Two very long flights down and one left to go. I am back in the United States, waiting for the last plane home to Austin. So much has happened in the past six weeks – I’ve made close friends and then had to say goodbye, experienced different cultures, seen so many hard things and so many beautiful things, started to learn two new languages, encountered some amazing people, heard stories you would not believe, adjusted to different environments without clean water or other comforts we take for granted, and learned so much about peace and conflict in central Africa and the role of the international community. I’m sure many will ask, “how was Africa?” I don’t know; I was in Rwanda and Uganda. If you ask me how it was, how much time do you have? Do you want to hear that it was an amazing experience? Or should I tell you about meeting Brigidaire Banya, chief advisor to Joseph Kony? Do you want to hear about the warmth of his handshake or how his clever military strategies allowed the LRA to persist with child abductions and other atrocities? Or, I can tell you how strange it was to be in Murchison Falls national park, suddenly surrounded by flocks of young white people on mission trips and two-week service projects to build schools without any former training. I can tell you about playing frisbee with a former LRA abductee after he told me he misses the life of a child. I can tell you about how weird it is to see the cost of bottled water for sale in the Minneapolis airport, where there is clean, flowing water out of every tap. There is too much to tell.
So many people were so worried about me traveling in central Africa. The conflicts in Rwanda and northern Uganda were so atrocious, and this is what often defines American perceptions of the region. However, actually being there is a totally different experience than the one I was cautioned about. Actually digging deep to understand the context of these conflicts and the current state of the country, you get a very different perspective. Over these six weeks, we made the unthinkable thinkable. We came to understand that the genocide in Rwanda and the war in northern Uganda were not completely senseless, but instead horrific yet human responses to the social and historical context. The truth is that there is really no way to relate the experience of the past six weeks, but I hope to convey that the American perception of Rwanda and Uganda as dangerous, lawless, and unsettled places is not the reality on the ground. People live there, everyday, raising children and making a livelihood and moving on from the wars of the past. The idea of being “safe” is really a social construction. I questioned my own perceptions of guaranteed safety when I stayed up late with my Gulu host mom watching the news of the shootings and violence in the US. Safety is never guaranteed. Yes, there are many risks associated with traveling to Rwanda and Uganda, but they are often not the ones that are assumed and misunderstood. In actually living locally and studying these conflicts, our perceptions shifted greatly.
Another difficult question to answer as I return to the US is, what will you do with what you have learned? First, my work learning about post-conflict recovery and NGO dynamics continues. I have a new stack of books to read and a list of new contacts to reach out to with questions. I’m also working with one of my classmates and SIT to record, transcribe, and publish our interview with a well-known former child soldier on his life experiences (I’m thankful for my dad’s idea to bring a voice recorder). I’m not sure what my future role will be in developing this project. I have had such different experiences than Max and Nellie, and so I also have different ideas about what I would do independently to take action. For example, in Gulu four of the major reintegration needs I saw were for mental health services, secondary school/vocational school scholarships, childcare for the children of female returnees, and greater NGO collaboration. I also noticed that many reintegration issues are just as present even when people have agricultural skills. There are also pros and cons with vocational training programs – I will add a link later to a published paper written by an SIT student on this topic (link here). I hope to continue learning and thinking about what I can do. Our academic director provided us with some wonderful resources of scholarship/grant opportunities and contacts of SIT alumni who returned to work in the country.
I’ll be home by this evening, but I will carry my other homes and families with me now too. I know I will be back in Uganda some day. I absolutely loved Ugandan culture, which was very different than Rwandan culture in my experience. I hope to learn from my Gulu family how to be more relaxed, loving, and open. I can’t wait to share more about my experiences. If you have time to listen, I would love to share the many stories and adventures I’ve accumulated. But be prepared – the question “how was it?” won’t have a one-word answer.
Murakoze. Apwoyo. Thank you.