Forty-three sets of hands

Polycap holds the seeds he received from Calvin before planting them in the nursery bed. Someday, these seeds will be cabbages that will provide nutrition and an income source for households affected by war. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

We walked through fields, small huts, gardens, and over a stream. Then, finally, a student announced to me “we are here”. The land of the demonstration garden is beautiful. Truly remote, filled with the sounds of rustling grasses, birds, palm fronds, and the occasional sheep or cow. No time to waste, students knew exactly what to do and began tilling the field.

Nellie and the Farming for Peace students reach the edge of the demonstration garden. Photo by Saskia Sichermann.

“Do you know how to dig?” Lydia, a 17-year-old student asked me, she was the first of a handful of students to ask us the same question. “Yes? I think so?” I responded, and began pulling up the earth in what I genuinely though was the same technique as the dozens of students around me. Hysterical laughter brought to light that fact that, no, I apparently do not know how to dig. At least, not in the efficient, powerful manner required for tilling a field. Every new student who moved into my vicinity gave me a demonstration of how to properly till.

Students were eager to commence the tilling of the field. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.
Calvin talks about the importance of minimum tillage while a group of students rest from hoeing. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

After about twenty minutes, I was exhausted. But the enthusiasm of those around me made the thought of stopping leave my mind. Tilling the field was a joyous occasion, filled with laughter, smiling, singing, and sweat. Being a part of the experience made us finally feel a part of those around us. For once we were not singled out by our skin color or treated with privilege we do not feel we deserve. We were all covered in dirt and sweat, and grinning. “Oh, you’re strong!” we were told, with much surprise, by the students; they were not expecting us to help with the manual labor.

Several students were curious about the cameras, not to mention those who were taking pictures of us with their cell phone cameras while they thought we weren’t looking. Polycap really wanted to take a photo with us, and this turned into a photoshoot.

This day of land preparation was an important step in preparing the demonstration garden for the beans and sweet potato vines we will be planting this week. It was also a chance to practice minimum tillage, which helps improve soil structure, fertility, nutrient retention, and water infiltration while requiring less resources and time.

Calvin explains a way of accurately estimating dimensions of a nursery bed. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

Power is in numbers. With 40 students, Calvin, Seren, and myself, we had tilled the whole field in a little over two hours. Calvin redirected the student’s attention with effortless leadership to begin creating a nursery bed for the cabbage. Even though the students were tired, they were captivated by Calvin’s lesson. All eyes were on him and they actively participated in the measurement of the soil, planting of the seeds, and building of a protective roof out of dried reeds.

Students help Calvin complete the measurements of the cabbage nursery bed. Photo by Saskia Sichermann.

The nursery bed helps protect the cabbage seedlings from the hot sun and the hard downpours while they are young. Keeping the seedlings in one place also allows the farmer to give particular care to soil preparation, provide optimal growing conditions, and protect from pests.

After working with the students to prepare the soil for the nursery bed by tilling and adding manure, Calvin hands out the cabbage seeds. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

The class ran over by an hour and a half, but on one noticed until we had finished our day’s work and began the walk back to the school. There was a sense of proud accomplishment among the students. We were beaming.

We rode in the back of a truck bed with the supplies for the demonstration day. Photo by Saskia Sichermann.
Calvin instructs on spacing the cabbage seeds in the nursery bed. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.
Students lay the cabbage seeds in rows in the nursery bed. Photo by Nellie-Trenga-Schein.
Students helped collect sticks from the land around the demonstration garden site to construct a shade structure for the cabbage nursery bed. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.
After completing the nursery bed, a group of students fetched water from a nearby well and used it to give the seeds their first watering. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.



Addressing nutritional deficiencies through agriculture

PowerChildrenA key component of KareMeKuc’s agricultural training program is nutrition. The crops that participants will be growing have been chosen in partnership with Dr. Janis Lochner, a nutrition professor at Lewis & Clark College, and a Ugandan agriculturist. Nutrition profiles of Uganda have found vitamin A deficiency, anemia, and kwashiorkor disease pose severe public health problems for women and children.

Kwashiorkor disease (protein-energy malnutrition or PEM) is a severe form of malnutrition that results from a diet lacking protein and other essential nutrients. Individuals with kwashiorkor disease often develop an enlarged tummy that looks like a pot belly and stunted growth. Kwashiorkor disease is not prevalent in developed countries because it is easily prevented with proper nutrition and quantity of food.

Diabetes, often thought of as a Western disease of wealth and overeating, is on the rise in Uganda. Recently, one of Children of Peace Uganda’s beneficiaries died due to diabetes-related complications. Countless studies and ongoing research show that Type 2 Diabetes is largely preventable through diet modification and education. These regional nutritional deficiencies can be combated and often prevented with addition of foods rich in protein, iron, and vitamin A, as well as education about alternatives and complements to starchy grains.

KareMeKuc will provide a nutrition education segment focusing on how to properly grow beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, ground nuts, and leafy greens that are traditionally found in Northern Uganda. This program will help promote the production and intake of vitamin A and iron-rich foods. By providing educational and vocational resources to vulnerable children and young adults, we hope to inspire a new generation of leaders to initiate a transition away from reliance on plantain and maize in the diet of Ugandans.

For additional information about the nutritional deficiencies discussed above please see the resources listed below:

Kikafunda, Joyce Kakuramatsi. “Nutrition Country Profile: The Republic of Uganda.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2010.

Kyatusiimire, Sharon. “Diabetes on the Rise in Uganda.” East African Business Week. 10 Jan. 2015. 

Hu, Frank B. “Globalization of Diabetes: The role of diet, lifestyle, and genes.” Diabetes Care 34.6 (2011): 1249-257.

Latham, Michael C. “Part III. Disorders of Malnutrition.” Human Nutrition in the Developing World. Food and Nutrition Series no. 29. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations., 1997. 

The referral hospital in Lira

An overdue post from my trip to the regional referral hospital in Lira

The government run hospital in Lira serves ten districts in Uganda. There is no transportation to the hospital. Reaching the hospital is just the first hurdle to overcome for medical care, finding a doctor is the next obstacle. As of 2010, the doctor patient ratio in Uganda was 1:24,725. Ugandan physicians have repeatedly been sent abroad to other countries increasing this ratio even more. If an individual is able to reach a hospital with a trained physician, they must then obtain enough money to pay for the medical services they require, and hope that the hospital has the necessary medical supplies in stock.

The woman’s reception ward is a long room that looks robbed of supplies. There are no mosquito nets and equipment is scarcely scattered about between two rows of beds and mattresses. The mattresses are pieces of foam that were once, maybe 20 years ago, covered in a brown leathery bag, which are now worn and aged. They have cracked like the soles of feet, tired from use. When an individual arrives they must bring their own sheets. They are required to bring their own food and water as well. Having a family member in the hospital becomes a full time job for the family. The patient charts are held together inside one colored piece of construction paper. Currently, the hospital is out of gloves. Patients have to supply their own for exams conducted by the doctors and nurses. Medical tests are often conducted in separate buildings, and they must be paid for before the service is provided.

Even with the dreary outlook, the visitors and staff continuously erupt in laughter. They make jokes, sometimes very dark jokes, but it keeps the spirits high and makes it possible to almost forget one is in a hospital. We sit on a bed next to a woman who appears to be the hospital gossip. She knows everyone and everything, leaving me to ponder how long her daughter has been in the reception area of the hospital, providing time for her mom to gather this wealth of knowledge.

A woman in the far bed is propped upright between the legs of her daughter. From afar, the mom looks to be a young child. The symbolism is heartbreakingly beautiful; the strong, tall daughter physically supporting her frail, vanishing mother.

What remains after war

June 7

Home Visits
Just a warning – the stories in this post are intense.

True to how time works in Africa, we arrived at the CPU office at 9:00 (the time we were told we would leave for the field).  We left at 11:30.


Look Mom, brand new helmets purchased especially for the safety crazed Mzungos!

We rode for about an hour past where the road ends (the lesser known Silverstein poem) past huts and sunflower fields to a road that was quite literally being constructed as we drove down it. We waited to the side at this road when the driver of my bike, Sam, realized that we had left the other two bikes in the dust. This is when we learned that one of them broke down further back on the road. So began the waiting, part two of many for the day. We sat on the side of the road and listened to goats munching on grass and calling out to their friends across the road under construction.


Children left school for their lunch hour  and still we sat.


After an hour and many trips relay-style to get everyone to the same place, we piled on the remaining two motorbikes. I was safely sandwiched between Sam and Doreen, both Children of Peace Uganda (CPU) employees for the remaining half hour ride down steadily narrowing dirt paths.

The homes we visited were completely isolated. Groups of two to three huts were spaced out 5-10 minutes (walking) apart. All of the children in the area followed us as we moved around. Unfortunately, we were unable to get all of their stories, but they are in the photos below. Very noticeable in the photos are their extended bellies, indications of the malnutrition they face and possibly even kwashiorkor disease.


The first home we visited was a household headed by a 15 year old girl, Sharon. Their father was abducted by the LRA in 2004, he did not return. The mother was abducted as well, and she returned HIV positive. She died from the progression of the disease in 2012. Sharon and her two siblings, Daniel (14) and Viki (12) live alone (see photo below).



The hardest part of their story is that their paternal grandfather, grandmother, and uncle live just a few huts away, but they hate the children and refuse to care for them. They only come to the children’s homes when there are visitors. Recently, the children had a bag of soybeans and the uncle came over and stole half of the bag. The uncle is also trying to push the children off their land and claim it as their own. The last time CPU visited they brought the village chief with them to the land to question why the uncle and grandfather are not helping the children, but no good reason was given and nothing has changed.

An important figure in the lives of these children was an incredible woman named Lily. She lived down the road and came to care for their mother when she was dying. She took her to the hospital, helped her bath, and helped ensure the children had food. After their mother died, Lily continued to look after Sharon, Daniel, and Viki. If they were sick, or had health concerns Lily would help them and get medicine the health center (about 10 km down the road) if it was needed.  There was a man who had pursued a relationship with Lily, but she turned him down, which is unheard of in Ugandan culture because it embarrasses the man. About three weeks ago, the man came to Lily’s home in the night and murdered her. That man is current in jail, but an incredible individual was removed from this world leaving behind her own six children and the three children she cared for as her own.

We walked ten minutes down the dirt path the Lily’s home. Here we met with her children, who are now orphans (their father was abducted by the LRA and never returned). The maternal grandmother took in three children and three remain at the home where their mother was recently murdered. While all of the children were clearly still devastated from the loss of their mother, they showed a kind of strength that is rare in adults. Doreen asked me at one point if I noticed which one of the children was not okay and after looking around it became obvious very fast. Jeremiah, one of the younger children probably around 7 years old, was alone playing in the dirt. He wouldn’t interact with the other people at the home, would not smile, and was not responding when people spoke with him directly.

Below are photos from the people at Lily’s home, still finding light in a time of such darkness.


I was particularly taken with the two women breast feeding in the photo below. I spoke with them and learned that they are Rapella (left) and Janet (right), both 26 years old, with their children Blessing (7 months old) and Agatha (3 months old).  I asked them about the medical care they had available during their pregnancies and for labor and I learned that they walked a very long ways to a clinic where they received antimalarial medicine and iron. Janet repeatedly mentioned how far away the clinic was and how hungry she had been during her pregnancy. I asked her how many children she wanted to have and she told me two more (she already has two) and she hopes her husband will be okay with that. Janet has no access to birth control and her husband gets to decide when and how many children they are having.


The third home we visited is a household headed by a 15 year old boy. The father was a government soldier who was killed, and then the mother abandoned the children. Only one of the boys was home, the eldest took the younger two to the clinic about 2 km away to get ARV medication, the boys are HIV positive. A few weeks back, thieves came and threatened the children, so now they are sleeping in their grandmother’s hut at nights and returning to their homes during the day.

The last home we visited is headed by a woman named Sarah, she is now 34 years old. In 1996, she was abducted by the LRA. She returned in 2004, with two children. When she returned her immediate family welcomed her back, but those outside of her community stigmatized her and made fun of her. She found it incredibly difficult to get married because no one wanted to have to care for “rebel parented children”. She still faces stigmatization to this day and is incredibly frustrated at the lack of support from the government.

I should probably end this post on a more uplifting note- all of the children mentioned in the post above have been sponsored by CPU and will begin attending school. We are working with Jane to implement a Peace Center on the 15 acres of land they have recently acquired. An important feature will be a crisis center that provides safe space for women and children that face imminent danger and threats to their well being.  More information about what we are doing her and what our long term project is soon.

Lastly, calling all doctors/nurses/medical professionals, any idea what this is? Many of the children had these deep sores on their ankles that flies are nesting in.


Three busy days in Uganda

June 3

After arriving in the dark, our drive from Entebbe to Lira provided the first glimpses of this incredibly beautiful country.  Joseph, our driver, met us at the hotel in the morning (7 am) despite being in the midst of recovering from typhoid and malaria. It really puts into perspective the times having a cold and going to school feels hard.  Joseph took us as far as Kampala, blasting country music the entire way. Once in Kampala we met Joffrey (yes, just like in Game of Thrones) who drove us the remaining six hours to Lira. Kampala is a beautiful city, with a lot of history. Each of the six hills in Kampala has a mission on the top of it from different religions. The first, and largest, is a mosque.

The traffic in Kampala is intense, and we saw it on a good day. As far as I can tell, there are not really traffic laws. The drivers have their own language, communicating through the chaos via hand signals and honking to alert other cars, bikes, pedestrians, cows, goats, and chickens of their arrival. The scent on the road is potent- kerosene mixed with gasoline from stations owned by Somali Pirates. In an attempt to combat the inevitable car sickness that would come from such a journey I took “less drowsy” Dramamine and proceeded to fall asleep for the first two hours of the trip from Kampala to Lira. I woke up suddenly to fifteen street meat kabobs in my face held by street vendors eager to make a sale. Needless to say, I had to pass. The road to Lira was paved in the last year, but the villages that surround the road are filled with the mud huts that come to mind for most people when they hear “Uganda”. The expansive forest is incredible, the hills are green and go on as far as can be seen. Around the Queen Elizabeth National Park the bushes began to shake and dozens of baboons appeared. The baboons ran towards the car in hopes of food. I was incredibly thankful to have the car between myself and them as they charged the car with intense ferocity and I know I would not stand between them and food. We crossed a large river with many Class V rapids on it. Further upstream a Chinese company is building a dam for hydroelectric power.

Six hours later, we arrived and finally met the incredible Jane Ekayu. She is a truly a mother to all as she helped us set up our apartment (installing light bulbs and mosquito nets). She also took us to the market to get additional supplies and we met several of her co-workers.

In Uganda, June 3rd is a national holiday. It is a day to remember and celebrate the Christian Martyrs. It is also our first full day in Lira. We have spent the day wondering about the town, picking up supplies at the local market, and meeting dozens (not an exaggeration) of friendly people. Now we must go set up the apartment for three students from Wisconsin. They are taking the bus from Kampala but it broke down and they had to wait four hours for a new one so they will not get in until very late.

June 4

Today was incredible. The first day the provided a glimpse into the work we will be doing, who we will be able to help, and why we have worked hard to get here. As I type this blog post there are dozens of tiny ants running between the keys on the keyboard. Much like the dirt and dust, they are everywhere and appear in the oddest of places. This morning Max and I went to Children of Peace Uganda where we met Joffrey (another Joffrey) and Doreen to go conduct field work. Max went with Doreen and I went with Joffrey to separate villages. We rode a motorcycle that looked very similar to a dirt bike, which proved to be a necessary feature. As we sped out of Lira town and through villages decreasing in size the road went from pavement, to dirt, to dirt so bumpy that my teeth chattered together, to dirt eroded with pits the entire width of the road. The roads were unpleasant but the scenery was remarkable. Small huts grouped together in villages and dense, lush forests dominated the landscape. There were also multiple sunflower fields! After about an hour and a half we arrived at the first village we were to have a “Peace Club”. Unfortunately, Africa is not a land of punctuality. The children were not there yet so we moved in to the next village. Thirty minutes later… we arrived in Ogot, Otara, Aromo, Lira District.

The village consists of huts and empty cement buildings, very similar to the building structure from Zanzibar. I walked across a vast field with several of the girls from the village, all giggling at me as I tried to speak Lango with them. They lead me to under a mango tree where we sat as more children started to arrive. Once about thirty children were there they started singing welcome songs to me. After three songs, all from church about Jesus, the Peace Club meeting started with a prayer. Because this is a new village for Jane’s organization, we began working on interviews with each of the children. They only have ten sponsorships available and they want to make sure the funds go to the children who truly need the help the most. We asked questions about their economic situation, source of income, health conditions or concerns, living conditions, if they are currently in school, how they were impacted by the war (if they were orphaned, abducted, or born in captivity), and what their hopes for the future are. Previously smiling, giggling, joyful children looked like adults during these interviews as the harsh realities of their daily life became apparent. Tears would run down their face but they continued to speak honestly about their situation at home. For many students it took quite a long time to get them to discuss what was truly bothering them. I found out later, that word has spread about the sponsorships Children of Peace provides and as a result families instruct children to lie about their living conditions in hope of receiving sponsorship. Now, their homes are visited to verifying what they say. That is not to say that all, or even a majority, of the children were lying. Their pain was real and it felt wrong to have to move onto the next child after such a short time. I cannot fathom how they are able to choose between the children for sponsorships. Each has a unique aspect of their story that stays with you and makes me question how they make it through their day. Unfortunately, I was without a camera so I was unable to take photos from my incredible past few days. But Max’s blog has a few photos and at a later day (sometime next week) I will post the incredible stories of these children I spoke with and have photos as well.

Today is June 5th and we are waiting (a very common occurrence in Africa) to go to another village with Frank, a friend of Jane and a local journalist writing a story about Jane’s organization and the current life of former child soldiers.  More soon!

Welcome to our blog

Welcome to our blog for the Uganda Peace Project. Here, we’ll post updates throughout the summer on the things we are learning.

In June and July, Max and Nellie will be living in Lira, Uganda learning about local culture and working with our partner organizations, Children of Peace Uganda and Hope in Action. Meanwhile, Seren will be taking a six-week course on peace and conflict studies in Kigali, Rwanda and Gulu, Uganda. The three of us will be posting periodic updates about our experiences.

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