Life in Uganda: 'Ugandan Jewel'
In 2005, I traveled to Northern Uganda to do research for my Senior Honors Thesis at University of Maryland. I wrote the following piece when I returned, and it was published in The Diamondback (July 7th, 2005), the University of Maryland daily student newspaper. Take a look at the map of Uganda here. In 2005, I interviewed a Gulu businesswoman who said, "When you are North of Karuma Falls, you feel like you are in another country." In my previous piece, you learned about life below Karuma Falls. Here is what it is like for 97% of the population living above the falls...
by Josh Goldstein
July 07, 2005
Last summer I visited Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp outside Munich, Germany. During winter break, I visited Gulu, an outpost in war-torn northern Uganda, with two other university students. Gulu is home to the Lukodi Night Commuter Center. Thousands of children from Gulu’s terrorized countryside walk nightly to this bizarre space to find a place to sleep. They fear sleeping at home because of the threat of being abducted, forced to carry arms and into becoming sex slaves to the twisted Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Aesthetically, the camp in Germany and the camp in Gulu were hauntingly similar. Barbed wire lines fences with sentinels guarding locked doors. Small, cramped quarters are exposed to rain and wind, packed with more people than they can hold. Of course, the comparison only goes so far, but to see a place like this, filled beyond capacity with small, scared and tired children, produces a similar gut feeling of wrongness and inhumanity.
We traveled to Gulu as part of a delegation from Project Namuwongo an organization consisting of student groups from five universities around the United States. Project Namuwongo is a new kind of development and relief organization, representing the pulse of interdependence, where American students directly support Ugandan students and volunteers who work to end the cycles of violence and repression their society has faced for generations. For this generation, the violence manifests itself in the LRA, a rebel group led by psychopaths who want Uganda to be ruled by leader Joseph Kony’s version of the Ten Commandments. The LRA destroys villages, abducts children and creates child soldiers. The United Nations estimates the human costs of this 18-year conflict rival those of the Sudanese conflict, with only a tiny portion of the media coverage.
In a sense, the Lukodi camp we visited our first night in Gulu represented the hopelessness and exhaustion of this seemingly endless civil war. The children who sleep there range from age four to 19, and they walk as many as eight kilometers to sleep safely away from the feckless LRA who, under cover of darkness, rape, maim, kill and steal from already war-exhausted towns. As our leader said to us, “To stay in the towns is suicide.” The camp was created a few years ago by UNICEF, as more and more children were found sleeping on Gulu town streets.
The trip to Gulu was a strange contradiction. The noxious combination of widespread, severe malnourishment and incredible hopelessness was a brutal one-two punch to our human sensibility and consciousness. Yet the contradiction lies in the fact that I left Gulu with more hope than when I arrived. How is this possible after seeing so much suffering? It lies in the knowledge we gained: The insanity of the conflict is a confusing, yet comprehensible amalgam of interest and fear on the side of the rebels and the government. The actors in the conflict are human, even though their actions are not.
This part of the world has largely been forgotten by the rest of it. The only westerners in Gulu are from mammoth relief nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, War Child and World Food Programme, which do great work, but often provide nominal comfort to people whose lives are daily misery. Most Americans, even the globetrotting, educated students at the best universities, have almost no understanding that Africa is both a jewel of humanity and a continent being incinerated by the flames of relentless problems. Once we learn about these tragedies, our silence is wrong. When we learn the names, faces and personalities of the victims, our silence is appalling.
Josh Goldstein is Associate Director of Global Youth Partnership for Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com.