16 September 2011


So they usually say that after a year at site, you finally start to get busy. I haven't been at site for quite a full year yet – though I have been, and it's hard to believe, in Uganda for thirteen months now – and I'm still not quite as consistently busy as I want to be, but it feels good to have had some real work recently.

So, I mentioned before about training forty people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to act as home-based counsellors for others with HIV/AIDS. After the whole fiasco with my organisation and the other local organisation that originally wanted me to do this project with them, after writing a lengthy grant proposal, after meeting with the HIV counsellors at the Counselling and Testing Centre at Freda Carr (the local hospital) and other community members and the LC5 Chairman (the highest government official in the district), after leaving site for ten days, and after scheduling and then having to reschedule the training – after all that, it finally happened.

Here's a little bit more of a background (from the Statement of Need in my grant proposal):

Ngora District was formed in early 2010 when it was separated from Kumi District. When the two districts split, Ngora was left with an estimated population of roughly 142,000. With this separation and the changes in leadership and government funding and programmes, the home-based HIV/AIDS counsellor project which had been well received in Kumi District was not brought over to Ngora. This left all counselling, testing, and antiretroviral therapy services to the CTS Centre at Freda Carr Hospital, near the district headquarters. There was no longer a system in place to get services and support to people in the outer reaches of the district.

Now, with only a few volunteer counsellors on staff at the CTS Centre, not only do many people have to travel ten or more kilometres for services, but they then have to wait a couple hours or more before they are able to spend a few brief moments with one of the counsellors. It should be noted that this should not reflect negatively on the staff at the CTS Centre who are committed and hard-working but, simply, a bit overwhelmed by the nearly 100 people who come for services each day the Centre is open. There are 2,504 HIV-positive individuals registered with the CTS Centre, 691 of who are on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). However, there are many other individuals who have been tested through mobile outreaches or community testing days but are not registered with the CTS Centre. Using a lower estimate that has 6% of the total population living with HIV/AIDS, there are an estimated total of over 8,520 HIV-positive individuals in the district. There are, then, more than 6,000 PLWHA who are not accessing any services or counselling, not receiving any sort of adequate support, have not been well-educated on HIV/AIDS, and a number of them likely need to be started on ART. So the effects of all of these issues are felt by many individuals and families across the district. There is, then, an obvious need to increase the accessibility of services for PLWHA and a large, pre-existing client base. While it may not be within our power to expand testing sites and ART distribution points, one area we can build the capacity of the district is in the support of PLWHA, specifically with home-based counselling.

So, that's why we – the community, me – felt like this project would be a good idea, and why we felt like it could be a success. And here are the cool things about the rest how the training came to be and then how it went:

1: I had started trying to get my volunteer counsellors by going to Freda Carr on Mondays and Fridays, the days that people come to pick up their ARVs and get counselling, and giving a short little spiel about the project, then leaving a sign-up sheet for whoever was interested, planning on then, after a month (so that I'd hopefully give the spiel to everyone who comes for ARVs), doing a little interview or whatever to pick who I thought was really committed and would be good counsellors. When I went to do that for, maybe, the third time, I found out that the community members had already figured out who they wanted to be counsellors. They wanted this, they had people who they knew would be committed and would make good counsellors, and that made me happy. (And that after the whole original idea came from the community in the first place.)

2: I knew these people would know more about, or at least be way more – for obvious reasons – experienced with HIV/AIDS than I would, and so I went into the training planning on basically just running a discussion, bringing all of their knowledge and experiences together so that we could be standardized, so that they could all be using the same information when they were counselling people. And it worked perfectly. We covered about fifteen or so topics surrounding HIV/AIDS and counselling. They were more than happy to discuss, more than happy to share experiences and testimonies – to the point where I had to cut some discussions short in the interest of getting to all of the topics we wanted to get to – and they were all just as knowledgeable, maybe even more so, than I'd expected them to be.

3: At the beginning of the training, we went over the goals and objectives of the project: to increase availability and accessibility of quality counselling services, and so on. One of the objectives, the main one, actually, was that each of them would provide counselling to at least forty individuals within the first quarter of the project, or by the end of October. I had wavered on this number before the training, not wanting to ask too much of them, to tax their health and energy, especially since they were doing this voluntarily, and so when we were going over the objectives, I asked them, 'Does forty sound like a reasonable number? Or is that too many?' The question was translated for those who couldn't understand me – most of them can understand at least some English, but I always find myself speaking too fast, in too American of an accent, when I'm talking in front of a bunch of people, so some of them found it hard to understand me, or, as they say, they weren't 'picking' me – and immediately everyone started talking – sounding, to me, like, 'Rabble rabble rabble!' – and so I was worried that I'd set the bar too high. Martin translated their consensus back to me: of course we can reach forty people by the end of October, and not only that but we could even do more, why, just last week I talked to ten different people about their HIV tests, forty is no problem at all. I couldn't help breaking out in a big stupid grin.

4: People here – and I honestly don't think this is a reflection of people's attitudes or anything, but is a reflection of the foreign-aid-and-NGO-ification of everything in Africa – generally expect to receive some form of compensation for, well, a lot. Like coming to one of the sensitisations that my org puts on in the villages to teach people about family planning and reproductive health. People come – usually within their own village, not far – knowing that, at the very least, they'll get a soda. And it inexplicably extends to, like, conferences for NGO staff: a per diem allowance is expected; as in, I'm coming to learn new things that can either A: help people in my area, or B: help my organisation perform better, and, yes, I expect to be compensated for learning these things. Without going off on too much of a tangent... that's how it is, and there's really no getting around it. So I made it clear – in the few spiels I gave at the hospital, in the letter I wrote to the volunteers thanking them for being a part of the project before the training – that, while I would provide tea, lunch, and soda during the training, along with a small transportation refund – and I feel like this is understandable; I'm expecting them to come to me and to be there all day, so, ok, I'll pay for that – I would not be paying them any sort of monthly stipend for their work, I would not be buying them a soda each day they went to do counselling with people, I would not be buying them bicycles or t-shirts or messenger bags. It was a concern: I was worried people wouldn't want to do it for free – and maybe that makes me cynical, but I can at least say that it doesn't make me cynical about Ugandans or Africans or whatever, it just makes me cynical about, like I said, the foreign-aid-and-NGO-ification of everything in Africa – and I was told by the counsellor at Freda Carr that when they had a similar program, the one from when Ngora was a part of Kumi, the 'volunteer' counsellors were paid 50,000UGX per month (a number I laughed out loud at when he asked if I'd be paying my volunteers – no quotes – something like that). So, at the beginning of the training, right after going over the objectives, we went over their questions and concerns about the training and, natch, the issue of idiboro – literally a little something in Ateso – came up. And so I made it clear again: I really, really wish that I could pay you for this work, I wish that I could buy you bicycles to help you reach more people, all because I believe in you all and in the work you'll be doing, but, simply, the money isn't there, not only am I on a shoe-string budget here, but I'm actually over budget, and, I don't want to get too serious, but if you're here to get a monthly stipend or a bicycle or whatever then, well, you probably shouldn't be here. I said that last part haltingly, wanting to get the point across without myself coming across as a jerk. But, once it was translated, I was met by nods of agreement, or, if not agreement, then at least understanding, from all across the room. I was also met by, the rest of that day and the next two days of the training, engaged and active and – yes, it's true! – on time volunteers, all of them. This put another big stupid grin on my face.

And so, overall, success.

At the end, I told them how much I appreciated them agreeing to work with me, told them that the success of the whole thing was up to them, told them how much I believed in them, and how big of an impact they could make in the lives of the friends and neighbours. And then I blasted 'Eye of the Tiger' from a boombox and made them run up a huge flight of stairs, pumping their fists in the air.

Ok, just kidding. But only because we don't have any stairs here.

A few weeks ago, I was in Gulu, in the North, for Peace Camp. Peace Camp was a week-long pseudo-summer-camp started by a few PCVs from the north for teenagers, fifteen to nineteen years old (and one thirteen year old girl who lied her way into the camp, which is kind of awesome), who were affected by the war with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). It was a great thing to get to be a part of.

The LRA is the rebel group who terrorised northern and eastern Uganda for over twenty years (though now they've been pushed into the DRC). They abducted children and forced them to be soldiers or wives for the commanders, they forced them to kill their families, they raped them, they forced them to carry massively heavy supplies for days on end with no rest and no food. Those are the basics. The actual stories are worse.

I got to spend the week with eighty kids who were just awesome people, happy, assertive, intelligent, resilient. I helped to run the Life-Skills sessions of the camp, doing stuff on resisting peer pressure, but when I wasn't doing that, I got to hang out with the kids, play football, have a dance party, watch them perform skits and traditional folk songs and dances from their tribes, go to a ropes course where they all did a zip-line and were stoked about 'flying,' listen to them, watch them grow and develop – and I really believe a lot of them did – and impress me – like I knew they would – and just generally be a part of something that was, can continue to be, really good for the kids who were there and for their communities when they bring back everything they learned and accomplished.

Another reason I was looking forward to the camp was because kids from Teso were there, too. Along with all of the youth from the North, these kids were equally affected by the war, but haven't gotten the assistance and recognition that the Acholi, Lango, and other Northern tribes – though, really, mainly the Acholi – have.

We met with one of the local counterparts from Amuria at the weekend training we had a couple weeks before the actual camp, and he talked about how the fighting in the East has just literally never been documented. I read a book recently about the kids who were affected by the war. Near the beginning of the book, the author said, 'The South and West of Uganda are the tourist destinations; the North is a warzone.' There was no mention of the East, not only as being affected by the war, but as, like, existing. Butt kids there were forced to kill their families and become soldiers, they were raped and forced to become wives, they were orphaned and traumatised, just like the kids in the North. I almost feel like this sounds like I'm belittling the horrible experiences of the kids from the North. I'm not, obviously. It's just that there was never an Invisible Children for the kids from Teso; it's just that there aren't dozens of NGOs in Teso dedicated – regardless of their success or the way they go about fulfilling their missions – to helping these kids; it's just that, yeah, when people think of Uganda, they think of the gorillas and the amazing national parks in the South and West, and they think of the war in the North, and they don't think of the East. But, about five years ago, the LRA made it as far down as Soroti. There were tanks in the streets of the town 50km to the north of me. My counterpart has talked about driving around doing work in the villages and being constantly on the lookout for rebels. At one of the sub-county headquarters in my district, the walls of one of the buildings are covered in charcoal graffiti about the Arrow Boys, the – basically – civilian militia from Teso that fought against and, eventually, drove back the LRA. So, I'm really glad that kids from Teso got to participate in the camp.

Our man from Amuria also talked about how people in Teso often think that the LRA is the Acholi and the Acholi are the LRA, and having those kids come to the camp will help to break that misunderstanding. Some people were worried about the kids coming up to Gulu because of this belief, and hopefully, after the camp, some of that will change. One night at the camp, there was a forgiveness and reconciliation ceremony. The kids wrote down forgiveness messages – to the rebels, the government soldiers, whoever they felt like they needed to forgive – and burned them, symbolically releasing those things they've been carrying with them. After that, they had the kids from each of the four tribes – Acholi, Lango, Iteso, and Alur – forgive each other. There were a lot of tears and – seemingly – flashbacks, one girl fainted, it was all very intense for all of them, but we hope it was worth it.

We hope they'll bring that back to their communities, to the other youth affected by the war, to their families and neighbours and friends, and foster forgiveness and reconciliation in their towns and villages. And though we recognize that maybe that's a lot to ask of 15-19 year-olds, we hope that it really did mean something, something other than simply scratching at wounds that time had allowed to become scabs or scars until they bled again and then leaving them with no bandages to help the wounds re-heal after they left the camp. But I think these kids are resilient and brave enough to make it, regardless; I think they've proven that already. And a lot of them were already excited to go home, back to school or back to the village, wherever, and share with everyone there, start Peace Clubs with other youth, become leaders among their peers and communities. Awesome.

A couple other quick highlights from the camp:

Monica's goal: one of the days, we had some free time, and I was playing football with a group of the boys. Mostly boys, I should say. There were one or two girls on each team, and after twenty minutes or so, the game was mostly bogged down in the midfield, no goals yet, not really any real chances. Then one girl, Monica – a tall, confident, sassy (in a good, hilarious way) girl from my friend Sandi's school in Pader, east of Gulu – jogged onto the field, picked a team, and, about ten seconds later, ripped a shot from thirty yards out, a serious rocket, a low line-drive that the keeper had no chance of stopping, didn't even try to stop, a goal that – and this was the best part, really – none of the boys could be able to top, before or after, all week. (And, for the record, it was the best goal I can remember seeing in a game that I've actually been a part of. Seriously awesome.) We'll call that 'Breaking Gender Stereotypes,' or, maybe more accurately, 'Showing the Boys What's Up.'

The traditional dances: all of the tribes were great, it was great to see how excited they got about getting to perform their songs and dances in front of everyone, they were proud and enthusiastic and talented. But, at least for me, the Langi were especially impressive. Thirty kids (I think), spears, feathered headdresses, the girls in matching skirts, the boys with ash rubbed on their faces, two of them wailed away on drums while the others were chanting, jumping, moving both aggressively and gracefully, circling the drummers. Hard to describe, very cool to watch, very cool, also, just to see how pumped they were to be up there, doing their thing, representing their tribe, especially in front of one of their tribal leaders (because we had a leader from each of the tribes come and address the kids).

The, let's call it, solidarity: we had several deaf campers in two of the camper groups, with a couple of the local counterparts translating everything from English to sign and back. It was, first of all, cool to see them interacting with all of the other kids. There weren't any cliques that developed – which was actually true for everyone, and was really nice – and none of the separation between hearing and hearing-impaired that you might expect. The highlight, though, was during one of the group reflection sessions. A Ugandan woman from an NGO in Gulu was leading the session, and, at one point, she asked for a boy and a girl to come up and do a short skit. Two of the deaf kids immediately raised their hands, stood up to go up to the front, when the woman running the session stopped them, saying, 'No, no, we need someone who can talk.' (To be fair to her, I certainly don't think this was malicious or intentional. I think it just came out without her thinking about it.) We PCVs, sitting in the back of the room, immediately looked at each other, shaking our heads, disbelieving, but almost before it even registered, the kids started murmuring, shaking their heads, then calling out, 'No! They can talk! Let them do it!' The facilitator, embarrassed and realizing what she'd said, let them do it, while giant smiles broke out across all of our faces in the back of the room, goosebumps spreading across our arms. Just eighty really, really good kids in that room.

So that was Peace Camp. An awesome week, a great job by everyone who put it all together, a great job by everyone who was there. And, most of all, the kids who came – and those who couldn't come, but are no less amazing than the ones who could; one of the other PCVs who was there said that some kids in her town couldn't come, knew they couldn't, and were still almost unable to control their excitement for the ones who could – and were, are, just generally pretty amazing human beings: what is there to say?

(Oh, one last thing: the movie War Dance. You should all go rent it, Netflix it, do whatever crazy new technology there is now that I don't know about. It's about a group of primary school students from Pader, all, like our campers, affected by the war in one way or another or many, and they tell their stories while it also follows them practising and performing in a music and dance competition in Kampala. It's beautifully shot and, well, just watch it. You'll cry. And, though Pader isn't what I would call exactly close to Ngora – maybe 200-ish km away – it looks pretty similar, so you can, sort of, see what it looks like where I live.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing, Danny. Peace Camp sounds huge. I saw War Dance a while ago and second your recommendation, touching and incredible... those kids. Your stories in this post reminded me of the kids in the movie, the experiences they went through and the growth and hope they were given by the dancing...and the goodness in people that really do want to help/do good. so yea, see it, other people who read this blog!