Ethics of humanitarian aid and the road to Gulu

Since I last wrote, I have said goodbye to my wonderful homestay family in Kigali and traveled via beautiful, winding mountain roads to Gulu. There is so much that has happened and that I have learned, and so little time to sit and write, but I will do my best to update. The goodbyes were difficult, especially with my younger siblings and my new Rwandan friends. I have found that even when you don’t speak the same language, you can grow to be close friends with someone after spending so much time and laughter and hand signs together. Luckily my siblings translated my thank-yous and goodbyes for me, and I hope my gratitude got through to them okay.

We drove through beautiful hills terraced with tea, bananas, and other crops. On the way to Gulu, we stopped in Mbarara to visit the Nakivaale refugee settlement. That was an incredible experience. We met with Rwandan refugees, still fearing returning home for many reasons, especially the fear of persecution and under-the-radar disappearances attributed to the government. In some ways, the refugee program seemed to be another way of “othering.” Our translator was definitely not translating what the refugees were saying, though; instead, he was sharing his own anti-government views, which were never spoken of in Kigali. Luckily I have a Kinyarwanda speaking classmate who was able to debrief the session with us later and tell what the refugees had really said. Many people said they were somehow related to genocidaires and preferred to live in the terrible conditions of the settlement than return to Rwanda and fear unjust persecution. They said Rwandans were discriminated against in the camps because the government had reduced their food rations and taken away part of their allotted agricultural land in an attempt to push them back to Rwanda, which is believed to be peaceful. I asked one older gentleman in the settlement what peace meant to him. His answer was translated as, “we wake up, we live, we go to bed, and there are no disturbances.”

Finally, we spent two days in Kampala and then went to Gulu. In Kampala, we saw an absolutely amazing performance by the Ndere cultural center. It was the most amazing musical and dance performance I think I have ever seen. I took some videos that I can share when I get home. We also visited the Parliament of Uganda and the Bugandan Parliament, as well as the Buganda King’s palace, which was on the same compound as Idi Amin’a torture chamber. That was quite the sight – there were even bloodstain handprints on the walls.

One of our last class sessions in Kigali was about refugees and the ethics of humanitarian aid. Our professor brought up some really interesting points, which I believe are critical to the design of our project. Throughout the history of the Rwandan and Ugandan conflicts, there are so many failures of the international community and of humanitarian aid. For example, following the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994, there were so many Rwandan refugees fleeing the country. They set up refugee camps, where humanitarian groups supplied resources to sustain what essentially became strongholds of Hutu power and genocidaires, where they could regroup, gather weapons, and even violently intimidate those who wanted to leave the camps. Humanitarian assistance often tries to be apolitical, but almost always has political implications. NGOs have sometimes really messed things up, delaying reconciliation in giving aid to one group rather than another and creating divisions and dependency in the community. And in northern Uganda, aid given to ex-LRA has often left victims of the LRA left with less and resenting humanitarian groups. Like during the genocide against the Tutsis, it seems that everyone is a victim to the violence and trauma of the conflict, on both sides.

I have noticed there are often conflicting perspectives of  academics and those passionate about human rights. On one side, anthropologists believe it is so important to understand people and not try to “fix,” criticizing those who try to take action without fully understanding. On the other side, activists believe someone has to act to help the situation, even if that action is partly uninformed. It is so important to this project to ask the big ethical questions. Is it our place to get involved with issues that we as foreigners may never fully understand? I think there must be a middle ground combining learning and action. As my Burundian friend Pascal said, “go there and listen to them first. Solutions will come from civilians.” This is what we are trying to do this summer. It’s so important to take time to understand first without thinking about “fixing,” and then to take a participatory approach and really work with the community to unite initiatives and combine resources. But, we always need to continue learning and trying to understand the dynamics on the ground as best we can. I think it is my role as part of the team to work to find this middle ground in our project.

By the way, Pascal is avoiding Burundi because he is wanted as a threat to the government since he “talks too much.” But, as he said, “you cannot be quiet when you see someone get shot right in front of you.”

In other news, I absolutely love my new homestay family in Gulu. I live on a beautiful street within walking distance of school. In my family there is a grandmother, who has raised 11 kids that are all grown and moved out, two young grandkids that she cares for (infant learning to walk and age 5, both girls), and the nanny who helps care for them. It is like something out of a children’s book. Everything is sing-songy and so loving. There are shapeless marker drawings on the walls. The grandmother is so patient and always talking to the baby with such love. She is self-employed and has goats, chickens, and some crops. It’s really such a wonderful and loving environment. I’m doing well and enjoying living on “African time.” People are so much more relaxed and happy here without the “time is money” perception. For example, the other day I asked for directions to the main Gulu market. Instead of just pointing me there, the man walked with me, gave me a 30-minute tour of the market and introduced me to several of his friends, and bought me some watermelon. He was so kind! I hope I can learn to be as generous with my time as this man was with me, a stranger.

I am so grateful to have finally made it to northern Uganda. Some of you may know that I almost was unable to come this summer, so finally arriving in Gulu was so special and exciting to me. This week will be busy but full of interesting classes and good time with my family. I will update as I can! All is well here with body and spirit.imageimageimageimageimageimage

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