Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Even though I'm not in America, I still want to give thanks, because thanksgiving is my favorite part of Thanksgiving (it used to be turkey, but I gave that up long ago!).

There is so much I could be thankful for this year as I celebrate the holiday in a land of little, far away from my home of plenty. And yet, it's not running water, or toilets, showers, or good food that I am most grateful for; it's love.

Living in a post-conflict zone makes clear that love and kindness, even between kin, are not givens. I am full of gratitude for all of the people in my life--family and friends--who show me love through kindness, respect, and care.

Through our love for each other, we create peace on earth.

I wish you a very happy, peaceful, and love-filled Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Amnesty for Rapists

Imagine the situation: by 1999, the war in Northern Uganda had been raging for over ten years. One of the primary tactics of the rebel forces was to abduct children and forcibly recruit them into their armies which mutilated, raped, and pillaged their own people.

In 2000, the government of Uganda decided to grant amnesty to all members of the LRA who disarmed. This move was considered part of the peace process, a step towards rebuilding the North and reintegrating former combatants, many of whom joined the rebel movement against their own will.

This weekend, I treated myself to a musical at the National Theater in Kampala, Uganda. The play, called Mama Obama’s Restaurant (Ugandans are second only to Kenyans in their love of President Obama), told the story of the aftermath of the war in the North from the perspective of a restaurant waitress who had been repeatedly raped by LRA militants. On stage, she suffers an emotional breakdown as she must serve her former assailants dinner. They mock her in the process, asking what she has done with the baby she conceived at 15, and the play ends with the young woman crippled on the floor, writhing from the distress caused by her memories.

The title, Mama Obama’s Restaurant, is a metaphor for the growing pains of democracy, something the playwright likened to the struggles President Obama’s mother must have faced as a single mother.

Like so many wars, the war in Uganda is typically told from the perspective of men. Who were the heroes? Who displayed courage? Who worked for justice?

But in all wars, the stories of women and children must also be told.

What happens when we grant blanket amnesty to all of the rapists, the mutilators, the murderers? Do victims deserve some kind of justice, or can war be written off in the books of history as a kind of sunk cost, where anything can be forgiven for the sake of peace?

Our Women

Our women became the men they wished to marry.
Out in the land of desperation where the promise had been so bright,
Where the sun rose every day without ceasing, and our skin glistened a dark, luminous color in the sun,
There where Idi forced men to do things unspeakable, there where women saw untold horrors!
And there was great weeping in that land.

Twenty seven guns later

In that land, the men no longer are.
They left a long time ago…
Gone, like the cat to see the king.
They cower, talk in hushed tones in bars, and go home late.
So they never look into their sons’ eyes, and tell them of the value of an honest day’s work.
In that land they all worry about the gum -chewing Englishman, the Frenchman who loves young boys.
The men are all gone from this land.

Twenty seven guns and ten years later

The women looked at their land; saw no men and they were sad.
They searched and looked but the men were hard to find.
Embattled times. When terror brought a nation to its knees, a nation would send out a call for heroes.
But the men were hard to find. And it seemed like a nation might plunge into the abyss.
It seemed that all would be lost.

Twenty seven guns and twenty years later

And the darkness spread further in the land. But not for long because
When our motherland called for heroes, these women stood up to be counted.
Mothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, aunties. They all stood up.
When our motherland called for heroes, they were the fathers of the motherland.
When our motherland called for heroes, these women became the men they wished to marry.

To find the men, they would go. They would groom their sons. They would make them men.

And they raised a generation of Sons and Lovers.
They raised daughters who worked and provided.
Daughters who counseled and handled business.
Who worked and earned and saved.
Women who went to university, and beat the men.
And who dated liberally and occasionally popped the question.
Who took the sick child to hospital, and paid the house bills.
And bought the meat in the house. They took on all these roles and more.

Our women became the men they wished they had married.

By Colin Asiimwe

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Still So Far to Go

“Have you heard the story of Angelina of Aboke?” Francesca, a woman who works at the Uganda Fund, asked me. I nodded that I had, having just completed the book Aboke Girls a few days before.

“Well, do you know what happened once Angelina’s daughter returned? It was such a shame, so, so sad.”

Angelina was the mother of one of 139 girls who were abducted in a one night LRA raid of a prestigious Catholic girl’s school in Aboke, Northern Uganda. Angelina became a leader of the movement to return the girls from LRA captivity, speaking out for peace and forgiveness from the capital city of Kampala to the White House. For her courage and dedication to peace building, Angelina received several awards, including the UN Prize in Human Rights.

Angelina’s daughter, Charlotte, had been forced to marry one of the highest officers of the LRA. “He was an evil, evil man,” Francesca told me, shaking her head with pity. “He was known for being so bad. Angelina knew this from the intelligence reports, and even that her daughter had become mother to two of his children while in the bush.

“Still, she preached the gospel of forgiveness, encouraging families to accept their abducted children back in the home.

“But when her own daughter finally returned, after more than seven years in captivity, it was too much for her to bear. She looked at those little children and she just hated them, really hated them. She hated them so much because of what that evil man had done, that she could no longer accept her daughter in her home.

“And she had been the leader of the reconciliation movement, the preacher of forgiveness.”

I looked away, saddened by the news of the heroine I admired.

After a long pause, Francesca continued, “In time, Angelina received counseling and was able to accept the children back. But my point is, even for the woman who was most strongly advocating for reconciliation, the process was difficult. There is still so far to go, so far to go in healing Uganda.”

From the girls at PGA, I have learned that many families, influenced by cultural mores and traditions, could not bear the idea of accepting illegitimate children or their child mothers. In some of the worst cases—usually girls forced to marry highly ranked rebel commanders—they were disowned by their clan, blamed as complicit in the LRA’s violence. As a result, these girls face the challenge of starting completely anew, some uniting resources to buy their own plot of land to start a new clan altogether.

“But there is so much hope,” Alice interjected, not wanting to leave the conversation on a sour note. “The girls they are confident…when people mock them for being mothers, they respond that they will perform even better. I’ll give you an example. When the Academy first opened, our girls would play against other schools, and they would be taunted, with the other team shouting ‘mothers, mothers, mothers.’ At first this really demoralized them, but they found the courage to continue playing through the chants, and eventually won game after game, securing the championship title from the District. Now, no one dares mock them as ‘mothers,’ and the girls know that despite the challenges they’ve faced, they can do as well or better than their peers. They have so much commitment and so much hope.”

“They Told Me It Was Impossible”

“When we began taking in the girls, the ones with the little children, they all told me I was crazy.” The lamp created soft yellow shadows upon Alice’s face as she spoke from across the darkness. “They told me it was impossible; that the girls who got pregnant were a lost cause. ‘How could you possibly have a girl with a baby in class?’ They asked, but look at us now, five years out, and our girls are owning businesses, working as nursing assistants, tailors, and even teachers.”

Alice is the Founder and Director of the Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF) which runs the Pader Girls Academy (PGA), a school that caters to young women who—largely for reasons related to the war—are unable to attend mainstream school. Most of PGA’s 315 girls were abducted by the LRA and became child mothers as a result of forced marriages. Others became mothers at as young as 12 years old because of the notoriously rampant sexual assault which occurred in the IDP camps of Northern Uganda.

I met Alice on my very first day in Pader. When I arrived, it was mid-morning, and a crowd gathered in the town’s soccer field for an Independence Day celebration. Out of curiosity, I went to see the festivities, choosing the last remaining seat which was serendipitously next to Alice.

Alice is an anomaly in Acholiland. At six feet tall, other Ugandans tease her about being “American height,” though her perfectly spoken Lwo, refinement, and taste in bright African dress testify to her Northern Ugandan ancestry. In a society with few female leaders in the public sphere, Alice assails gender norms: she is outspoken, works outside the home as Director of two successful organizations, and remains unwed without biological children despite being in her mid-30s.

Locals call her “Auntie” as a sign of reverence, testament to her importance in the community and exceptional gifts, being both intelligent and compassionate. She interprets her firmly rooted Christian faith as requiring Christ-like love for the meek, and her natural genius has allowed her to accomplish amazing feats without advanced educational training.

I now live in Alice’s compound which offers an open invitation to anyone in need. Among the regular residents is an HIV-positive child, a deaf teenager, an abandoned woman with children, and a constant stream of guests from nearby villages coming to enjoy a free meal and loving company.

The founding of CCF was itself an extraordinary endeavor, requiring courage in a hostile environment. The very idea of educating unwed, child mothers went against Acholi culture and customs. “You will encourage promiscuity!” people criticized. “These girls should be at home with their children, made responsible for what they have done!”

“You know, Jesus never judged,” Alice told me one night as we discussed the motivation behind PGA. “Take the story of Levi where Jesus dined with the sinners, or that of the prostitute where he said ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone.’”

Indeed, the girls of PGA need compassionate support, and they have found it in Alice, the teachers at PGA, and the staff of CCF.

In the weeks since I first learned of PGA and the women’s empowerment work of CCF, I’ve become increasingly inspired to support Alice’s work, to become a part of the lives of the women at PGA and the children impacted by CCF’s programs. As part of PGA’s Peace Club, I am working with the young women to create a foundation of personal peace, to serve their community, and create love and joy for themselves and others. At CCF, I am working to document the organization’s work in child protection, HIV/AIDS, and women’s issues in the region. As part of this, I will be leading a media campaign next year that draws attention to the plight of women in the region and the projects that encourage change and foster hope.

The preacher at PGA's church asked all those in need of prayer to come to the front.

Students of the Pader Girls Academy

PGA Peace Club girls acting out school bullying.

Alice with Mary, a Director at the MacArthur Foundation who chose to provide seed funding for PGA.