closer and closer to my new African abode. I had so many questions about this foreign land: What will it look like? What will the locals be like? How will I be received? What will my new family be like? What will my work be like?

Our short stay in Kampala showed me a beautiful, busy city- but I was happy to hear that our final destination would be a lot slower, and a lot calmer. In my previous inquiries about Gulu, the typical response was a shrug and a short line about “understanding when you get there.” The truth is: Gulu is an impossible place to describe, but I will try to do it some justice. The city itself is a small grid, with several villages surrounding it. Riding down Acholi Road, you might see local women carrying huge jerry cans of water on their heads, a group of boda-boda motorcycle drivers huddled on each corner, and young children kicking around a football on the side of the road. As you head to Senior Quarters on the other side of town, you begin to see sign after sign for the hundreds of NGO’s which Gulu houses, as well as expatriates and locals alike walking in and out of the popular caf├ęs and restaurants. Although the roads are rocky and uneven, the African dirt is red, rich, and beautiful. The trees are green and the sky is clear blue. While the sun does blaze for hours after midday, the atmosphere is ever welcoming and easygoing. It certainly isn’t an exotic paradise, but it is not a war-torn hell either. There is a strong sense of peace and hope in the dusty air, which makes every interaction that much more fulfilling.

Life here has been an interesting learning experience so far. My host family was immediately welcoming, and we connected almost instantly. They have introduced me to their culture in several ways, including cooking delicious local dishes for me, bringing me to church, and taking me to a traditional Acholi wedding. Working with Insight on the Peace Education Project has also been educative and intriguing. Our week of teacher training workshops were eye opening, and hopefully their success is indicative of what our upcoming work will be like in our two pilot schools. As we head into the first week of the term, I am eager to meet the students we will be working with for the next couple of months, and hopeful that our curriculum will be able to teach them as much as I’m sure they have to teach me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Decisive Element

The public education system in Uganda is not known to promote participation and creativity. So we were not surprised when we began our 5-day Teacher Training, that our teachers, who have been through the Ugandan system, were shy when it came to sharing information and expressing their opinions. Compared to the dreamboat that was our Modules and Content Development (MCDC) workshop, the Teacher Training took a significantly larger amount of energy and patience. However, it also turned out to be significantly more rewarding. The growth we saw in each of the teachers’ enthusiasm, participation, and knowledge was truly incredible.

As we took our teachers through new teaching strategies, communication and conflict resolution activities, and the Holocaust case study, it was our job not only to impart content, but also to reinvigorate their sense of purpose and ability to positively influence tomorrow’s citizens and leaders.

In a system so burdened by regulations and results, teachers rarely have a sense of ownership in what and how they teach. It is nearly impossible for a teacher not to lose sight of what led them to teach in the first place- beliefs to which they must return and expand:

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

- (Haim Ginott, Teacher and Child)

Teaching is about the experience of each child. We look forward to improving the educational experience of the Ugandan child, as we continue to support and empower our teachers as they embark on classroom implementation.

Kaa Salama,


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Media Frenzy: Homosexuality in Uganda

The question I was asked most upon return to California after three months of fieldwork in Northern Uganda was not, Is it safe is there? or, What’s the food like? or even, How’s the project going? Instead, it was What is going on with homosexuality in Uganda?!

For the past few months, there has been an international press storm brewing over an issue controversial in most every corner of the world: gay rights. This one happened to focus on my current East African country of residence. Here’s why: Uganda has a new bill pending in Congress that would legislate brutal punishment for homosexual citizens. Actually deemed, “The Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” this law would penalize those found “guilty” with life in prison or, in some cases, execution.

Although Africa doesn’t have a glowing record when it comes to gay rights, Uganda is relatively isolated in its extremity on the issue. There are seven countries in the world that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality, and four others that dole out life imprisonment. Among those eleven, just four are in Africa (the majority are in the Mid-East and Central Asia). Overall, promoting this legislation is a rare step to take, and Uganda is paying for it in international disapproval.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World AIDS Campaign, several United Nations agencies and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among many others have spoken out against the bill. State sponsored killing based on sexual orientation is a grievous violation of numerous international conventions as well as the sign of a severely repressive government. But the outcry is nearly exclusively foreign. My friends back in California who asked me about the situation were disappointed to learn I knew only what they knew through NPR, The New York Times, and other progressive Western media. People in Uganda just aren't talking about it.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Fighting the bill locally is an alarming Catch 22: many say that for it to be squashed, disapproval must come from Ugandan citizens. But any citizen who speaks out against the bill is assumed to be gay, and therefore eligible for execution should it pass. This kind of association pattern in a place where lynchings are common means that activism by Ugandans in Uganda is nearly impossible.

One final note: the buzz in the US about this pending law may seem random: Uganda isn’t the only country to punish homosexuality with death. Furthermore, Uganda is newsworthy for a variety of other alarming human rights issues (extreme poverty, famine, child soldiering and HIV/AIDS to name a few) – why pick on their gay rights record?

It isn’t random. Much of the heightened interest is because there's evidence that the bill may have been pushed by a strong US contingent, even some of our own US Congressmen. A group called “The Family,” whose members include US state representatives, have been accused of offering ideas and endorsement that gave rise to the bill. Outrage from American press and individuals could very well stem from feelings of involvement by association. To find out more, read these articles: New York Times, Human Rights Watch, NPR, check out this radio broadcast about The Family's involvement in Uganda, and listen to four Ugandans voice their views.



Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rwanda and Its Discontents

With our first major milestone behind us, we set off a couple weeks after the workshop on a puddle jumper to see about our neighbor to the Southwest. Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland best known for a genocide that took place in 1994, knows a bit about post-conflict. We were headed there for ten days to learn some lessons on education in the aftermath of violence.

Our trip centered around a visit with Karen Murphy, the international director of our mentor organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Their latest of many international programs is located in Rwanda and works with teachers to introduce effective education on themes like citizenship, tolerance and democracy. We also visited the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, a center with a progressive approach to education for children orphaned by the genocide. This was my first visit to country, so it was also my chance to see the genocide memorials, beautiful scenery and a decidedly different political and economic climate than Uganda’s.

Upon arrival in Kigali, one could easily feel like she landed in a suburb of New York City, not a landlocked African country surrounded by nations at war and recovering from its own genocide that took place just 15 years ago. Lush flowering trees lean over well-paved roads, traffic obeys an organized order and people bustle about in heels and suits to and from glossy high rise office buildings. Food is indulgent and city streets are safe, though we found this came at a price. Tourists beware – Rwanda is a gorgeous choice for a visit to Africa, but not a cheap one.

Visiting Karen along with the Rwandan teachers and kids involved in the Facing History program was far and away the highlight of the trip. We arrived to the cavernous classroom of a boarding school where everyone was convened for a winter break workshop with Karen, greeted by the smiling faces of total engagement. The theme was United States social movements and governance – the kids were preparing for a trip to the US in March for an exchange program with high school students in the Boston area. Icebreakers, role plays and theatrical interpretations of the Declaration of Independence ensued, and the energy and creativity was contagious.

These kids were asking tough questions, interacting with each other with support and critical feedback and dealing with their own country’s past by courageously drawing nuanced connections.
We later visited two of the Rwandan teachers in their hometowns – one a Priest who toured us around the convents and cathedrals of Butare and the other a veteren teacher from the town of Gitarama.

Late in the week, we left Kigali for Nyamata to two genocide memorials at sights of attacks that took the lives of 15,000 people in two days. Musty brick churches became relics of atrocity – clothes of those killed were piled on pews once used as peaceful venues of worship.

Jewelry and ballpoint pens hung on threads strung from the ceilings and children’s lesson books from the days of the attacks left half-empty on tables in the Sunday school classrooms. Holes were blasted through the walls by grenades, bloodstains and bullet holes peppered the ceilings, and floral offerings were stacked on alters.

As we walked around the Nyamata memorial, our guide stopped in the middle of his historical narrative and pointed to a corner of the church. “This is where I hid,” he said. This young man had spent the 6 hour attack on his church crouched in this corner and the following 31 days hiding in a swamp nearby. His honesty and introspection painted a picture of loss as well as ethical complication in the aftermath. “I met the man who killed my mother here,” he explained. “I had to forgive him. We are made to forgive.”

Rwanda is a deeply scarred country whose attempt at recovery is, like any other, full of success and failure. We got a glimpse of this tension on our visit, thanks to the brave, informed insight of people dedicated to Rwanda’s future generation. Rwanda has done well to provide aesthetic beauty for it’s citizens and visitors – it’s litter-free and landscape-heavy, flowers and well-manicured lawns everywhere. The bigger challenge here regards intangible democratic freedoms. This transition, like so many of it’s kind, calls for serious attention to the limits, challenges, absences, and possibilities of demanding justice and a more peaceful, inclusive future. For more information, read current Human Rights Watch reports on Rwanda, and watch this video featuring the late Allison des Forges, an exemplar of human rights activism whose impact is greatly missed.


Addendum: Congo

Journal: December 18, 2009

From our hotel room porch in Kibuye, Rwanda, a town on the shores of Lake Kivu, we can see across to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kibuye and the lake are pictures of peace – rolling hills shrouded in greenery and humming with wildlife. But directly across the lake, a war rages in DRC .

I can point to Goma - we are among the embattled Kivus, one of the most violent environments on Earth. I can see crossfire across the lake - the sky lights up similarly to when African lightening strikes—quietly, with small flashes. But it is more centralized, smaller, and always close to the ground. It lights up pink and peach against the dark sky, and now that I’m listening for it, I can hear the pound of explosion, like distant fireworks. I am a direct spectator of war. Not of the aftermath, not of the tears of testimony or confession, not of the political violence of kidnapping or armed robbery that follows ten or twenty years in the wake of armed conflict, but of war.

Being American, living in Uganda and visiting places like Rwanda, it is easy to feel safe and focus on the after component of war. But those nights in Kibuye were important reminders of what it is we’re trying to prevent. They reminded me that many places are not out of the woods, and there are lessons in coming face to face with that. For more on DRC, and to help at this critical time of violence, visit the Enough Project’s campaign for Eastern Congo.