I went out last night with a couple of muzungus – aid workers, idealists, white girls wanting to make the world a better place. One is a child protection officer, taking a survey of opinions amongst the Karamojong on Gender Based Violence (GBV). One rite of passage for young men, warriors, is to chase down young virgins and be the first to take their virginity, once accomplishing this the young girl becomes the warrior’s wife. It can be that several warriors go for the same girl at the same time… The girl may be unwilling – sometimes this is for show, sometimes it’s for real. This is a district close to the one I am based in, in Pader, Northern Uganda, it is seen by many Ugandans as the remote, uncivilised part of Uganda. It is also the district aid agencies and workers are flocking to.
So we are imposing our culture, our views, our values as aid workers, volunteers, development and security experts. The question is should we? Are these values universal? Where do the good intentions of international aid agencies start to erode the culture and the history of the people, they profess to help? Nomadic cattle herders are turning into sedentary populations, unable to make a living from agriculture as the land is too arid and infertile. As a western, white female, researching provision for vulnerable groups, I belong to this group of outsiders.
I’m not a missionary, not a mercenary, I might be a wannabe do gooder, but for me I think it’s more selfish than that, I want to learn, to understand, to collect stories, to listen and maybe to play back when the time is right. I hoard information, I cannot help it. In a way by being a researcher, by remaining a spectator I am trying to remain neutral, to not impose myself on the people I am encountering and working with. I know this is mistaken. I have pursued a need for knowledge, looking at post-conflict reconstruction, amnesty, transitional justice. I have pursued these ideas from Kampala to Gulu to Kitgum to Pader. I am looking at what is going on now, some years down the line after over 20 years of mass, horrific armed conflict and disturbance that consumed Northern Uganda. It would be presumptuous to say there is peace (no peace treaty is signed and Kony, the leader of the LRA, is still mobilised but in other countries). However peace in Northern Uganda has tentatively taken hold for at least 6 years and many people in northern Uganda are attempting to resume a normal life. Amnesty has been in place since 2000 and many formerly abducted people who were abducted and assimilated into LRA rebel groups have come back to claim amnesty and reintegrate back into ‘normal’ life. But how can it be normal? The memories of trauma and war are still tangible and vivid in so many minds. And in this process of returning to normal there are many questions; are people re-integrating? What are the problems for people reintegrating? What the problems for those that are in the villages who are seeing these people return? Lines are blurred, to talk about victims and perpetrators is to fail to acknowledge that many people are both. Many were abducted and suffered terrible things and in turn caused suffering. Those who were not abducted were herded into IDP camps where life was close to unbearable. Norms – cultural, religious, social… have been broken, the fabric of society has been torn and people have forgotten their way as they were forced to fend for their lives and were reduced to surviving.
Today I went to Pader Girls Academy for the first time. I hope to be there pretty much everyday for the next 3 to 4 weeks. I know it will be an intense time. I calculated and I want to take about 50 interviews. Well, I will see what I can do – a tightrope walk between motivation and sanity; between a breakthrough in post-conflict reconstruction policy work and a bunch of interviews.
So I met some of the girls today. I went to a church service in the morning. I haven’t been to a church service in a while – there was a visiting Australian pastor. I braced myself. The message was positive, ‘Jesus loves you and you are special’. The girls sang, danced, identified who wanted to know Jesus better, and went to the front of the church to be blessed, they went with their babies and their babies were blessed too. We came back at lunch and ate potio (potio is some kind of maize/corn that has been beaten beyond recognition to look like mashed potatoes and act like play dough) and beans with some of the girls under a tree in the grounds of the school. It has been an incredibly hot time as we are waiting for the rains to break. The girls we spoke to are in senior 2, some can speak good English (my Acholi is slim to non-existent). We exchanged names, ages. We compared skin color and the expressed surprise at my old age and corned me for mixing tamarind with my beans (the two are to be kept separate). We went onto Peace club, the girls have taken up peace club, they sing, dance and today some of them were reporting back on their counselling session earlier in the week on AIDs, trauma and conflict. It attempted to dispel some of the myths around people assumptions (how do you catch AIDs, how can you cure it, no cola cannot cure AIDs, not all counselling need to include the bible, yes you can allow people to cry in counselling).
I realise I am cynical and I have a tendency to not want to push myself onto other people, the English trait of leaving people to themselves. I realise I am a little bit too far the other way but when confronted with so many do gooders who believe they have the best approach and their values should be spread to all corners – this ignorant, arrogant, foolhardy approach I cannot see a future in – but it is undeniably the future for now and while aid agencies blithely churn out aid this will continue unchecked and without any kind of reflection, consideration or thought. The industry is not about to decide against itself. Which brings me back to my next month researching the current reality and needs of these formerly child mothers (even the choice of formerly abducted child mothers is an awkward compromise between the needs of 2 organisations) and so I have tried to find a universal point, a common denominator of interviewing these girls in as much depth as possible to get their life stories and the impact of them on those around them. Where do I start, they are students, mothers, girls, victims, displaced, and many have perpetrated terrible acts. They are finding their way back into society, finding ways of coping and of being normal again. Many are single-parent families, epitomising what we might consider to be girl power. I wonder what will become of their children, many of whom will never know their fathers, who will be shunned and who are not inheriting any of their own land. i cannot hekp but feel these are th seeds of conflict. I am aware I have to fight the all of the presumptions and conditioning I carry with me; to be humble when talking to everyone I meet, to ask open questions and to acknowledge and fight against my assumptions, bias and prejudice.