Returning to Uganda with a video camera in tow
Namugenyi Kiwanuka returns to Uganda after leaving 10 years before due to civil war
Returning to Uganda
The last time that I was in Uganda was in 1995. My father and siblings with extended family traveled back together for the first time since leaving our homeland during the civil war in the 80s. It was an incredibly over-whelming and sad trip. I’ve always wanted to go back over the years and I couldn’t believe that 11 years had already passed when I arrived in Entebbe on December 12, 2006.
The best part of my trip this time around was really seeing Uganda, it’s potential and appreciating just how truly beautiful, fertile and green it is. While shooting video footage for AMREF Canada, I had the opportunity to travel to Soroti, Luwero and the towns of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum in northern Uganda. Anne-Marie, a Project Manager for AMREF Canada, had invited me to document video footage of some of the projects AMREF Canada supports in the region.
Internationally displaced people camp - striving to become a community
A few days after we arrived, we made our way to the northern part of the country. We were going to visit the night commuter centers in Gulu and an Internally Displaced Peoples camp (IDP) in Kitgum. The Ugandan government decided it was safest for them to live in camps. The government believed that having people in a centralized location would make it harder for the LRA rebels to attack.
Driving up to the IDP camp, you could see how congested the camps are with very small huts to accommodate at times a family of five. It was difficult to stand upright in the hut and my cousin who’s barely 5’6 was hunched over. For those in the camp, this is where they eat, cook and sleep. One of the female elders in the camp told us she had to build the hut herself. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be for someone who is older (and she was partially blind) to physically construct her home. But it seemed as if everyone in the camp treated each other as family and they would help those in need. We were surprised though, to see a makeshift hair-salon in the camp but at the same time, it reinforced the fact that this camp was home and everyone was trying to make it as comfortable and familiar as their old village.
The kids in the camp were like kids anywhere else in the world. They just wanted to be acknowledged. When I played back my video camera for them, their smiles stretched out across their faces. One of the elders told me that a lot of them had never seen what they looked like. It didn’t seem as if there was anything to do in the camp. The younger kids kept busy by chasing each other and playing but it seemed harder for the older kids. A 21 year old boy told me he had spent most of his life living in the IDP camp. He wanted to go to school to create better opportunities for his family but his family could not afford the school fees.
When we left, we saw some of the people in the camp playing soccer. Our driver, Ochora told us that about once a week, there were soccer games between the different camps. Watching the smiling faces of every age and hearing the laughter of the kids was an enlightening experience the showed the resilience of the people in this region, not to mention how welcoming, friendly and kind they were to us.
A safe place - night commuter centers in Gulu
The next day we traveled to Gulu. On our way there, we had a flat tire on the main road that a lot of the fighting between the LRA and UPDF took place in the past. It was maybe an hour before sun set and although we didn’t want to admit it, we were nervous. We soon realized that we had nothing to worry about as so many people stopped to offer help. Ochora, who has a wicked sense of humor, noticed that Anne-Marie and I were sweating and immediately began to tease us while remaining focused on fixing the tire in record time.
While in Gulu, we went to two night commuter centers run by AMREF. We arrived at the girls’ centre at around 7:30 pm and no girls had arrived. We spoke to the night matron who looked after the girls and she showed us how she kept the girls busy with arts and crafts. Slowly the girls trickled in and by around 9 pm there were about 35 girls in the centre. As each girl arrived, she would retrieve her mat from the spot she left it earlier in the day and meticulously roll it out. The girls became very shy when they saw my video camera but they would immediately approach me anyway to greet me. It was heartwarming to see the generosity and care of the night matron, who volunteered her time to stay with the girls. We spoke to a couple of girls but they were extremely shy and giggled just like most pre-teen and teenage girls that you and I know.
On our way to the boys centre, we were expecting to see night commuters walking through Gulu but we were happy when we didn’t see anyone. Just prior to our arrival, the LRA and the government of Uganda agreed to a ceasefire in order to allow for peace talks to begin. The absence of night commuters made us hopeful that the 20-year conflict may finally come to an end. When we arrived at the centre for the boys, there were less than 30 kids there. The boys were running around the centre and playing. Anne-Marie told me that at the height of the war, both of the centers we visited housed over 400 kids each. We were relieved to hear that for the past month both centers have less than 100 night commuters. This experience made me reflect on my past – not once during the Ugandan civil war in the 80s, did I or my siblings ever have to leave my family on my own, in search of safety.
Meeting grandmother Mary in Kikyusa
Our final destination was a trip to Kikyusa to visit a 65 year old grandmother named Mary. Six of Mary’s eight children died of AIDS leaving her as the sole guardian of her 18 grandkids ranging from 16-4 years old. The trip to her home really made me appreciate the work of AMREF. She was deep deep deep in the village. The roads like most roads in the country had giant potholes and her home was tucked away where most NGOs would, in my opinion, have little cause to travel to.
The minute she saw the AMREF vehicle, she ran out dancing and laughing. She warmly greeted Anne-Marie and I with giant bear hugs. She invited us into her two room home and Anne-Marie spoke to her about how AMREF had assisted her and the challenges she was currently facing. I was fascinated with the water harvesting jar beside her house that CIDA, AMREF and the community had constructed for her family. Having a water supply right at her front door allowed the girls to attend school and to help their Grandma out with other tasks instead of spending the whole day fetching water from miles away.
Even with so much responsibility, I never got the sense that Mary felt helpless. She showed us the burial site of her husband, her children and her grandkids who had contracted HIV from their parents. There was strength not defeat in her eyes. She proudly showed us her farm where she grows food to sell as well as feed her grandkids. When she spoke, her grandkids jumped. She was loved and respected by them and when she smiled it was truly from her heart.
When we left, she piled our van with sugarcane, jackfruit, mangoes, pumpkin and other fruits I can’t recall. She held onto Anne-Marie in a farewell hug and expressed her gratitude to AMREF in Luganda (Uganda’s primary language). I promised her that the next time that we saw each other I would be able to speak to her in our mother tongue. I’ve kept my promise and I’m re-learning Luganda. After meeting an inspiration like her, all I can say is “webale nnyo nnyo nnyo!” – Thank you so much!
It’s souls like her that make you want to become a better person.
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