Learning to walk, and life after 80 lost cows

Walking down the street to school in the Senior Quarters neighborhood of Gulu, I pass more than ten nonprofit organizations working to respond to the aftermath of the war in various ways. There is Save the Children, Aid Africa, USAID and UKAID programs, a UNwomen office, an adult basic literacy center, Third Hope Uganda, and even the Gulu District NGO forum. There’s ThriveGulu, Invisible Children, Pathways to Peace, the Justice and Reconciliation Project, and so many others. So many of these organizations are adopting more sustainable development models, including microfinancing and private secondary school fees that support scholarships for vulnerable children to attend the same high quality schools as the children of wealthy families. It seems hopeful that there is so much rehabilitation work being done here.

However, after visiting several NGOs and site visits this past week, I realized the need for these support services is much more vast. Though there are many organizations operating here in town, it’s much harder for people living out in the rural villages to get access to the same kind of aid. Despite the great number of organizations, they work independently, and their beneficiaries don’t overlap. There is no official reintegration initiative today making sure that everyone has access to support. This means that there are areas that are not being covered. There is still so much work to do. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be done by Museveni’s government anytime soon. It’s going to be done by everyday people – by communities and NGOs and students and local governments working together and getting smarter about approaches to post-conflict development.

Despite the outward appearance of progress in Gulu town, my host mother told me that she feels sad about the current state of development. Before the war, she said, people had animals, even ox plows, and plenty of food. However, because of the looting during the war, so many lost land and property. She personally lost over 80 cows, which have not been paid back. She told me landlessness is a lot more common now. In lectures this week, we have discussed the issue of land disputes during resettlement. Many people returning from IDP camps struggled to recognize exactly where were originally since many landmarks were destroyed. Some returned to find others living on their land, shifted land boundaries, or took over unoccupied land. Some didn’t come back. Others came back with children who had never known life before the war. All this created tensions locally even as the LRA violence was receding. These land disputes were resolved by local chiefs through traditional justice systems. One example is the fine for someone who has deliberately killed another person: 20 heads of cattle, or the equivalent payment in shillings, given to the family. Today, we met with cultural leader Ongaya Acellum, who told us about his role in mediation and about restoring a sense of “normalcy” during resettlement. The Acholi culture needs three things for post-conflict recovery, he said: restoration, preservation, and promotion of traditional cultural practices.

My host mother (a widow who has raised 11 children and is now raising two grandchildren) also commented that there has been a loss in culture since the war. Though more parents are now sending their children to school, she said there is a degraded quality of education, and many children don’t take their education seriously and drop out. There are also many young mothers here – a very tough job when these young parents missed out on having a childhood and supportive parents themselves.

Meanwhile, in my family’s home, my little sister is learning to walk. She can take more and more steps every day. When I first arrived, she could barely stand for more than a few moments without immediately plopping down again. Last night, she walked happily from the dining table to the couch. She has a wonderful grandmother, nanny, and older sister to surround her with love. She is growing up in peace. She does not have to know about the LRA or the IDP camps, at least not yet. She knows warm milk and porridge and blue band toast and the sweet sound of her grandmother singing to her in the morning. And now she is learning to walk. She falls, too, especially when she gets too excited and tries to run. But she gets better with every teetering step. She loves the attention when we clap for her and smiles a goofy gummy smile that rounds her cheeks.

Recovery progress in Gulu district seems like it is taking teetering baby steps, too. People are trying to get back on their feet after the war, but learning to walk again is difficult and slow. And so many people don’t have such warm, loving homes like my host sister does. They are struggling to get enough to eat or to get access to clean water or education or health care. They are young mothers teaching their babies to walk now too.

Although not all are successful, many of the initiatives I’ve seen working in Gulu so far are making really positive impacts in the community. I’ve learned about some models that many NGOs are have adopted and seem to be making really good progress. If you walk around the Senior Quarters neighborhood, you might wonder why so many NGOs are doing the same or similar things in Gulu. But a closer look will tell you it’s because there’s so much to be done, and there a lot of smaller organizations doing what they can to fill the gaps in the lack of a unified regional reintegration program. Our peace project in Lira will be joining in this context – but I think our approach of collaboration with local organizations that have been working in this field since the war, international nonprofits, and other local health initiatives will amplify our work and the work of each of these organizations in the villages surrounding Lira. Maybe, just maybe, we can fill another gap, and be the support that is needed for people to get back on their feet again.

 

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My host sister dancing after dinner
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Construction in Gulu
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The front yard, and the space where we cook over a wood fire
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My baby sister, thinking about trying to walk again
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Meeting for lunch with Lindsay, a family friend who works at ThriveGulu
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My host mother with the baby bundled up in a fuzzy blue onesy
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