I remember the day we learned our language groups. We had been in the country three days, still getting over our jetlag. There are many, many regional languages in Uganda and learning your language group meant learning the region you would be spending the next two years. My name was under the “Acholi” group and I had to ask where that was spoken.
I found the other members in my group and we sat at a table together. A couple of the guys said how they had really wanted to go the north. I had to ask what was so great about the north. Oh, just 21 years of insurgency…
Clueless. I had no idea. Maybe I had overheard it once on the news or something. The years with the most damage happened while I was in school full time and working 32+ hours a week. Small town Indiana isn’t the most internationally minded so it wasn’t as if I had friends to inform me about this insurgency half way across the planet in Northern Uganda.
The girls in our “Dream Team” Acholi group became nervous that night and I think we all partook in wine to calm the nerves. Over the course of the next 10 weeks of training, we learned little of the north. We did have one week visiting Gulu, the big city of the north, watched the movie War Dance, and one hour squeezed in at the end of training to get information packets about working in a post conflict area. After working with behavior intense populations, teen moms, and my time in India with prostitutes, I felt a little prepared but not all that prepared for the journey to the north.
I remember that October day on our way to Pader, riding on the bumpy bus and looking through the window to the grass that was higher than the roof of the bus. I thought to myself about the LRA quietly walking to their next destination, their next camp, their next raid on a village, their next destination for atrocities against innocent people.
Before moving north, I bought a couple of books about Northern Uganda yearning to understand why the war was started, who was conducting it, why it had lasted 21 years in Uganda and why it still continues in the DRC today, and how individuals and communities were affected. I researched, reading books and online articles; I talked to my counterpart and others who were working with those affected by the war.
It wasn’t until the week in mid December where bad things happen in 3’s with the former child soldier turned security guard got drunk on shift and shot at some guys who made him angry and I was walking across the street that I got a little anxious about what it meant to be working in a post conflict area. After telling that story to my APCD and then asking “what were you thinking sending the only two single females in the Acholi group to Pader”, it became evident that better training was needed for those working in areas affected by conflict.
Last week, I was able to co-lead a session for the new training group on working in a post conflict area. I was a bit nervous since I never studied genocides or peace and reconciliation back in university—rather, everything I know I learned after getting into country and by living it.
Thankfully, PC had a giant map of Uganda where I was able to stick pieces of paper where the different rebel groups were located, numbers of people who are in IDP camps and are refugees in the regions they live now, and the 6 country names that have refugees all over Uganda. We covered how individuals and communities are affected in post conflict areas and I told them different horrific stories to relate the information. Trainees came up and held signs while reading different methods of addressing needs o f the individual’s mental health as well as the community. Lastly, we talked about the PCV’s role and the difficulties at hand.
I had been warned to not take it personally if there were people chatting within the group of 46 during the presentation but when I looked around the room about 40 minutes in, I noticed that no one was talking at all. People were seriously intrigued. A few comments I received included:
-This was the first time we talked about the Ugandan people and their deeper needs. Finally, we got a clearer picture of who we will be working with.
-Before, I wasn’t overly thrilled about being in Uganda but now I’m excited to be here.
-People are jealous that we are going to the north. I can’t wait to get to site!
There were others but those stood out the most. I was thankful that the session went well and that afterwards people wanted to talk about different points. Someone said how people didn’t understand how I could be smiling and be uplifting while talking about the north. Granted, there were moments where I was sharing the stories of some of my girls where I wasn’t smiling. I explained that if I was sad and sullen, I would go mad. You have to take the past as the past and strive for hope in the future.
The next few days, I hosted trainees at my home for tech immersion week and so they get an idea of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Brilliant time. It was so encouraging having them stay at my house, have deep late night conversations, share with them my home and the girls I work with. Having them come to the Senior 1 class for Interpersonal relationships/life skills was perfect. The students loved having small groups where one of my friends helped facilitate their conversations. Although the girls weren’t able to do traditional dancing for us, we did plant trees together. Ah, it was a good week.
Right now, I’m sitting in the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in for years for the first ever Peace Corps Working in Post Conflict Areas Workshop— 25 guests from Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Africa, Kenya, Dakar, and headquarters in Washington DC. It’s definitely a privilege to be a participant and hopefully the session lead by PCVs about PCV needs and best practices will help shine light for the future volunteers.
It’s amazing to think back to the day I first learned about the 21+ year insurgency in Northern Uganda and to think about how much my world has changed since that day. Pretty spiffy…