Visiting the most "real" place on earth
Beth Cole gets an inside look into AMREF's work in Uganda
I hope this email finds all of you happy, healthy and enjoying your summer. My 9 weeks in Uganda wraps up in a few weeks so I thought I would take this opportunity to say hello and update all of you.
I have wanted to apply my business skills to volunteer work in a developing country on a short term basis.
This past spring I did a live auction at the AMREF Canada gala, celebrating the fact AMREF had won the 2005 (Bill and Melinda) Gates Award for Global Health. I was intrigued, one thing led to another and I was given the opportunity to volunteer for AMREF Uganda this summer. My work here consists of developing a 5 year strategic plan Uganda.
Day to day life in Kampala
Kampala is the capital of Uganda and where I am based. It is a pleasant/easy place to live. Kampala is remarkably safe compared to cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg. Here I can actually walk around by myself during the day without any problems!
The labour is so cheap here and jobs are scarce. I found out my housekeeper (a 17 year old orphan) is paid the equivalent of $1.25/day! I am trying to help her find funding so she can finish her education.
Friendships have been very easy to build. I had to buy a cell phone and learn how to text message so I would not be out of the loop! My closest friends here are AMREF volunteers and staff from other AMREF offices who are here on assignment. They are all in their twenties which has meant going out quite a bit!
Life in the office
The office staff is 100% Ugandan/African and they are an absolute pleasure to work with. I was made to feel very welcome from day one. Our offices would be considered "unusual" by North American standards. The building was probably a British Colonial home at one point and has a lot of character.
The country director, Joshua Kyallo, who I report to is a brilliant guy and a pleasure to work for. He recently attended the International AIDS conference in Toronto.
Life in the field - a trip to Northern Uganda and a visit with the Night Commuters
I have been on 4 "field trips" during my stay. The one I chose to tell you about was my trip to Northern Uganda. I visited an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp and a centre which protects children from abduction at night.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) formed in 1987, is a rebel paramilitary group operating in northern Uganda. They fight the Ugandan government and its people and have been accused of widespread human rights violations including mutilation, torture, rape, the abduction of civilians, the use of child soldiers and a number of massacres.
Nearly two million civilians have been forced to flee their homes, living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps.
Over 66,000 youth have been abducted. While many abductees are taken to carry items looted from raided villages, some are also used as soldiers and slaves. Abductees are forced to attack strangers, family members and friends.
Each night, children between the ages of 3 and 17, referred to as "Night Commuters", walk several miles from IDP camps to larger towns in search of safety from the LRA - as they are abducted at night.
Child Night Communters
I visited a camp as well as a night commuter centre. The camps are made up of huts with straw roofs with homes so close to one another that the roofs touch. (Not a good situation when it is dry and there is risk of fire or when an epidemic breaks out.) The children were glad to see me the youngest children made a game of running up, touching me and then running away laughing - as if it were some kind of game of tag. Very amusing as they don't see very many white people or "mzungus" as we are called.
Every international NGO is in that area as well as the UN. You can tell by all the 4 wheel drives with their logos and flags. (This is a good thing as the NGOs provide 80% of the needed health and education requirements for these people.)
AMREF programs in the area include health and safe water services. They also run centres for the night commuters. These kids walk to these centers to avoid being abducted at night. Before they go to sleep they are involved in activities ranging from debates, to talks about HIV/AIDS transmission, to advice on how to avoid sex with adults and rape.
They greeted me with songs and then held a debate. The "chairman" of the debate was 12 years old and ran a tight ship. The topic of the evening was "Should the night commuters centers remain open?" Children as young as 9 years old stood up and voiced opinions. Girls talked about the dangers they face in even walking to the centres at seven o'clock in the evening - not danger of abduction but men trying to seduce them with money or gifts in exchange for sex.
To hear these kids talk during the debate had a profound impact on me. They have seen atrocities that I can barely imagine and are wise beyond their years.
I spoke one on one with a 15 year old boy who was abducted last year and escaped after 6 months. He saw his parents killed and he was forced to beat others to death. This child was so traumatized that I stopped the interview after a few minutes. He was not crying - just had this far away look in his eyes as his voice kept getting softer and quieter...Then I started to cry.
The area I was in, in northern Uganda is called Gulu. Frankly the town itself looks like any other African town - just bordered by refugee camps. There was not a particularly strong military presence and there is supposed to be a cease fire in effect. If you did not know where you were, you would not know there was a war going on.
The day I arrived some health care workers had just finished an AMREF training course. One of them was headed back to another district in a government ambulance stocked with drugs. About 90 minutes outside of Gulu they were ambushed by the LRA and the ambulance and drugs set on fire. Fortunately the nurses were allowed to run and escaped.
We were all very upset and I was glad to get back to Kampala and to be reminded not to take my safety for granted.
I love Africa. This is my fifth visit to this continent. It feels like the most "real" place on earth. I see both the natural beauty and the day to day struggle for survival faced by most Africans. I do believe there is hope...
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