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.